Happy Release Day!

I reviewed this outstanding collection earlier, but today it is available to the public. Hill won awards for the first collection, and this is, if anything, even better.

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Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang*****

“Secrets. They have so much power, don’t they?”

Qian Julie Wang is born in China to a professional couple living under the shadow of governmental disfavor. Her father’s elder brother has written critically about Mao Zedong, naively signing his own name to the article, and as a result, the entire family lives under a cloud and the threat of violence, courtesy of Chinese Stalinism. When her father finds a way to relocate himself and his family to New York, it is under a tourist visa, and so they cannot legally remain in the USA, or get any sort of legitimate employment. Wang’s memoir tells of the deprivation and terror, combined with occasional lifesaving windfalls and ingenuity, of growing up as an “illegal,” and of how, against all odds, she ultimately finds success and citizenship.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the invitation to read and review, along with my apologies for being inexcusably late.

Wang comes to the USA, which in Chinese translates to “Beautiful Country,” as a small child. From the moment her feet touch American soil, her parents drill the story into her: “I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life.” Because they are in the US illegally, they must find work to do under the table, and so they are exploited by the most malevolent sweatshop owners. At first, Wang is also employed, toddling off to do piecework with her mother, but eventually she is enrolled in school, where she proves to be highly capable once she overcomes the barriers of language and culture.

More than anything, her life and that of her parents is dominated by fear and secrecy. Opportunities that would otherwise be helpful must often be bypassed because of the documentation required. Her parents’ emotional stability, their marriage, and her mother’s health are broken.

If this story seems unbearably grim—and I confess, this is why I delayed reading it, moving other, pleasanter stories to the top of my queue—it is ultimately a story of resilience and of triumph. Wang is a gifted writer, and she breaks up the horror by recounting small victories and pleasures that punctuate her youth. But the most important aspect of how the memoir is presented, is that everything is told through the lens of childhood, and so we see everything as a seven-year-old Chinese girl, a nine-year-old, etc. would see it.

Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version of this memoir from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Wang does her own narration, which is my favorite way to hear a book, because there’s no danger that the reader will add emphasis or interpretation that conflicts with the author’s intentions. The climax arrived as I was wrapping Christmas gifts, which made me all the more aware of my level of privilege.

Wang tells us:

“Most of all, I put these stories to paper for this country’s forgotten children, past and present, who grow up cloaked in fear, desolation, and the belief that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal. I have been unfathomably lucky. But I dream of a day when being recognized as human requires no luck—when it is right, not a privilege. And I dream of a day when each and every one of us will have no reason to fear stepping out of the shadows.”

Highly recommended.

At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman****

At the Edge of the Haight tells the story of a homeless youth, Maddy Donaldo, who lives with her dog, Root, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But one day she runs across a young man lying dead, and the man that is almost certainly his killer locks eyes with her. He tells her, “Keep a handle on the fucking dog…I know where to find your ass.”

I was invited to read and review this award-winning novel by Algonquin Books. My thanks go to them and Net Galley for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

At first, I am not sure I’ll like this book. It seems a bit self-conscious, a bit like a public service announcement or an infomercial. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. But about a quarter of the way in, it wakes up and begins to flow. It becomes my dedicated bathroom book, since I’ve been given a physical review copy, and I find myself brightening when I enter the loo. There are any number of places when the author has the opportunity to use an obvious plot device, but she chooses something better. By the end of the story I believe Maddy as a character, and I appreciate the way it ends.

My home town, Seattle, has an enormous problem with homelessness, estimated in the tens of thousands, and most of them are native Seattle-ites that have been priced out of the housing market. I know one of the people out there; others have squatted in my yard until my dog made them feel unwelcome. Not one part of this city is entirely free of tents, cardboard shacks, and other makeshift shelters. So this subject is never far from my thoughts.

The fact is that there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds, whether in open rooms with mats on the floor, hotels with doors that close and provide privacy, or other options, but in reading this book, it is also clear that there are times when it’s better to walk away from free shelter. Take our friend Maddy. The shelter she sometimes frequents is one where the probable killer has seen her. She can’t go there safely. There are shelters where she can’t take her dog. There are others that sound pretty good, but a night filled with the screams of a neighbor experiencing a mental health crisis make the private niche way deep in the park more appealing. The cops range from businesslike 3 AM bush beaters (“You can’t camp here!”) to the overtly cruel, and most of the homeless know better than to try to confide in them. And so it goes.

