Best of the Year: 2017

Gallery

This gallery contains 3 photos.

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

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford****

“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”loveandotherconsolation

Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.

The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.

But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:

He had never once been near the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way, a street better known as the Deadline. His teachers had talked for years about sewer rats that plagued the area, and rattlesnakes, and about the wolves that prowled the White Chapel District, waiting to sink their teeth into the good people of Seattle, which a local song had dubbed the Peerless City. Ernest had imagined lanky, sinuous creatures with sharp claws and tangles of mangy fur, but as he looked out at the avenue, all he saw were signs for dance halls and saloons.


Ernest’s years at the brothel prove to be the best of his young life, primarily because the rest of it was so much worse. Every time a rosy glow starts to form around the brothel and the condition of the women that work there, Ford injects an incident that is stark and horrible to remind us that trafficking in human beings and their most intimate acts is criminal and should never be condoned. Miss Flora is a relatively benign madam because it is better for business, not because of any sentimentality toward the women she employs. This comes to us all the more starkly when her own daughter’s virginity is raffled off to the highest bidder.

All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.

I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today. 

The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa***-****

thegermangirlThe German Girl arrived in my mailbox, a nice surprise from Atria Books. This novel is historical fiction, an international bestseller translated into many languages; it tells the story of Hannah, a survivor of the Holocaust who was sent to Cuba, and her namesake, Anna, who lives in present day Manhattan. This title is available for purchase now.

Hannah is born into a Jewish family just before Hitler’s rise to power. As white supremacy becomes the new order, her picture is taken by a photographer, and it’s titled “The German Girl”. With her blonde hair and blue eyes, she is exemplified as the perfect Aryan child. No one associated with the magazine or the government knows that she is Jewish. And of course, her father, who has been working furiously and quietly to get passports out of Germany for all of them, is absolutely livid. Who dared do this without his permission, and more to the point, what repercussions will there be once someone in a position of authority realizes the error that’s been made?

As the World War II generation dies out, it is essential that works like this one continue to be published. Though it’s fictional, there are primary documents in the back—photographs and the guest book signatures for a cruise ship that bears a lucky cargo away from Nazi shores. There’s also a bibliography, something few writers of historical fiction provide.

The reader should know that this is not a page-turner. It’s a story for those with a particular interest in historical fiction and the history of World War II. It’s written in a relatively formal style, words that one sinks into rather than tears through. Those looking for a steady, steep story arc aren’t going to find it.

Recommended to those interested in the refugees that fled the Nazis; it’s a worthwhile reminder that white supremacy never leads to good results.

 

If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.

The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”

 

Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

Before the Rain Falls, by Camille Di Maio***

beforetherainfallsThose looking for a sweet, light romance will find it here and come away happy. It was just published, and you can get it now. Thanks go to Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The story is divided between three protagonists, and the narrative alternates to include each of their points of view. Two of the characters are Della Lee, a very elderly woman recently paroled from a life term in prison for the murder of her sister, and Paloma Vega, a young doctor that’s returned to her hometown on the Texas border to take care of family business.

One thing that drew me to the title is that the most important characters are both women, and it is they that prove to be the most dynamic. Our third character, Mick Anders, is a journalist seeking Della’s story. He is changed by it, and yet really his character exists as a foil for the two women. So far, so good.

Because the premise starts with the woman who’s spent her entire adult life in prison, I was expecting something grittier. Women in prison haven’t really made it into a lot of fiction, and so my interest was piqued. I was also hoping for a social justice angle, and to be fair, the teaser promises no such thing, and so to an extent, this disappointment is one I brought on myself. Though Della’s reminiscences as she unspools her memories for Anders recount some of what she went through, it really isn’t a prison story, but the story of Della’s own life and the sacrifice she has made.
The parallels between Della’s life and Paloma’s intrigued me and I was hoping the novel would veer in the direction of literary fiction, some allegory perhaps; something subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This isn’t that either. Soon the parallels feed into a tidy package, and the coincidences are just too many. I had reconciled myself to the likelihood that this really would, in fact, be a straight up historical romance, and if the end had been crafted in a more nuanced way I could have given it four stars, but instead it is predictable, and when that happens there can’t be magic, because the Great-And-Powerful-Wizard’s curtain has been pulled away by the unlikeliness of the story. Toto has the curtain in his mouth, and instead of looking at Della, at Paloma, and Nick I am looking Di Maio and saying, Oh come on. Seriously?

Some of the better moments in the story are the side elements, the interaction between Paloma and her sister Mercedes, an adolescent smarting from Paloma’s abandonment when she moved away. Paloma is wooing her back into a sisterly relationship, and her clumsy missteps and the ways in which she corrects herself are resonant and absolutely believable.

Although Della’s back story feels over-the-top to me, her present, the return to her home after seven decades away, the changes in the home and the strangeness of being back in the world and at liberty are also well done. The author does a nice job in crafting Della’s present-day setting and wedding it to her story.

Those looking for a traditional romance, something to pack for a vacation that will leave a warm, fuzzy afterglow will enjoy this novel, and to them I recommend it.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it: