The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries****

theteaplanterswifeGwendolyn is 19 years old when she marries Laurence Hooper, the owner of a tea plantation in Ceylon, an island nation south of India now named Sri Lanka. Jeffries provides a compelling, sometimes painful glimpse of the mores and assumptions of the heirs of the UK Empire at the outset of the peasants’ rebellion led by Ghandi. Though a few small glitches occasionally distract, this is a strong piece of fiction that fulfilled the writer’s mission admirably. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received free in return for an honest review. The book is on sale today.

The protagonist is not a sympathetic one, and those that need a main character they can love should stop even considering this book right now. But some of literature’s most interesting characters are flawed ones, and the development of this one within the constraints of what Caucasians in the UK expected their lives to resemble at this time, and within the even greater constraints of material self-interest, is fascinating. I found myself wanting to haul this character out to the cheese room and tell her that all other women are not her enemies. She has almost nothing required of her by the easy life into which she has married, and as a local gossip points out, Gwen has “never had to fight for anything”.

Gwen has a passel of problems, however, some real, some imagined. She sees her sister-in-law as a rival not only for her husband’s affections and loyalty, but also for his fortune. She sees his wealthy former girlfriend and business associate, Christina, trying to pull him back into a relationship. What about MacGregor, the surly foreman of the laborers? What about Savi Ravasinghe? By the time the book was halfway done, I found myself alternately scolding her for making enemies everywhere and then, a heartbeat later, screeching at her to beware.

Ultimately I didn’t think I was impressed by this story until I looked back on my notes. I had highlighted nearly every warning bell and red herring and made little notations like, “Noooo!” Obviously this story engaged me all the way through. At times I was frustrated, but that was the author’s intention. At no time was I bored. And given the level of suspense and a certain amount of mystery, I realized that one genre tag had gone missing. I added this title to my “mystery” shelf, because there is so much unknown information that will keep the reader up late as well as any whodunit.

The author makes a few missteps that break the spell of time and place momentarily. At one point there is an argument between two of the characters about Ravasinghe, and one accuses the other of race prejudice, while the other responds that it “has nothing to do with the color of his skin!” This is either ignorance or revisionism. In the 1920s and 1930s racism was at a fever pitch. Colonialists based their system of rule partially on paternalism, which overtly declared that the “lesser” races needed the great white fathers to look after them, employ them, house and feed them. In the USA, Jim Crow and the Klan were at their all time most powerful; African-Americans were afraid to walk on the same sidewalks in the South, and in the North they nevertheless kept to their own neighborhoods to the greatest degree possible. Biracial marriage was an invitation to ostracism or even death, and less than one percent of the Caucasian population in any English speaking nation would even pretend that such ostracism wasn’t about race.

In fact, US President William Howard Taft declared that the day would dawn when the United States flag would fly at “equidistant points” that would include North America, South America, and Central America in fact rather than merely economically, and he told the American people that God had willed this due to the moral and racial superiority of Americans—by which he meant Caucasian Americans. In the East, look what the peasantry went through just to get the vote!  No, no white folks in the British Empire or USA were going to defend themselves against charges of racism; racism was assumed to be the will of God.

There’s another “oopsie” moment when the roof of a large building catches fire and the fire is put out with a garden hose and pots of water. No.

But all of this is mitigated by the expert manner in which the author describes the setting, having had a family member that lived on such a plantation, or a similar one. Part of the reason I wanted to read this DRC is the fact that it was set in Ceylon, and here Jeffries does not disappoint.  I was afraid the ending would either be saccharine or unspeakably brutal, but she deftly avoids both extremes and comes up with a surprising and believable alternative.

So in the end, I recommend this book to you. It’s not always easy for some of us to look in the mirror, or at the mirror of one’s ancestors, but everyone comes from somewhere, and the playing field still isn’t level. Nobody can fix what’s wrong today without knowing where the trouble came from. The Tea Planter’s Wife is a historical treasure in this regard; Jeffries is to be congratulated.

A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.

Two Miles of Darkness, by Earl Emerson****

twomilesofdarkness Fans of Emerson’s Thomas Black mysteries will be as pleased as I was to see this, the 14th in the series. Black took a very long nap and seemed to have all but disappeared for awhile, but then he was back with Monica’s Sister, followed by this title. There was no DRC for this one, so I picked it up free using my Amazon Prime digital credits. It was a good way to spend them. The book was released in 2015, so of course you can get it also.