The main part of this story involves a couple—Dave and Marva—that are the parents of Shane, the murder victim. They live on the other side of the country, and they never understood why Shane wouldn’t come home. No one besides Maddy recalls having seen Shane, and so although she has only seen him once—dead—they latch onto her, vowing to help her since they couldn’t help him. Between their grief and ignorance, however, they bumble around and breach boundaries in ways that are outrageously presumptuous, and when they drag her to their home for Thanksgiving, they introduce her as someone that “knew Shane,” which of course she didn’t. Maddy feels bad for these folks, but she doesn’t want to be their project. It’s a bizarre situation for her to be in.

Though it is marketed as commercial fiction, I think a lot of teens would embrace this story. I suggest that Language Arts teachers in middle and high schools add it to their shelves, as should librarians. The vocabulary is accessible, and despite the quote I lead with, there’s very little profanity.

Recommended especially for teenage readers.

The Family, by Naomi Krupitsky****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded upward.

The cover grabbed me first, two women in vintage sweaters—no faces even—and the title written in Godfather font. Oh, heck yes. I need to read this thing. The author is a newbie about whom I know nothing, so I know it may be a recipe for disappointment. I’ve taken review copies this way in the past, and have regretted it, because of course, the cover doesn’t speak to the author’s ability. But old school mobster books are fun, and they’re thin on the ground these days, so I hold my breath as I take a chance…and hit the jackpot!

This is one of the year’s best works of historical fiction, and you should get it and read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Antonia and Sofia grow up together; their fathers are both mobsters, and their houses share a wall. Not only are they thrown together for Family events from early childhood forward, but their peers ostracize them in elementary school, their family’s reputations having preceded them, so for several years, they are each other’s only option. But it’s enough.

Our story starts in 1928, and it ends in 1948. We follow the girls through childhood, adolescence, and into their early adult years. At the outset, their fathers are best friends, until Carlos, Antonia’s daddy, starts skimming, covertly building a nest egg in the hope of making a new start far away with his little family, doing an honest job, and leaving the Family behind.  His theft is, of course, detected, and he disappears; Joey, Sofia’s father, is promoted, and told to take care of Carlos’s widow and daughter. Thus, we have a clear, concrete reminder, right up front, that this is an ugly, violent business. The author’s note says she wants to demonstrate the strange way that violence and love can coexist, and she does that and more.

Those readers seeking a mob story full of chasing and shooting and scheming will do well to look elsewhere. We do find these things, of course, primarily in the second half, but the story’s focus is entirely on Sofia and Antonia. Whereas setting is important—and done nicely—the narrative’s fortune rises or sinks on character development, and Krupitsky does it right. These women become so real to me that toward the end, when some ominous foreshadowing suggests that devastating events are around the corner, I put the book down, stop reading it or anything else for half a day, and brood. I complain to my spouse. I complain to my daughter. And then, knowing that it’s publication day and I have an obligation, I return to face the music and finish the book. (And no. I’m not telling.)

My only concern, in the end, is a smallish smattering of revisionism that occurs during the last twenty percent of the novel. Knowing what gender roles and expectations are like in that time and place, I have to say that, while I can see one intrepid, independent female character stepping out of the mold, having multiple women do it to the degree I see it here is a reach.

Nevertheless, this is a badass book by a badass new talent, and Naomi Krupitsky proves that she is a force to be reckoned with. Get this book! Read it now.

Home Stretch, by Graham Norton***-****

3.5 stars, rounded down.

Home Stretch is Graham Norton’s third novel, and because I absolutely loved his first, Holding, and his second, A Keeper, I expected great things from this one. It’s not a bad book, but it didn’t delight me the way the first two did.

My thanks go to Net Galley and HarperVia for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

We start with a tragic accident, and our protagonist, Connor, is unhurt, but three of his friends are killed, and Connor is blamed by everyone, including his family. It’s a small town, so trying to keep his head up and avoid people that dislike him is impossible.

