Gods of Howl Mountain*****

GodsofHowl“Christ’s father let him die on that cross,” she said. “I understand why he done it.” She leaned closer, whispering, “But Christ never had no granny like me.”

Rory Docherty has come home from overseas “with war in his blood”; he’s come home to the mountains of North Carolina, and home to Granny May, the local herbalist—some also say she’s the local witch. His mother Bonni is in a mental institution, which was even a worse place to have to go in the 1950s than it is now.  Rory doesn’t know for sure what broke her, because she hasn’t said one word in the years between then and now; Granny May knows, and withholds this powerful secret for reasons of her own. The life of the Docherty family is seldom easy, having Bonni erased from their midst has hit them hardest of all.

I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I’m not permitted to share my galley with anyone else, but I can do this: I can read it as many times as I damn want to. And although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that, out of the five or six hundred free novels that I’ve received in the last few years, I’ll do it with this one.

But back to Rory, to Granny May, and to Eustace, the wily, ruthless old bootlegger that owns Howl Mountain and almost everyone on it. And back to the sweet-faced preacher’s daughter that has lit a fire under Rory’s troubled heart. Granny May would have him stay away from those snake-handling holy rollers, but Rory is utterly bewitched, and when the lights are on at the storefront church, he finds himself there too.

The characters and the setting are what drive this novel, but what also drives it are the cars, most specifically Maybelline, the custom-made vehicle that can outrun Federal revenue agents.  I’m generally not interested in cars; if they run, that’s good, and if I will be comfortable inside them, that’s better. But Brown has some magic of his own, and the way he crafts this ride, which is the family’s main source of income and their most valuable piece of property apart from the mountain itself, is magnetic. It is almost a character itself.

The balance of power is shifting on Howl Mountain now. Rival Cooley Muldoon seeks to unseat the Docherty clan; threats to Granny May have taken ominous forms, and she waits on the porch with her pipe and her gun late into the night. She storms into the brush to find what, exactly, has made the cry like a panther on her roof.

“Death, which walked ever through these mountains, knew she would not go down easy.”

This is likely the go-to novel of 2018. I cannot help but think that Rory Docherty, Eustace, and Granny May will join the ranks of beloved literary characters whose names are recognized by a wide swath of the English-speaking world.

If nothing else, Brown has taken the hillbilly stereotype that some still cling to and in its place leaves believable characters with nuance, ambiguity, and heart.  It’s a showstopper, and you won’t want to miss it.

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward*****

WheretheLineBleedsWard is a force to be reckoned with, a literary power house whose books everyone should read. I read the third book in this trilogy, the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing last summer, and then I knew I had to read everything else she had ever written. When I saw that this title, the first in the same trilogy, was being released again and that review copies were available, it seemed like Christmas. Many thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. This book was released again last week and is now for sale.

Twins Christophe and Joshua are graduating from high school, exuberant and full of plans for the future. The sole source of tension, a longstanding one that is integral to their deepest senses of self, is whether their mother, Cille, will put in an appearance. She lives in Atlanta, but she might come home to see them walk. Then again, she might not. They assure each other that really, only Ma-mee matters. Ma-mee is their grandmother, but she is the one that raised them since they were tiny; in fact, their grandmother really wanted them, and their mother really didn’t.

When their graduation present arrives—a used but still nice car for the two of them to share—they snicker to one another and say this means Cille isn’t coming. She’s done with them for sure now, bought her way out of a personal appearance. But Joshua still hopes; Joshua still longs for her.

Their father, Samuel, lives locally, and it is at him their anger is unequivocally directed. Known as the Sandman, he is beneath the contempt of even the most humble local citizens, a meth addict with a mouth full of rotting teeth that will do anything, no matter how humiliating or unprincipled, for even the smallest sum of drug money. Samuel has never pitched in a dime to help Ma-mee raise them, but now that they are adults—at least officially—he has come sniffing around.  The twins’ rage toward him is measureless.

The thing that makes this story so visceral, so moving, and so deeply absorbing is the character development and the complexity of the relationships between and among the twins and the two women. Cille’s insensitivity makes me punch my pillow a couple of times. Can she not see how little food they have, despite their proud claim to be fine, just fine?  Every gesture, every word is weighted with meaning. No statement, no financial transaction, no arrival or departure is without weight. The blues festival Cille has planned to attend as part of her vacation—to which the twins are of course not invited—and the money carelessly dropped on a rental car could go so much farther to help her elderly mother, who is legally blind now, but instead she leaves Ma-mee to her eighteen year old sons to care for. They both assume they will be able to get jobs once they have high school diplomas; they have no police record, and they’re not too proud to apply at fast food outlets and other retail locations.

