The Third Rainbow Girl, by Emma Copley Eisenberg**

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a journalist who researched the murders of young women headed for the Rainbow Gathering, a music festival in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received early in exchange for an honest review.

What I was expecting from this book is not at all what I got. The cover suggests something spooky, and the topic also tells me this is a true crime story. The promotional blurb says it’s

Part “Serial”-like investigation, part Joan Didion-like meditation, the book follows the threads of this crime through the history of West Virginia, the Back-to-the-Land movement, and the complex reality contemporary Appalachia, forming a searing portrait of America and its divisions of gender and class, and its violence. 

Instead, it’s a strange mishmash of genres that don’t blend well, and the result is a wandering narrative entirely devoid of suspense or even focus of any kind, and though I tried reading it multiple times, then checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, I could not push myself all the way through this thing. I resolved to finish it and get it reviewed, and I wouldn’t let myself read anything else till it was done; the result was that I found excuses not to read or listen to anything at all. I finally let myself off the hook, but not until I had skipped to several parts of the second half, just to make sure there was no shining epiphany at the end.

It’s a tough spot to be in, journalistically speaking, because Eisenberg spent five years researching “these brutal crimes,” but she came up dry. How do you squeeze a story out of that? Instead of writing about the murders, she mostly writes about herself investigating the murders, making this story more of a journalistic memoir with a side serving of Pocahontas County history and culture.

If this is what the book is, then it should be sold as such. The title is deceptive, and the murky woodland illustration on the cover is deceptive as well. A journalistic retrospective should be billed as exactly that, so why wasn’t it? Possibly because nobody wants to buy a journalistic retrospective. Why not? Because it’s boring, boring, boring.

Ordinarily I would be gentler with a writer that’s published a debut, but I came away feeling resentful of the time I wasted reading and listening to a book that wasn’t what the reader was led to believe. I felt this way when I read it free; how might you feel if you ponied up the jacket price only to find that it’s not scary at all, and says little about the murders it’s supposed to be about?

No. No, no and no.

Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

The Weight of this World, by David Joy*****

theweightoftheworldDavid Joy is a writer that keeps it real, and that’s what made me lurch forward in my desk chair and grab my mouse when I saw his second novel was done.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This title will be available to the public March 7, 2017. Those that cherish strong fiction should buy it and read it.

The setting is Little Canada, North Carolina, a wide place in the road in the middle of nowhere. The family unit, such as it is, consists of April—the most unwilling of mothers—along with her son Thad, and his best friend, Aiden McCall, who shares the trailer at the rear of April’s property with Thad. The plot is centered on the inadvertent death of the local meth dealer, and a small fortune that is unexpectedly left in the custody of Thad and Aiden.

They are not stellar decision makers.  In fact, some of the time they seem as if they are half feral.

Aiden came to live with Thad when he was on the run from the law, young and desperate. Thad offered him shelter, and that was more than anyone else had ever done. In fact,

 

“Nothing about this place had changed in all of Aiden McCall’s life, and maybe that’s why he’d come to hate it so badly. Everything was exactly as it had always been, the haves having and the have-nots starving to damn death.”

 

Thad, unfortunately, is the last person in this world anyone should become overly attached to. Between his unloving childhood, his time in Afghanistan and the meth he’s used to self-medicate since then, he’s more than half crazy more than half the time. It’s just him, Aiden and his dog, a crossbreed named Loretta Lynn. But things get out of hand, and the bits of baling wire and rusty screws that were barely holding his poor savaged brain together come undone:

 

“Something broke inside him then. His mind retreated to a place more familiar. There was a sergeant who told Thad the infantry were the hands of God, and that idea made sense to Thad because it was no different from what he had heard all his life growing up in church. The old-timers said some prayers needed feet. But there was evil in this world that had to be strangled. And so it wasn’t just a matter of giving those prayers legs. Sometimes a prayer needed hands just the same.”

 

As you can see, it’s gritty prose, and it features hardscrabble characters that are not entirely lovable. And so, reader, if you are one that needs a character you can fall in love with, you may have to look elsewhere. Some reviewers have found the story too harsh for their liking, and so to some degree it’s a matter of taste.

But I can tell you this: the settings here are stark and immediate, and the characters are well drawn and completely believable. I appreciate a story that fits the time in which we live, one in which young people have a rough time becoming independent due to economic woes and  the rampant drug addiction that seems to live in the shadow of every economic downturn. I believe Aiden and Thad, and I believe Thad’s mother April as well, a woman that only became a mother because someone spit on her as she came out of an abortion clinic. This is a story that resonates, and nobody can tell it like David Joy does.

Highly recommended!