His family feels the same, and so he is abruptly packed off to Liverpool, and from there to bigger and in many ways, better places. And in many ways this is a favorable development, as he is no longer forced to hide his sexuality; and yet, it’s a tough thing to live a life that’s separate from your family, one that you know would horrify them.

The story is set in the 1980s, the era of the AIDS epidemic. This reviewer lost friends to it during that time; a lot of people did. Norton does a serviceable job with setting, and with character too; and yet, this book lacks the spark of his earlier two novels. The pacing is not as brisk, and the surprising bursts of humor that made me laugh out loud never materialized here. At times it felt like work to read it, and I wonder if he found as much joy in writing it.

I still believe in Norton as a novelist; everybody has a “meh” moment now and then. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

God Spare the Girls, by Kelsey McKinney*****

Journalist Kelsey McKinney makes her debut as a novelist with God Save the Girls, and I have a hunch we’ll be seeing a lot more of her work. Lucky me, I read it free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and William Morrow for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Caroline and Abigail are the daughters of the charismatic head pastor at a megachurch in Hope, Texas. This opening paragraph had me at hello:

“For that whole brutal year, Caroline Nolan had begged God to make her life interesting. He sent a plague instead: grasshoppers emerged from the earth in late June, crawling across the dry grass, multiplying too quickly, staying long past their welcome. Now they carpeted the land she’d inherited with her sister, vibrated in the sun like a mirage. As Caroline drove the ranch’s half-mile driveway, she rolled over hundreds of them. She threw the car in park, stepped out into the yellowed grass beside the gravel drive, and crushed their leggy, squirming bodies beneath her sensible heels.”

Teenagers are people that are exploring their own identities, and there’s often some rebellion mixed into those years, but for Caroline and Abigail, there’s not a speck of wiggle room. They are constantly reminded that everything they do reflects upon their father. Forget profanity, street drugs, shoplifting, booze. These girls have even the most minute aspect of their appearances proscribed. Is that V-neck deep enough to show even a smidge of cleavage? Cover it up, or go change. How much leg? Why aren’t you wearing makeup? Not just your smile, but what kind of smile? How you sit. How you stand. And if these confines were not enough to drive any teen bonkers, they live in a fishbowl that every adult seems to own a key to. People come in and out of the family home all day and all evening, so showing up to watch television in your robe and fuzzy slippers in the family room is a risky prospect, too.

I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t have. I really couldn’t.

But these are girls raised to believe that the Almighty is always watching, and always knows your heart, and so they do their best to shed petty resentments, whereas others must be buried deep. Buried, that is, until a shocking revelation is made about their father’s extracurricular activities.

The story is primarily told through Caroline’s point of view; Abby is the most important secondary character, and she’s interesting, but we see her through Caroline’s lens. I admire the way that McKinney develops both of them, but more than anything, I admire her restraint. In recent years, fundamentalist and evangelical Christian preachers have gone from being rather shocking, daring novelists’ subjects to low-hanging fruit. As I read, I waited for the rest of it. Which girl was Daddy molesting? What else has he done? Has he embezzled? Does he have a male lover on the side somewhere–or Lordy, a boy? But McKinney doesn’t go to any of those places. She keeps the story streamlined, and in doing so not only stands out from the crowd, but is able to go deeper into Caroline’s character.

At the end, when Abigail prepares to marry the dull, dependable boy her parents like, the scene is downright menacing; their mother, Ruthie, is helping her into her dress, and she “wielded a hook like a sword,” and as everyone takes their positions, the walkie-talkies “hiss.”

There’s a good deal more I could tell you, but none of it would be as satisfying for you as reading this book yourself. Your decision boils down to text versus audio, and I advocate for the audio, because Catherine Taber is a badass reader, lending a certain breathless quality to key parts of the narrative. But if you’re visually oriented, you can’t go wrong with the printed word here, either.

Highly recommended.