We start out with one of my three most tired devices for a mystery novelist: Black and his sidekick, Snake are hogtied in the trunk of a car. I rolled my eyes in the way that made my second grade teacher caution me might make them stick that way forever—an outstanding science lesson that remained with me long after the legitimate curriculum had drifted away—but because I like this series so much, I kept reading anyway. And it was worth it.

Eventually of course Black stops discussing being stuck inside the trunk, and he remembers back, back, back to how all this came about. And that’s the story that is great fun and also well written.

Black grew up in the working class here in Seattle, but his father did errands and handyman work for a wealthy widow that went by the nickname Doda. Dad is long gone, but Doda is still there, and she hires Black to find Pickles, a dog she gave to Mick and Alex Kraft. The Krafts, by peculiar coincidence, had also tried to hire Black recently in order to find out who was harassing them; Mick had experienced a string of terrible luck that he believed was too sudden to be a coincidence. Black told him that sometimes bad luck really is just bad luck, but the next thing you know, they’re both dead. Police are calling it a murder and suicide; Doda just wants the dog back. She’ll pay a pretty penny if Black can find Pickles and bring him safely home.

In this matter, Black’s friend Snake, usually the irresponsible party where the two friends are involved, is the sensible one that points out the truth, a very good reason to turn the dog job down:

“You hate rich people. Think about these guys. The rest of the world works for a living, but these guys have nothing to do all day but drink Mai Tais and sit around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive in the mail. It burns you up. I know it does.”

 

Snake is right. Black hates the rich, and I have a sneaking hunch that Emerson does too.  So in this tale, we have a couple of spoiled men—no longer young enough to be called brats—known as Chad and Binky. One is Doda’s son, and the other is the son’s best buddy. Their massive resources coupled with a life of leisure and surfeit of free time give them the capacity to play elaborate pranks, and both show a solipsistic disregard for the effect their games have upon the lives of others. They fit Snake’s description to a tee.

Nevertheless, Black takes the doggy job, and so we have two mysteries, the official dog-finding mystery, and the unofficial mystery Black’s conscience requires him to tackle regarding the Krafts.

One small fact-checking blooper hit my I-don’t-think-so-button, and that was the widely-believed myth that all juvenile records are sealed once the doer of the crime turns 18. In reality, after a number of years, a hefty filing fee, and a ton of complicated paperwork, the person in question can have the particulars of their crime locked away, but if it was a relatively small offense, that may make matters worse, because anyone running the background check will see that the person did something in their youth that they want concealed. Most juvenile offenders never want to see a courtroom again when they are older, and most don’t have the extra money to throw at a court procedure anyway, so the misdeed stays on the record until they grow old and die. It never vanishes from the record, as some folks, sadly some of them juveniles looking for trouble, believe. At least, that’s the truth in Washington State, and that’s where Emerson lives and where his story is set.

Now back to our story. Emerson is a champ when it comes to pacing, and he’s one of the best there is when it comes to bouncing a straight man off a colorful sidekick like Elmer “Snake” Sleazak. The story would be no fun at all without Snake, but with him, it’s immensely entertaining. The sly banter and the unexpected, off-the-chain behaviors will put a smile on your face; if you don’t find him funny, check your pulse to make sure you aren’t dead.  Add another side character, a neighbor kid named Charlie that was friends with Pickles the dog, and there’s charm all over the place. People often underestimate kids, who are often our best observers: “Charlie knew the neighborhood like a cheating husband knew every creaky stair on his front porch.”

This is a page-turner that will make your own troubles seem oh so small, and for those that find themselves with a long weekend at hand, this book will provide the excuse you may need to just chill for awhile. One way or the other, this is a well written story, deftly handle with just the right balance of mirth and suspense. My records tell me I have read over 700 mysteries since 2012, and that doesn’t even take into account most of what I read during the previous decades of adulthood, and so I am picky. I see a device that I’ve grown tired of, and a star falls of my rating. But as for you, if you lean leftward and love a good private eye story, this could well be a five star read.