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly*****

ATimeofTormentI had never read anything by John Connolly before, but this eerie thriller has made a forever-fan of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria books for the invitation to read and review.  Connolly cooks together a hair-raising thriller with a handful of horror, a smidge of fantasy and a dash of magical realism; the resulting brew is one that nobody else could possibly cook up. For those that write, reading this dark redemption tale is likely to produce both admiration and despair, because this novel is born of a talent that no creative writing workshop will ever be able to produce. You may write, and I may write, but nobody else will ever, ever be able to write like Connolly.

Our story is part of the Charlie Parker series, but I have not read any of the others and found I was able to hop into this story as a single read with no difficulty. Connolly provides just enough background to catch us up without dragging us through the book using promotional paragraphs some lesser authors might indulge in. I suspect not enough is repeated here to annoy his faithful readers.

Parker is a private detective that has been through a triple-death experience and come out the other end, but not unchanged. He’s hard enough to confront the ugliest nemesis, and it’s a good thing, because soon a trail of corpses will persuade him to leave his home in Maine for the dark place that is Plassey County, West Virginia.

The people of Plassey County have learned over the years—and centuries—to leave The Cut alone. Evil things are brewing there; it is there that the Dead King waits in an ancient building, and it is there that Oberon and Cassander struggle for dominance of this insular, cult-like community.  After all, “…the Cut looks after its own.”

This is a high voltage, hyperliterate read. Your middle-schoolers can’t read this, and it is so infused with violence that I’m not sure you’d want them to have it. But though I sometimes am put off from gory prose, I found that Connolly measured out these passages in small enough batches that my “ick” threshold, that little voice inside that tells me when a story isn’t fun anymore, wasn’t tripped. Spare but strong spots of irony and humor help lighten things up before they get dark, dark, dark again.

If I were to compare Connolly to any other writer, it would be James Lee Burke. The similarities that exist are a brilliant capacity to craft character, and the use of strongly resonant setting to reinforce character and move the story forward. The small but potent religious references are also similar. I highlighted the characters that were introduced throughout the course of this novel and found more than two dozen of them, and yet at the end of the book I still knew who each of them was without having to go back and reread. Connolly draws characters so real that by the time the book is done, the reader knows them as if they were family; yet thank goodness they aren’t.  This reviewer particularly enjoyed Parker’s assistants, Angel and Louis, as well as side characters Perry Lutter and Odell Watson.

Throughout the story, the pacing is swift and the plot absorbing. There is never a word that could be cut from the text and have the same result. If anything, the spare prose creates a sense of tension not only for that which is said, but also for that which is not.

This creepy tale was released this week, so you can have it to curl up with over the weekend if you’re quick about it. But before you commence, you’ll want to make sure that all the lights in your home are burning, and that all your doors and windows are locked.

Highly recommended.

Where All Light Tends to Go, by David Joy*****

WhereAllLightTends“Dead men tell no tales, Jacob. The ones left to living are the ones who write the history.”

I received my DRC courtesy of Net Galley and Putnam Penguin publishers in exchange for an honest review. This title is available for purchase.

Jacob McNeely is a teenager in Cashier, North Carolina, a tiny  town deep in the crags and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. His mother is a crank user recently released against his father’s wishes from a psychiatric hospital. Jacob has always wished she might turn into a real mother, but it isn’t going to happen.

His father is the local drug czar, with cops on his payroll and a wide variety of other employees as well. He uses McNeely’s Auto Garage to launder his drug money. If any clueless tourist should come by, he gives them a quote so outrageous they take their business elsewhere. Locals foolish enough to cross him or get in his way find themselves and their vehicles in a deep, watery grave yard. That’s if the abused, underfed Walker coonhounds that are tied up at intervals throughout his property don’t kill them first.

Jacob walks a careful tight rope just in order to stay alive. He doesn’t like the life he leads, but he doesn’t see a way out. That is, unless he can run away with Maggie, the girl he has loved since childhood. Maggie is cut out for greater things; Maggie should go to college and escape the danger and poverty of Cashier.

If only Jake could go with her.

Joy is a gifted writer. His stark prose is chilling yet poignant, and so arresting that the reader will be hard pressed to set it down once it’s begun. But you may think twice about reading it at bedtime.

Where does all light tend to go? The allegory is heavy but sophisticated. Perhaps all light goes toward heaven, the candle that reminds us of the existence of God.

Or it’s possible that all light just goes out.

Searing, wrenching, and deeply affecting, this is a book to remember long after you’ve forgotten everything else you’ve read. Highly recommended to adults. Definitely not for children or adolescents.

Simply brilliant!

 

River of Earth, by James Still *****

riverofearthRiver of Earth, originally published in 1940, is a classic tale of Appalachian coal miners, dirt-poor, ever-proud people living deep in the mountains, crags and hollers, trying to scratch out a living, sometimes from pretty much nothing. How does one grow a crop if one has eaten the seeds to avoid starvation the winter before? And how does one survive as a miner when the days of available work shrink from five, to four, to two, to “Mine’s Closed”?

