The Line That Held Us, by David Joy****

thelinethatheldusDarl Moody and Calvin Hooper have been best friends forever, and so when Darl has the worst kind of accident, he knows who to turn to. You know what they say real friends will help you bury. The body in question is Carol Brewer; Darl was hunting out of season, and when he glimpsed something moving through the woods he thought it was a wild pig. Turned out he was wrong; turned out to be Carol, poaching ginseng on Coon Coward’s land. But you can’t bring the dead back to life, and you sure can’t call the cops for something like this. Carol is Dwayne’s brother, after all. Dwayne is a huge man, half- crazy and rattlesnake mean. There are no bygones in Dwayne Brewer’s world. There is only revenge.

My thanks go to G.P. Putnam and Net Galley for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

“I’d be lucky if all he did was come after me,” Darl said, “But knowing him, knowing everything he’s done, you and me both know it wouldn’t end there. I bet he’d come after my mama and my little sister and my niece and nephews and anybody else he could get his hands on. That son of a bitch is crazy enough to dig up my daddy’s bones just to set him on fire.”

“[Calvin tells him] “You’re talking crazy, Darl.

“Am I?”

So Carol disappears…for awhile. But Dwayne won’t be satisfied till he knows what has happened to his brother, who is all the family he has left. Once he finds out, of course all hell breaks loose.
Joy is a champion at building visceral characters and using setting to develop them further. I know of no living writer better at describing hard core rural poverty to rival anything the Third World can offer:

“The house had been built a room at a time from scrap wood salvaged and stolen. Nothing here was permanent and as each addition rotted away, a new one was hammered together from plywood and bent nails off another side so that slowly through the decades, the five-room shanty shifted around the property like a droplet of water following the path of least resistance. Red Brewer was no carpenter. Chicken coops were built better. So were doghouses. But this place had been the roof over their heads and had kept the rain off the Brewer clan’s backs all Dwayne’s miserable life.”

The murderous rage of Dwayne Brewer contrasts with the tender, poignant love that exists between Calvin and his girlfriend Angie, who has just learned she is pregnant. Calvin understands throughout all of this that he has a lot to lose, and this makes the conflict between Dwayne and Calvin a more unequal one.

I would have liked to see Angie better developed, and I blanched a bit at the line where she thinks that the only important thing is what’s growing in her uterus. But the story isn’t really about Angie, and I have seen Joy develop a strong female character in one of his earlier books. I hope to see more of that in his future work.

Meanwhile, the passage where Dwayne visits Coon Coward—some four or five pages long—just about knocks me over. This is what great writing looks like.

I struggled a bit with the ending, and this is where the fifth star comes off. The first 96 percent of this tale is flat-out brilliant, but I feel as if Joy pulls the ending a bit, and I can’t see why. None of the rest of the book points us toward this conclusion.

Last, the reader should know that there is a great deal of truly grisly material here. We have a torture scene; we have numerous encounters with a decaying corpse. If you are a person that does most of your reading during mealtime, this might not be the best choice.

For those that love excellent literary fiction or Southern fiction, this story is recommended. It will be released August 14, 2018, but you can pre-order it now.

A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume***

I was gob-smacked by this author’s last book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and when I saw she had another book out—one set in Ireland, one of my favorite settings—I immediately requested a DRC. Thank you to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read it free in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

ALineMadeByWalkingHad I no obligation to the publisher, I might be tempted to write a rare one-word review: bleak. Our protagonist is grieving the death of her beloved grandmother, and the dog died too. She’s stuck in a place she can’t get out of mentally, but since she is an artist, she takes her ennui and lets it guide her through art, and the narrative follows a pattern in which each grim thought leads her to a different art theme mentally. The story is told in the first person, and so we follow her miserable wandering thoughts from one grim topic to another, and then at some point each train of thought ends with “Works about [ fill in noun here: beds, rabbits…whatever].”

“The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed.”

Yup.

I continued reading because it seemed to me that her earlier book started out depressing and it took some time to warm up, but then once it took off I was in love with it. I waited for this to happen here. And waited. At the 16% mark, she notes that getting drunk provides her with a “heightened sense of despair” the next day, and my notes my notes say “Fuck me.”

The protagonist tells us of an instance when she follows her very elderly landlady down a set of steps and pretends this is her usual pace also, and my notes say, “What the hell else you gonna do? Tell her to move her butt? Give her a shove to help her along?”

Each time I have one of these magic moments, I know it’s time to read something else for a while and come back to this story with fresh eyes. This is why it took me so long to read and review. Had I not bailed at 68% and peeked at the end for some sign of redemption, it would have gone even more slowly. Our protagonist has family members that want to help, but she is not interested. Instead, we notice dead animals; we notice garbage. We notice mold and other ugly things, but we can’t get up and deal with them because we are depressed and going to continue sitting here, lying here, not seeking change and wallowing.

In fairness, the word smithery here is strong in places, and I like the figurative language. However, for me the double-whammy of perpetually depressed prose followed, every now and then, by reflections about art and art history, a subject that makes my eyes glaze over, is a powerful repellent, and I am never able to engage; perhaps by now, you suspected as much.