Recommended to those that lean left and enjoy detective fiction and comic capers.

 

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen*****

darktown I was originally turned down for a DRC of this novel when I requested it last spring, and I took the unusual step of following up with Atria, more or less begging for it. I’ve been reviewing titles for Net Galley for two years and have received nearly 300 DRCs, so it is a sign of my interest level that I went to this extreme to read this one in advance in exchange for an honest review, and it’s a sign of decency and responsiveness that a representative from Atria Books invited me to review it after all. Although I am grateful , this five star review is not about gratitude, but a measure of the importance I attach to the issues it addresses and the skill with which the story is told.

The story centers on the first African-American cops hired in Atlanta; the year is 1948. This is considered an experiment, and to say the least, it’s awkward. The basic plan is that a small number of Negro—which is the polite term at this time in history—officers will report to a Caucasian supervisor, and they are responsible for patrolling the Black section of Atlanta. There are just eight men in this force.  They have no authority to make an arrest, so if someone has to go to jail, they must call for Caucasian police who are considered real police by higher-ups within the city administration.

To say the very least, it’s hard to take.

Mullen’s protagonists here are African-American officers Boggs and Smith, and the problem arises when they witness a crime, the assault of a woman by a Caucasian man in a car. The woman disappears, and no Caucasian cops are interested in hearing what these officers saw that night. The white cops that come in response to the report of a crime demean the Black officers, calling them “boy” and a variety of other horrible slurs.  As the white cops leave the scene, “Boggs was still standing in the street. If his rage had been a physical thing, it would have split the car in two.”

Eventually one of the white cops, a man named Dunlow, goes too far in the eyes of his rookie partner, Rakestraw, and the latter finds himself in a tenuous, secret alliance with Boggs.

Light banter breaks up tension in places, but no mistake, this is a brutal story. If it wasn’t harsh, it wouldn’t be the truth. This is one of the rare instances when the frequent use of the N word and other racist, vulgar language is actually historically necessary; you’ve been forewarned. Though Darktown is a useful history lesson, its greater value comes from causing readers to think more deeply about the role police play in western society.

A question I found myself considering, and not for the first time, is how much good Black cops can do even today to combat racism and other ugly biases by the department that employs them. Clearly cop violence toward people of color remains ever present.  If this book had been published ten years ago, I would have been concerned that in focusing on past racism, the story might have left us with the impression that racism was a problem only in the past, as if all that mess is over now.

But in 2016, we all know otherwise.

I hope you’ll read this painful but well crafted novel, and reflect some about how the dynamics of power have developed and why. Will a more diverse police presence be the key to equity for those that are so frequently crushed beneath the boot heel of what passes for a justice system in the United States, or is meaningful police reform impossible as long as cops are employed primarily to protect the property of the rich?  Would ordinary people be better off if we can, in the words of the old folk song, “…raze the prisons to the ground”?

This book becomes available to the public September 6, 2016. Highly recommended.

A Killer’s Guide to Good Works, by Shelley Costa*****

akillersguidetogoodShelley Costa is a writer to remember. Her dazzlingly dark humor and her ability to spin a tight original story that builds irresistibly caught my eye with her first Val Cameron mystery, Practical Sins for Cold Climates. I began checking in with Henery Press regularly when I logged onto Net Galley, and my stalking paid off big time. Thanks go to Henery and also to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review.

In this second Val Cameron mystery, our protagonist is back in the big city where she belongs. She is looking forward to lunch with her best friend Adrian, who promises to show her something rare and wonderful, but when she reaches Adrian’s office, her friend has been murdered and the artifact is gone. Val’s loss is our gain, as Costa unfurls another outstanding mystery. This title is available to the public September 20, 2016.

Adrian had been looking forward to having her brother visit, and she had wanted Val to meet him. The brother, a monk on vacation from his usual life in an abbey, is the other primary character in this story. Val had already let Adrian know that she didn’t care for religion, for churches, for clergy…and she was absolutely not, positively not going to meet Adrian’s brother. No, no, and no.

That’s not how it works out.

Costa is a smart writer and she never wastes a word. The humor here is undoubtedly dark for the cozy mystery set, and so the reviews that are written by the cozy folk don’t reflect her writing ability. Those that want a house pet or caterer to solve a mystery will be disappointed every time they read Costa.  To my way of thinking, that’s more a matter of the wrong target audience than a reflection on Costa, who is razor sharp and wickedly hilarious.

