It’s a rare book that I find abrasive right out of the gate, especially since there are no controversial social messages here, just a mystery that I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thanks go to Crown Publishing and Net Galley for the review copy, which I received free and early in 2017. I should have written a review long ago, of course, but I found it hard to reconcile my antipathy for this story—a debut, no less—with the nearly unanimous adulation expressed by other reviewers. I am still a bit bewildered, but there it is.
This is a book that tries too hard. There are too many cutesy nicknames, and the structure of the plot feels gimmicky and formulaic, as well as mighty unlikely. Of course, most mysteries have aspects that are unlikely because most real-life murders and other mysterious doings have logical, obvious, dull explanations. We agree to pretend the murder mystery is plausible in exchange for being entertained. The problem is that I wasn’t, and so I couldn’t.
Two other factors that contributed to my grumpiness were the overwhelmingly male list of characters, and the cultural collision between British fiction and my brain. I’ve read and enjoyed some British fiction; if not, I wouldn’t have requested this galley. But here the culture and jargon are thick on the ground, and the inner narrative feels endless.
I no longer have to be concerned that I will crush this author’s hopes and dreams; Tudor’s debut is a huge success both in terms of sales and the corresponding enthusiasm of its readership. This author has gone on to publish more books, and I have had the good sense not to request those this time. Ultimately this came down to taste more than anything else, but I have to call ‘em as I see them, and I found nothing to love, apart from a compelling jacket and an attention-getting title.
By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.
The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.
Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.
Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.
Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.
Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:
For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.
My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story. And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.
Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.
My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the
review copy. This work of fiction
started out like gangbusters and left me feeling confused in the end. What the
heck is the author’s purpose here?
The premise is that Pepper, the child of hugely wealthy,
influential parents, has left home to live an adult life without her mother’s
interference. She meets a man from a working class background and they fall in
love; they purchase an apartment at the prestigious Chelmsford Arms, and the
ancient chairman invites her to join the building’s board of directors. She
likes Pepper’s pedigree, and the board is comprised entirely of elderly people,
so it’s good to have some fresh perspective. Or so the old lady thinks.
At the outset, I think this will be a satirical poke at the
rich, and as the story unfolds it is on its way to being just that. We see the
building through Pepper’s eyes, and we see it through the eyes of the door men
that work there. The only people of color here are employees, and Pepper’s
effort to create a more diverse community meet a wall of resistance. And Pepper’s
fiancé, whom her parents distrust, turns out to be untrustworthy. There are several places that make me laugh
out loud, and I have high hopes.
But as we move on, the message becomes muddy and the pace
slows considerably. Pepper’s fiancé has his own concerns, and we see things
through his perspective—all points of view are told in the third person omniscient.
Part of the time he seems to be exactly the dirt bag that Pepper’s parents say
that he is, but part of the time he is just a loving, misunderstood guy. Ultimately,
after a plot that goes all over the place with no apparent destination, it is
he that proves to be the most dreadful racist of all of them.
When the board meets, Pepper makes the acquaintance of two
other couples, both of them elderly, and both apparently in content, long-term
marriages, and she believes they will be her role models, since her own parents
are divorced. However, neither couple is happy, and we see their relationships
deteriorate. Indeed, the healthiest relationship she sees is between two of the
doormen, who are closeted at first, but later come out.
None of these characters is developed much, but the one that
seems least credible to me is Sergei, who does a complete turnabout in his
willingness to come out of the closet and be in a public relationship with
Caleb. We don’t see any kind of struggle on his part and the change is abrupt.
Given the importance that Vatner attaches to these two men, I would have
thought we would see much more of Sergei’s perspective leading up to the
The worst part for me is that in the end, all of the
characters seem much more equal to one another, the filthy rich having their
share of misery and the working class being content. Give me a damn break.
Despite this rant, it’s clear that Vatner has talent. There
are several passages that make me sit up and take notice. The challenge he
faces is in creating a bigger picture with better developed characters, and
better pacing. Since this is his debut, he has plenty of time to grow, and I
look forward to seeing what he publishes in the years to come.
I am late to the party, but it’s still going strong. Stuart
Turton’s masterful debut generated so much talk that I couldn’t not read this
book, and it lives up to the buzz. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks
Aiden wakes up stranded in the woods, and he has no idea who
he is. Strangers rescue him and he’s taken to an aging English manor house,
where a party is taking place. Everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t know any
of them, and in time he realizes that he is living inside the body of another
person at the scene of a murder. Every time he wakes up, he is in the body of a
new host at the same party in the same
house, often someone he has already seen from the outside while he inhabits a
different body; he lives through the same day he has just experienced, but
through a different perspective. He will never be permitted to leave the manor or
be restored to his own body until he is able to solve the mystery; he is in a
competition with others in more or less the same position. At the outset, he is inside Jonathan Derby,
and everyone obsequiously attends to his needs. He is injured. He needs rest.
This story has a house-that-Jack-built quality, because each time Aiden wakes up, he can recall everything he learned when he was inside someone else. This advantage is offset by the fact that each host is more difficult to occupy, with the personality of the host warring for control over the body that he shares with them. Several curves—including more murders—are added to the mix. The reader has to decide which events are related to the murder, and which are extraneous; on top of that, some of the characters Aiden encounters are liars.
When I began reading I tried to keep track of the
information, but soon it became obvious that I would need a flow chart to stand
even a small chance of solving this thing, so I gave up and rode along,
enjoying the progress of the story, but clueless as to how it would work out.
Even so, it is a complex enough tale that I learned quickly not to read it
after I took my sleeping pill.
Not only is it cleverly conceived and well paced, but there
is character development, made possible with Anna’s back story and the
humanizing of the Plague Doctor. I can only tip my hat in awe.