So the third star is here because I know there are readers that have a great love of art, and if you are one of them, your experience with this novel may be completely different from mine. I wanted to tell the protagonist to take her meds and shut up, but there may be some truly redemptive aspect of the art discussion that makes the rest of it flow beautifully for art lovers.

For most readers, I can’t recommend this novel, and if you take it up anyway, put the sharps in another room and lock up your pills and firearms. Seriously. But for those with an affinity for art and art history, this book should be considered.

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

Happy release day! This deeply moving story takes awhile to warm up, but once it gets moving, you’re pretty much in it for keeps. Those that love literary fiction will have to look far and wide to find better.

Seattle Book Mama

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is…

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And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman****

 “When a star fades, it takes a long time for us to realize, as long as it takes for the last of its light to reach Earth…When a brain fades it takes a long time for the body to realize.”

andeverymorningthewayhome

Frederik Backman’s new novella provides us with a philosophical yet poignant glimpse of an elderly man trying to hang onto his memories, and the love of those that must say goodbye to him inch by inch. I received my DRC from Net Galley and Random House Alibi in exchange for this honest review.  This novella will be published November 1, 2016.

They say that each generation corrects for the one before it, rendering us more like our grandparents sometimes than our parents themselves. So it is with Noah and Grandpa. Grandpa calls his grandson “Noahnoah”, because he likes his grandson’s name twice as much as anyone else’s. Sometimes Noah’s father Ted comes to see Grandpa, and when he mentions Noah, Grandpa doesn’t know who that is. Sometimes Grandpa knows everyone; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he mistakes one of them for the other.

But Grandpa—who has no other name in this book, having taken on the generic persona that Western society tends to give us as we grow very old—shares a special bond with his grandson, and it is his grandson that comes to him, still, with questions about life and the universe.

Grandma is no longer living, but theirs was a happy marriage despite their dispute about God and the afterlife.  Noah says to his grandfather, “’Grandma believed in God, but you don’t. Do you still get to go to Heaven if you die?’”

Grandpa tells him, “’Only if I’m wrong.’”

The years pass. As usual, Grandpa wants to know about school, but he has forgotten that Noahnoah isn’t a student anymore; he’s become the teacher. On the other hand, school is better than ever now. And so it goes.

This story is brief, and I read it in just a couple of sittings. Despite the cover art, it isn’t necessarily a book for children.  It’s a wonderful story in that it shows us a gentle way of dealing with aging—which can be so hard to do, particularly if Alzheimer’s makes the elderly sufferer angry with no reason—and it also helps us learn to let go. For some, this might be a good grief story. For others that had to let go without being able to be with the beloved family member much in their final years, it might be painful, because the grandson and father both spend time with this man as he declines.

I can see ways in which this story might help a YA reader with not only a strong literacy level, but the ability to think abstractly, cope with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia in an elderly relative that means a lot to them, but I would advise the parent or guardian to read it first, and then decide. There’s no sex, no profanity; just pleasure, love, joy, and aching sorrow.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom *****

thefivepeopleyoumeetThis book was my grief book. That may sound bad, yet you’ll note that I gave it five stars. I had unfinished business left buried deep down, while I lived an extremely busy life and dealt with other things. This book was my resolution.

My mother died while my husband was near death, and while sitting by his bedside and urgently questioning doctors and searching his medical files to see what, if anything, they weren’t telling me, my mother, 200 miles south and 80 years old, was in intensive care. She had to be a side issue. I was glad my sisters were with her when she died, but because I was so intensively involved in my husband’s care and his ultimate recovery and my own little family at home, all I had time to do for my mother was to phone her briefly to say I loved her, and have quick conversations with my sisters regarding critical decisions that had to be made.

A year and several months later, a friend and administrator at the middle school where I taught recommended this book to the whole staff, and when she asked who would like to borrow it, my hand shot up.

I should point out here that I am an Atheist. But many times, we read fiction and we buy into a premise that we would not adopt in ordinary life. So it is with Albom’s heaven, and its five greeters. And on the last page, to my absolute astonishment, I burst into tears and grieved for my mother. I had thought that I was finished grieving; after all, she was quite elderly, and had been in poor health for quite awhile; her death was hardly unexpected. But I was very much mistaken. Our mother is our mother, and it’s likely to pack a punch when she goes.

I still don’t believe in an afterlife; I put my faith in humans, and so far it’s worked out well for me. It makes sense to base our beliefs on the material world, and to realize that the bad things that do happen are due to material conditions rather than some almighty hand from who-knows-where deciding to zap us. When people tell me that everything happens for a reason, I generally don’t say anything, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Sometimes bad things just happen. Period.

But once in awhile, when a loss is powerful and visceral, it can take the edge off of the sorrow or in the case of young people who die suddenly, the stark horror, if we pretend for a little while that we will someday meet again. It’s only natural to wish for such a thing.

You will notice there’s no place on this page wherein I thank the publishers and some other source for a free galley. There wasn’t one. A friend figured out that I should read this book, and she loaned it to me. It was the right book at the right time. If you have unfinished business, or even just like a good three-hanky cry, this might be a gentle way for you to get there.


This may not be “the” grief book for everyone, but it deserves strong consideration. It is an enormous consolation for some of us when there has been too much loss at one time, and we have had to be a little too strong.