Another Kind of Eden, by James Lee Burke****

James Lee Burke is a living legend, a novelist who’s won just about every prize there is, and whose published work has spanned more than fifty years.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden is a prequel to Burke’s Holland family trilogy. The time is the 1960s, and protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard is in Colorado working a summer job. He falls in love with a waitress named JoAnne, but there are obstacles to their happiness everywhere he looks. There’s a charismatic professor that won’t leave her alone, a bus full of drugged-out young people that have fallen under his influence, and of course, there’s corruption among the local wealthy residents, which is a signature feature in Burke’s work. Aaron is a Vietnam veteran, and he has residual guilt and grief that get in his way as well. He’s got some sort of an associative disorder, though I am not sure that’s the term used; at any rate, he blacks out parts of his life and cannot remember them. He also has anger issues, and he melts down from time to time; there’s an incident involving a gun that he forces a man to point at him that I will never get entirely out of my head, and kind of wish I hadn’t read.

I had a hard time rating this novel. If I stack it up against the author’s other titles, it is a disappointment; a lot of the plot elements and other devices feel recycled from his other work, dressed up a bit differently. But if I pretend that this is written by some unknown author, then I have to admit it’s not badly written at all. By the standards of Burke’s other work, it’s a three star book; compared to most other writers, it’s somewhere on the continuum between four and five. Since I have to come up with something, I decided to call it four stars.

All that being said, if you have never read anything by this luminary, I advise you to start with one of his earlier books–almost any of them, actually.

Lightning Strike, by William Kent Krueger*****

Lightning Strike is the prequel to William Kent Krueger’s successful, long-running mystery series based on a Minnesota sheriff, Cork O’Connor. This is my introduction to the series; my introduction to this author came in 2019, when I read and reviewed This Tender Land.  I read this free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. It will be available to the public Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

In the prequel, Cork is twelve, and he’s on a camping expedition with his friend Jorge when they come across a body hanging off the maple tree at Lightning Strike. What’s worse, it’s someone they know; the corpse is that of Big John Manydeeds, the uncle of a close friend. Cork’s father, Liam, is the sheriff, and although he’s been told to let the adults investigate this horrific event, Cork keeps coming up with useful bits of information.

Seems he has a knack.

One of the most admirable aspects of Krueger’s writing is the way he folds his setting, characters, and plot seamlessly to create an atmospheric stew that’s impossible to look away from. The story takes place in the far northern reaches of Minnesota in (fictitious) Tamarack County, near Iron Lake and the iron range, as well as the Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indian Reservation, and the tension and conflict between tribal members, which include Cork’s mother and grandmother, toward Caucasians, which include Liam, are a central feature of this mystery. Tribal members insist that Big John would never have taken his own life, and even had he done so, he would never done it at this sacred location. At first they aren’t taken seriously, but as events unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that they are right. This was no suicide.

The key suspect in Big John’s murder proves to be the town’s wealthiest citizen, a tightfisted, overtly racist, elderly Scotsman that owns practically everything. He’s a suspect too soon to be the actual killer, I figure, and I think I can see where the story is headed, but without giving anything away, I have to tell you, Krueger introduces all sorts of twists and turns I don’t see coming, and they aren’t far-fetched ones, either.

There is dark foreshadowing all over the place, and the tension and outrage that exists between the tribe and law enforcement—well, the sheriff, really—grow to ominous proportions. Liam insists on examining facts and hard evidence; the Ojibwe are eager to include portents and messages from the great beyond. They want that nasty rich guy arrested now, if not sooner, and when Liam tells them that it doesn’t work that way because circumstantial evidence isn’t enough, that hearsay can’t win a conviction, they scoff and point out that when the suspect is Ojibwe, those things are always more than adequate. And again, they have a point. A local business owner who is Ojibwe tells him, “Sheriff, you better believe every Shinnob on the rez is watching you right now. Every step you take.”

While Liam is busy with his work, nobody is paying much attention to the boys; Cork, Jorge, and their friend Billy Downwind, who is related to Big John, poke around some more, and what they unearth is both shocking and dangerous.

Lightning Strike owned me until it was done, and though I rarely do this, I’m headed to the Seattle Bibliocommons to find the next book, which is technically the first in the series, because for this series and this writer, once cannot possibly be enough. Highly recommended!

Buses Are a Comin’, by Charles Person and Richard Rooker*****

I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.

It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.

The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.

For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:

“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”

There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.