So Turton has a monstrously successful debut novel, but the
pressure is on in terms of what he writes next. Can his second effort live up
to the reputation he has created for himself? Whatever he writes, I want to
I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley
and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.
Winslow’s debut is set in 1941 in North Carolina. Our
protagonists are Azalea Knot, an alcoholic school teacher in an
African-American community, a woman shunned by her neighbors and kinfolk for
her unconventional behavior and obnoxious personality. Otis Lee has family
troubles of his own, but seeks redemption by helping Knot, who has two babies
out of wedlock at a time when you really could not do that without terrible
social repercussions. Otis is a helpful sort, and ultimately, the story becomes
one about the family we choose.
I abandoned and restarted this book three times, and in the
end, I never did engage with it much. I read the first thirty percent, the last
twenty-five percent, and skimmed the middle. The writing style didn’t speak to
me, and I couldn’t understand why Otis would care about Knot. But to be fair,
Southern fiction has been a competitive genre for several years, and I was
reading books by Attica Locke and Jesmyn Ward at the same time I read this.
I have a hunch Winslow is just warming up. He’ll be one to
watch in the future.
I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years
ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is
co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell. Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she
has created a literary monster.
My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review
copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.
Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her
real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build
Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin
class and turn her into a Somebody? Just
think how impressed the other moms will be!
But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has
reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made
me guffaw out loud in places.
The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s
dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves
along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to
backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward
this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone
knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this
character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person
narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s
The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a
bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride
stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step,
folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.
Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the
first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.
If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s
for sale now.
I requested and received a galley for this debut novel based
on a review I read on another blog. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the
DRC. This book is for sale now.
The concept is terrific, and it is what caught my attention.
A Manhattan couple is unable to get pregnant, and they sign up with an agency
to use a surrogate. All the details are supposed to be confidential, but the
infertile mother has requested a bio-mom of an ethnicity that is pretty rare,
even in New York City; using this fact and some skillful research, she finds
out who the woman is…and she starts following her around. An unforeseeable
event forces them to meet; a friendship develops. Soon we learn that the
pregnant surrogate knows perfectly well who this woman is.
The execution didn’t work as well for me. There’s a lot of
information about infertility, surrogacy choices and blah blah blah that slows
the pace significantly. The book is billed as a thriller, and if I were locked
into the genre, I’d have called this a two star novel, because in places, it
just drags. The issues between the expectant couple create more drag. I’d like
to see tighter writing with more urgency. I guessed the ending when I was ten
percent of the way into it.
At the same time, the writer clearly has potential, and
since my own children are grown, I am most likely outside of the target
demographic for this novel.
Unless the reader is also dealing with infertility and
surrogacy issues, I recommend obtaining this book free or on the cheap if you
go there. At the same time, I wish this author well; she has promise and is a
writer to watch.
I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and
Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle
kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school
graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only
letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he
finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe
she’s still there.
His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.
On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.
The despair. The despair the
despairthedespairthedespair. The challenge
in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for
the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated
not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also
that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind
would read this thing cover to cover?
Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not
terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the
remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was
that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.
If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of
yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it. I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you
will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a
mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.
The buzz around this mystery started early, and it started
loud. If it hadn’t I am not sure I’d have asked to read it. When I saw the
premise—the use of a hyperbaric oxygen tank to murder an autistic child—I thought
wow, this author is reaching. But a quick web crawl taught me that though
controversial, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is actually used to treat autism. The
treatment is controversial but the basis of the story is a sound one, so I have
learned something already, and now that I’ve read it, I am glad I didn’t let it
pass me by. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sarah Crichton Books for the review
copy. Miracle Creek will be available
to the public April 16, 2019.
The HBOT therapy device is owned by Pak and Young Yoo. A lot of hard work and financial struggle
went into procuring this device; there were years when they had to live apart,
with Young and their daughter Mary in Baltimore, Young working round the clock
for room, board, and her daughter’s private school tuition while Pak worked two
jobs in Korea, squirreling away resources. Now the unthinkable has occurred—the
chamber has gone up in flames with patients inside it. Two people are dead and
others are horribly injured, and there’s an intensive investigation that leads
to an arrest. Elizabeth, a single mother, is charged with starting the fire in
order to murder her little boy and free herself from the difficult caregiver
role. On the surface, the facts are damning indeed, but what the cops don’t
know, at least in the beginning, is that every single person that was there
that day is lying about it.
Elizabeth, Kitt, and Teresa are mothers of autistic
children, digging deep and running up their credit cards hoping for miraculous
transformations. The seventh patient is Matt, whose wife has pressured him into
trying this treatment to raise his sperm count. The other characters in this
story are the Yoo family that own and operate the chamber, and the legal teams
assembled for the trial.
Most legal thrillers and courtroom mysteries hinge heavily
upon what happens in the courtroom. In contrast, although what plays out in
court is not unimportant, the real meat of this story has to do with the
actions, thoughts, and memories of the townspeople that are involved, primarily
when court is not in session. Although our point of view is the third person
omniscient, specific critical details are revealed to us in stages, and what we
learn at the end differs greatly from the conclusions most of us will have
drawn at the outset, when we had less information.
Why do people lie, and in particular, why would anyone lie
to the authorities investigating a deadly disaster like this one? Make a list
of the possibilities, and as you read, you’ll see them all, a veritable potpourri
of bald-faced lies and critical omissions of facts. At the end of it, we find
just one (lying) person that has integrity and pure motives, and everyone else
has crossed a line, not only legally but ethically. And although there’s just
one character here that I’d describe as dynamic, the others are developed to an
extent as their layers of rationalization, anger, fear, resentment, and greed
are revealed to us.
This is an explosive debut, and Angie Kim is a force to be
reckoned with. You want to read this book, and happily, you won’t have to wait
long. Highly recommended.