The best jobs to be had are on the docks, but not everyone can get one. Their cousin observes, “Everybody and they mama want a job at the pier and the shipyard. Everybody want a job down there can’t get one.”

And so  “reality [rolled] over them like an opaque fog…” Joshua, the lighter of the twins, is hired, but Christophe can’t get a job there or anywhere else.  And so a new division is born, and a new source of tension develops. Joshua feels guilty, apologetic, and yet as time goes on, as he sweats for long hours in the Mississippi summer sun carrying chicken guts and who knows what else, his brother absents himself and comes home high; he sleeps into the day, and sometimes shows up late to pick Joshua up from work.  He’s given in to his cousin’s invitation to deal drugs, and that puts everyone at risk.

Over and again, I can see that the twins are still children. Young men don’t grow up quickly anymore. They are children emotionally and developmentally until their mid-twenties, and yet this burden is Joshua and Christopher’s to carry; the choices they make are not the choices of criminals or saints, but the choices of children. Yet they carry the burdens of men, and they are aware this is because of the defection of their mother.

Ward’s more recent work is even better written than this one, and yet it’s harsher, too; I had to put it down from time to time, because it was getting dark out there. This story in contrast is one I could read for hours on end, and I did. There’s violence aplenty as well as tragedy, but this is a reality I can look at without flinching, and that’s worth a great deal too.

 

Highly recommended to those that love outstanding literary fiction, African-American fiction, Southern fiction, and family stories.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Nixon: the Life, by John A. Farrell*****

richardnixonfarrellHistory buffs rejoice; the definitive Nixon biography is here.  John A. Farrell is the renowned biographer of Clarence Darrow. Now he gives us a comprehensive, compelling look at the only US president ever to resign from office under the cloud of imminent impeachment. This is the only Nixon biography that answers the many questions that left Americans—and those around the world that were watching—scratching our heads. Why, why, and why would he do these things? Farrell tells us. I read this book free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday, but it would have been worth paying the full retail price if I’d had to. It’s available to the public now.

Anytime I read nonfiction, I start with the sources. If the author hasn’t verified his information using primary sources, I go no further. Nonfiction is only fact if the author can prove that what he says is true—and I have never seen more meticulous, more thorough source work than what I see here. Every tape in the Nixon library; every memoir, from Nixon’s own, to those of the men that advised him as president, to those written by his family members, to those that opposed him are referenced, and that’s not all. Every set of presidential papers from Eisenhower on forward; the memoirs of LBJ, the president that served before Nixon took office; reminiscences of Brezhnev, leader of Russia ( which at the time was part of the USSR); reminiscences of Chinese leaders that hosted him; every single relevant source has been scoured and referenced in methodical, careful, painstaking detail. Farrell backs up every single fact in his book with multiple, sometimes a dozen excellent sources.

Because he has been so diligent, he’s also been able to take down some myths that were starting to gain a foothold in our national narrative. An example is the assertion that before the Kennedys unleashed their bag of dirty tricks on Nixon’s campaign in 1960, Nixon was a man of sound principle and strong ethics. A good hard look at his political campaigns in California knocks the legs out from under that fledgling bit of lore and knock it outs it out of the nest, and out of the atmosphere. Gone!

Lest I lend the impression that this is a biography useful only to the most careful students of history, folks willing to slog endlessly through excruciating detail, let me make myself perfectly clear: the man writes in a way that is hugely engaging and at times funny enough to leave me gasping for air. Although I taught American history and government for a long time, I also learned a great deal, not just about Nixon and those around him, but bits and pieces of American history that are relevant to the story but that don’t pop up anywhere else.

For those that have wondered why such a clearly intelligent politician, one that would win by a landslide, would hoist his own petard by authoring and authorizing plans to break into the offices of opponents—and their physicians—this is your book. For those that want to know what Nixon knew and when he knew it, this is for you, too.

I find myself mesmerized by the mental snapshots Farrell evokes: a tormented Nixon, still determined not to yield, pounding on the piano late into the night. I hear the clink of ice cubes in the background as Nixon, talking about Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, suggests that “The Indians need—what they really need—is a mass famine.”

I can see Kissinger and the Pentagon making last minute arrangements to deal with a possible 11th hour military coup before Nixon leaves office. Don’t leave him with the button during those last 24 hours, they figure.

And I picture poor Pat, his long-suffering wife to whom he told nothing, nothing, nothing, packing all through the night before they are to leave the White House…because of course he didn’t tell her they were going home in time to let her pack during normal hours.

The most damning and enlightening facts have to do with Vietnam and particularly, Cambodia. Farrell makes a case that the entire horrific Holocaust there with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot could have been avoided had Nixon not contacted the Vietnamese ambassador and suggested that he not make a deal with Johnson to end the war.