All the Little Hopes, by Leah Weiss*****

Recently, I read and reviewed Weiss’s debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, which was delightful. This year’s novel, All the Little Hopes, is better still. My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

Weiss’s story is of two girls born in different parts of North Carolina, both geographically and culturally, and of how they come together and ultimately, become each other’s family. The novels I love best provide a resonant setting, an original plot, and compelling character development; these three elements don’t compete for the reader’s attention, but rather, each of them serves to develop and reinforce the others. That’s what I find here.

Our story takes place in the 1940s, during World War II. The narrative comes to us in the first person, with the point of view alternating between the girls; we begin with Lucy. Her father is a farmer, and by far his biggest crop is honey. As the story opens, government men come to visit, and they want to buy all of his honey for the war effort. Lucy’s eldest sibling and brother-in-law have both gone to serve in the military, and there’s an emotional scene after the government men leave, because they’ve given permission for both sons to return home to help with the honey. Lucy’s mother pleads with her father to write to them and order them home at once; he stands firm, saying that the choice must be their own. Now we begin seeing how conflict plays out in this family, and how the various relationships work. But all of it is done through the plot, so that we aren’t slowed down by a bunch of emo for its own sake.

Bert, whose given name is Allie Bert, lives in the mountains, and her family has far fewer resources than Lucy’s. Her story unfolds with the death of her mother in childbirth, along with the baby. Her father sends her to live with his sister, Violet, who is expecting a baby of her own. He suggests that Violet will need household help, and Bert can provide it; he doesn’t know that Violet has gone stark, raving mad. When Bert arrives, Violet is behaving irrationally and at times, violently. She locks Bert out of the house in a storm, and the nearest house is that of the Brown family. And so it begins.

One of the most critical aspects of this book’s success is Weiss’s facility in drawing the girls, who are just beginning adolescence. At the outset, we learn that Lucy takes pride in her advanced vocabulary. I groan, because this is often a device that amateurs use to try to gloss over their lack of knowledge relating to adolescents’ development. Make the girl smart, they figure, and then they will have license to write her as if she were an adult. Not so here! These girls are girls. Though it’s not an essential part of the plot, one of my favorite moments is when the girls are locked in a bitter, long-lasting quarrel over whether Nancy Drew is a real person. Bert says she is not; Lucy is sure she is. This isn’t silly to them. It’s a bitter thing. Further into the book, Lucy realizes that it’s more important to be understood, than to use the most advanced word she can come up with. And so my estimation of Weiss rises even higher.

When someone comes from truly devastating poverty, the few things that they own take on great importance. Bert arrives with a treasure box, and in it, she keeps things that may seem inconsequential, but that mean the world to her. And Bert is also light-fingered. After meeting Lucy’s mother, who is one of the nicest people she’s met in her life, she pockets a loose button that Mama means to sew back onto a garment. Bert wants this button fiercely, because Mama has touched it. Later—much later—she confesses this to Lucy, and then to Mama, and is flabbergasted when there is no harsh punishment. She explains to a neighbor,

“Mama says sometimes stealing is necessary, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Stealing’s a crime. Back home, there ain’t two ways bout stealing. You get a whipping. You get sent to your room with no supper. No breakfast the next day neither. Stealing is a sin against the Lord Jesus, so salt gets put on the floor, and you get on your knees on that salt and stay there till you cry out and your knees bleed, till you fall over and Pa says that’s enough.”  

One feature of the story is when Nazi prisoners of war are housed nearby, and they become available as labor. At first locals fear them, but then they get to know some of them, and they discover that like themselves, the prisoners play marbles. Gradually, the rules about avoiding the prisoners relaxes to where the girls are allowed to play marbles with them sometimes. “We tread close to the sin of pride when it comes to marbles. I don’t think we can help ourselves.” And now I am veering toward an eyeroll, because (yes, I’ll say it again,) writers are awfully quick to find humanity in Caucasian enemies, whereas we know the story would have been very different had these prisoners been Japanese. BUT, as my eyes narrow and my frown lines deepen, another development occurs that reminds us that these men aren’t really our friends. Again, my admiration increases.

Weiss’s last book was a delight for the first eighty-percent, but it faltered at the end, and so I was eager to see whether this novel stands up all the way through. I love the ending!

You can get this book now, and if you love excellent historical fiction, excellent Southern fiction, or excellent literature in general, you should get it sooner rather than later. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the list at your local library. This is one of the year’s best, hands down.