Highly recommended.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood****

Happy release day! August 9 is a momentous day in the publishing world, with lots of new titles becoming available to the public. Don’t miss out!

Seattle Book Mama

alltheuglyandwonAnd you thought Fifty Shades of Gray was controversial.  Just remember that you heard it here first: if this novel has legs and gets around, it’s going to create a lot of noise.  I could almost smell the book-burning bonfires as I read the last half. And lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

Wavy grows up in the North American heartland, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When you consider it for a moment, that’s obviously the place for a meth lab to be. No sophisticated, well funded cops will sniff around and shut down your operation; there’s plenty of cheap land for the various vehicles and outbuildings such a business might require.

It’s not as if guests are welcome to drop in.

Guests don’t drop in, in fact…

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The Beauty of the End, by Debbie Howells***

thebeautyoftheendI rate this novel 2.5 stars and round it upward.  Thank you to Kensington Books and Net Galley for allowing me to read this book free and in advance in exchange for an honest review.  Here it is.

Howells is a word smith, and I suspect that if she had adopted a simpler format, she might have had a more appealing result. In places her settings are resonant and well turned.  It’s character development and a badly disjointed plot that burden this story and prevent it from taking off.

This story is full of dead babies, but neither the horror nor the pathos ordinarily associated with such a thing can save it. It merely makes the misery worse.

Here are the broad contours. Noah Calaway is a former attorney living in the English countryside. His inheritance has provided him enough to get by on and he spends his time writing, or more often, not writing. His secret sorrow is the one that got away. When he learns that April, the woman he loved and that left him just before their wedding is lying in a coma and suspected of committing a terrible murder, he signs on to defend her and clear her name.

Most of the narrative is Noah’s, but from time to time another narrative, one distinguished by being written in italics, interrupts the flow, and we have no idea what the young woman speaking there has to do with any of Noah’s story. Ella is troubled and is seeing a psychologist, but the author goes to such pains to keep her link to Noah’s story a mystery that we might as well be reading two separate stories for most of the book.  Instead of wanting to know what the connection was, I found myself annoyed whenever Ella popped in to prevent me from getting to the end of Noah’s story.

Howells takes such pains to keep us in the dark that she doesn’t develop her characters. We see a few shattered glimpses of what may have motivated April, who has no role to play in the present, but both Noah and Ella remain two dimensional, their personalities left static by withholding too much information.  The result is that after some earnest effort to engage with the text, since that’s what I do, I eventually found I didn’t care what the connection between them was. I guessed it eventually, but there was none of the joy of discovery that usually accompanies that sort of revelation.

Staggered narratives are very trendy, and in the right hands they still can be magical. But here, it just doesn’t take. I was frustrated and wanted to abandon the novel, which seemed as if it might never end, but I forced myself to finish reading it because I had an obligation to the publisher.

That doesn’t have to happen to you.

Hot Flashes, by Barbara Raskin***

hotflashes“Hot flashes are rolls of unreasonable, unseasonable heat that create a rush—a flush that floods the face from neck to hairline. A hot flash is itchy, prickly and provocative—like a sudden spike of fever that produces a mean and cranky irritability.”

Raskin’s novel about a group of middle-aged women that come together to mourn and bury a dear friend was a New York Times bestseller many years ago, hailed as a “landmark women’s novel” at the time it was first released. I was invited to read and review it by Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley.  And on the one hand, I can see why it was considered ground-breaking in 1987, but on the other hand, some novels age more gracefully than others, and this one doesn’t. My three star rating applies to a niche audience of middle class Caucasian feminist women from the Boomer generation, but even for us, some of what is found here rings insensitive and tone deaf, because the world has moved on, but Rankin’s novel remains the same.

Suki has died, and her friends come to her home, because she has nobody else apart from her teenage son, David. Suki had a breakdown around the time Max divorced her;  Ivy League educated Caucasian women raised in the US during the 1950s grew up with the societal expectation that their own talents were secondary to those of their husbands, and so they placed their own careers—Suki and all of her friends are writers—on a back burner in order to be good wives, mothers, and hostesses. The whining, entitled tone with which the book starts out, giving an overview of a life lived with Caribbean vacations, expensive wardrobes, endless tennis matches and fancy parties is going to set a lot of readers’ teeth on edge. It did mine, and I would not have finished reading it if I didn’t have an obligation to the publisher.