Whether you are like I am, a person that reads every Watergate memoir that you can obtain free or cheaply, or whether you are a younger person that has never gone into that dark tunnel, this is the book to read. It’s thorough and it’s fair, and what’s more, it’s entertaining.

Get it. Read it. You won’t be sorry!

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti*****

thetwelvelivesofs “Everything breaks if you hit it hard enough.”

What would you do to protect those you love the most? Tinti’s epic father-daughter tale has already drawn accolades far and wide. What can I add to it all? There are only so many ways to say that someone is a genius and that her work deserves the highest praise and honors. I received my copy free and in advance, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, in exchange for this honest review, and I’ve spent the last month trying to decide what I can add to the discussion. Although 2017 is clearly an outstanding year for literature, this title stands head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen. It will likely be the best fiction published this year.

Our two protagonists are Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo. The story is arranged with alternate points of view, and also moves from present tense to the past, when Lily, Loo’s mother, was alive. Hawley is a career criminal, a man that has robbed and killed as part of a business transaction, but his tenderness for his daughter and his wife keep us connected to him.

As a parent, though, Hawley is kind of a mess. He does his best, teaching his daughter useful tasks like how to file the serial number off of a weapon and how to use it, but at the same time, he keeps his criminal business quiet and low, and she is nearly grown before she realizes what he actually does for a living. The two of them move around the country frequently, and they have a routine that gets them gone in a hurry when it’s necessary, but as she gets older he takes her to the Massachusetts town where her maternal grandmother lives. And I have to say, Mabel Ridge, Lily’s mother, is one of the most arresting side characters I have seen in a very long time.

For Loo’s sake, Hawley works as a fisherman and sets down roots. His participation in the Greasy Pole event, a cherished local tradition, wins him a place in the community. But he’s left enemies in his wake, and Hawley is constantly alert to the threat others pose. Who’s in prison, and who’s out? Who’s alive, and who isn’t anymore? Sooner or later, someone he doesn’t want to see is bound to rock the life he has established for himself and his daughter.

This is the sort of literary fiction that lets the reader forget that it’s art, because it reads a lot like a thriller. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; my favorite involves a car thief named Charlie.

Samuel Hawley seems to me to be a character for our time. Fifty years ago, a novel like this would have been controversial—and it may still be, who knows? Great literature often is. But today with the stratospheric growth of the American prison population, many more members of the book buying public either have done time, know someone that has, or know someone that barely escaped having to do so. It’s no longer unthinkable that a person that has done some truly reprehensible things, may also be a human being.

One way or the other, you have to read this book. The buzz it’s created is only the beginning. If you read one novel this year, let this be it. It’s available now.

Best of 2016: Mystery

This category includes everything within the same zone: thrillers, suspense, detective fiction, crime fiction. If it’s related, I’m rating it here. I expected this to be my toughest call because I read so many books of this genre, but when I had a look at the original titles I’d seen this year, and then eliminated those crossover novels that had already been awarded as the best of some other genre on this site, it was down to three books. Unbelievable…but not at all mysterious.

MY TOP THREE:

 

Best of 2016: Historical Fiction

There weren’t a lot of outstanding historical novels this year, but those that are good are oh, so good. Every single one of these five titles owned me until the story was done; for awhile afterward; and a little bit still.

                          #1 thegirlfromv

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2016/10/19/the-girl-from-venice-by-martin-cruz-smith/

HONORABLE MENTION:

Best of 2016: Literary Fiction

I’ll bet you do it too! I’ve found myself postponing the most crowded or hotly contestable categories for last, and literary fiction has been strong this year. It’s a really tough call, but in the end, I went with consistency and charm to break what is almost a five way tie.

#1

MillersValey

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

thegirls

Best of 2016: Horror, Short Stories, Fantasy, and Science Fiction

Best Horror Novel:

Best Short Story Collection:

This category is limited only to original short story collections. Please also note that the new collection by EL Doctorow reviewed on this site has had its publication date pushed to early 2017, which is why you don’t see it here.

thepierfalls

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 #2 ALSO EXCELLENT, AND INCREDIBLY BRAVE:

Best Fantasy Novels:

ORIGINAL POST:

I hate to declare a tie, which seems like a wimpy thing to do, but I just can’t stand for either of these matchless titles not to receive the honor. One of them has not yet been reviewed here, but it will be soon, so stick around!

LATER NOTE: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, ORIGINALLY SCHEDULED TO BE PUBLISHED IN DECEMBER, HAS BEEN BUMPED TO JANUARY, SO THERE IS NO LONGER A TIE. MITCHARD OWNS THE CATEGORY THIS YEAR.

Best Science Fiction: #1

thehatching

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#2  ALSO EXCELLENT:

darkmatter

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