Initially, I was drawn to this book for two reasons. One is an interest in the early United Mine Workers, a stark, brutal organizing effort that is actually nowhere in this story. I got the book for Christmas upon my own request, and one might expect I’d be disappointed that no union shows up at all here.

And yet I wasn’t. Note that five star rating. My other reason for wanting to read it, is that one of my favorite authors mentions it in the text of one of his novels, and I wrote it down. And as I read this bittersweet tale of rural Caucasian poverty, I found something unexpected. I’ve been finding it more than one might think lately. I found ghosts and echoes of my own ancestors.

My grandfather was a miner; he died of black lung. But when a relative embarked on a genealogical expedition, I found that three of my four grandparents had roots in that same hardscrabble region, the part of Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia where a body had to more or less guess, back in the 1700’s, which side of the state line he was on.

By 1940, when this book was published, my folks had cleared out of there, but I still heard little speech mannerisms, which cultural geographers call “cultural artifacts”, that had embedded themselves and dropped into the speech of my elders back in the day.

Alpha, usually referred to in the first-person narrative as “Mother”, has married down. She fell in love with Brack many years ago, and although there was at least one wealthy man that set his cap for her, she chose Brack instead. And she doesn’t complain about the family’s state of poverty, not even when there is so little food that she pretends to eat while the children have their supper so that they won’t realize she is making a single mouthful last an entire meal. No, Brack is the one she wanted, and he is what she’s got. She’d do it again, she says.

But oh, how she wants to settle on a little spot of land! At one point they have rented a farm that is humble, yet provides enough food that they can winter over without fear of starvation. It’s on a hilltop with a view, and it has access to woods nearby where in spring, wild salad greens can be picked. It’s all she wants. That, and for Baby Green to survive. He’s been feeling poorly, crying from hunger. Finally, one ugly winter when the food has nearly run out, she apologetically takes a little more food at table. She is ashamed to do it, but she knows the baby needs milk, and it’s the only way she’ll be able to feed him.

She loves that baby so.

Just a plot of land where she can grow things and settle into the house without constantly being required to pick up and move to the next coal town, a mining town which might or might not be hiring, and where the air will clog the children’s lungs and coat the inside of the house with fine black grit, no matter how many used tobacco plugs are stuffed into its cracks. She is sure that if her little family takes care of the earth, it will take care of them. It worked for her mother, and it will work for her family too…if only she can persuade Brack.

And she can’t. Brack is a miner. He believes he was destined to mine coal. And wouldn’t it be nice if his many hanger-on relations, those that come to visit and never leave, felt inclined to do the same? Or to help turn the ground, when they have some to turn? Or to do something other than eat more than anybody else and complain that the food isn’t good enough?

The reader has to admit that this is a wicked-hard dilemma. If one’s relatives are likely to starve if turned out of the house midwinter with nowhere to go, can one send them? But if one’s children are going hungry because the relatives are eating a lot of the food that was supposed to be theirs, can one continue to feed them? It’s a point of contention between Mother and Father. Father says he won’t turn his kin out; Mother says the children are too thin and hungry, and couldn’t his kin do a lick of work for once?

At one point Grandma needs help, but Mother can’t go to her, because the baby is ill. The food supply problem and the Grandma problem are partially solved by sending our narrator and protagonist, still elementary school aged, off to live with her and help her run her farm. Grandma is the embodiment of a work ethic. Rheumatic and 78 years old, she crawls down the rows of crops in order to harvest a few puny potatoes. She reflects on her married life, before her husband died, and her pride in having none of them shot to death, so common in these nail-tough hills:

 “Eight me and Boone brought into this world, and every one a wanted child. Four died    young, and natural. Three boys and one girl we raised. My boys were a mite stubheaded, as growing ones air. But nary a son I had pleasured himself with shooting off guns, a-rim-recking at Hardin Town and in the camps, a-playing at cards and mixing in knife scrapes, traipsing thar and yon, weaving drunk. Nor they never drew blood for doing’s sake, as I’ve got knowing of. Feisty though, and ready to fight fair fist if the other feller wanted it that a way. I allus said, times come when a feller’s got to fight. Come that time let him strike hard where it’ll do most good, a-measuring stick with stone, best battler win. The devil can’t be fit lessen you use fire.”

It occurred to me as I read it, although I could hear Grandma speak in that dialect in my head clear as day, that the dialect would wreck havoc upon the eyes and mind of someone with a mother tongue other than English. I handed it to my husband and pointed to a paragraph. He’s been in the USA for decades and speaks several languages, but he reluctantly told me that although he could understand it if I read it aloud with inflections where they belonged, it was really too much on the printed page.

With that sole caveat, I recommend this slim but magnificent story. The setting is nearly a character unto itself (although I had to get online to figure out what a paw-paw fruit was). The dialogue and its point and counterpoint, Mother advocating for the Earth, and Father advocating for dynamite and despoilment, is bound to resonate in this fragile ecological time.

But you could just read it because it is amazing literary fiction.