But underneath it all, there’s a second reality, and that’s what perhaps makes this book worth bringing back: these women, the ones that “kept our slave names” once they are divorced so that the ex-husband can marry a pretty, young trophy bride and set his first wife out to pasture, often find themselves with no job skills, their diplomas from Radcliffe and Yale obsolete after sitting in a drawer for thirty years or so, and so they find themselves with no income. Many of them had become isolated during their years of housewifery, staying inside the home to keep it tidy and welcoming whenever they were not driving a carpool of children or running household errands; there is something diminishing in telling an intelligent woman that the right thing to do is to iron sheets and shut up. So there is a Virginia Woolf-ish quality to some of this novel, and it is there that it finds some redemption.

That said, you need to brace yourself for the rest. These women consider themselves progressive if not radical, having prided themselves on their dedication to fighting the US war against Vietnam, and some dabbled momentarily, it seems, in the Civil Rights movement also. They have one African-American friend that appears after the 80% mark to become the token Black buddy, and she gets to deliver a few very wise lines before fading back into the distance. One of the Caucasian women makes a remark about Suki having been “colorblind”, and this made me want to punch a wall. But readers born later than 1970 should understand that white supremacy as an underlying assumption of daily life was eerily prevalent in Caucasian households during the period when these women were young; at that time, pretending that all races were alike was well-intended though frustratingly ignorant.

Another aspect of the text that seems hugely off base today but that was common to most progressive literature of the 1980s is that every single person in this supposedly forward-looking atmosphere is straight. Don’t even think about gender identity issues; back then there was still a hugely prevalent assumption that women loved only men and men loved only women, and everyone was comfortable with the sex organs with which they were born.

And so a formerly progressive book now sounds really off kilter in many, many places.

For those that have been deeply immersed in women’s literature from all eras, including the eras of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf, this book might be a worthwhile addition to your collection. But as general fiction, I cannot give it a solid recommendation.

This book will be released digitally August 9, 2016.

Only the Road/Solo el Camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry, by Margaret Randall, editor****

Margaret Randall is an old-school feminist and socialist, and I recognized her name when this volume of Cuban poetry became available. Thank you to the author, Duke University, and Net Galley for permitting me to access the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

onlytheroadMany people don’t know much about Cuba, the tiny island nation a mere 90 miles from the coast of Florida. The American media has distorted the Cuban Revolution for as long as I can remember. Before the revolution, which took place in 1959, Havana was like Bangkok, a place where little girls prostitute themselves so they won’t starve to death, where wealthy visitors can experience every pleasure, innocent or corrupt, known to humanity but where most citizens have little chance of even having their basic human needs met. Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union (USSR) helped the Cuban people defend themselves from US efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government, but the alliance also led to a period of Stalinist repression that darkened artists’ worlds for a period of time. Randall discusses all of this in her introduction. Following the period Cubans call the Rectification Period (reference mine), Stalinist practices were peeled away, and more freedom of expression created a more hospitable environment for artists, in addition to strengthening the revolution itself. In Cuba art is not privately sold as a general rule, and artists receive a salary for what they do, paid by the Cuban people.

Randall’s collection of poetry is encyclopedic, including a vast stylistic range representative of a range of generations, some little-known voices as well as a number of LGBTQ writers. Randall translates each poem and gives a comprehensive biographical note for each poet. If anything, I might have preferred a slightly more stripped down version, but what Randall has done is very scholarly she documents well.

Since this reviewer does not speak Spanish, I cannot evaluate the translations personally, but given that Randall’s background I would be astonished if it were not rock solid.

That said, I also found myself lamenting my lack of Spanish, because I know that the flow of sound is an important part of poetry, and even the best translator can’t rectify this. Those that speak Spanish will likely get more from the collection; both Spanish and English versions are included.

Those that love poetry and are interested in seeing the work of Cubans, and especially those that also speak Spanish, should get this excellent collection. It becomes available to the public October 14, 2016.