“Ever since Pa hit him in the head with the two-by-four, Earl had lived with blinders.”
If you can read that opening line and not be curious about what comes after it, check your pulse, because there’s a good chance you are already dead. As for me, I was drawn to it immediately, and I thank Net Galley and Matador Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
When we meet Earl, the year is 1921 (although occasionally, we skip forward to 1970.) Earl is in the courthouse watching his father’s trial:
‘I di’nt fornicate with no donkey. Es ist eine dirty lie!’ From the back of the darkly paneled room, he feels his pa’s rage like a ground tremor rippling its way through the crowd the crowd to the spot where he sits, surrounded by family. Well, except for Rose. She’s up front in a special seat…
‘And what about the other charge, Mr. Hahn? Is it true your daughter, Rose, is carrying your child?’
Boom. So right in the first chapter, you can plainly see that if you are someone that needs to know about triggers before reading a novel, this may not be your book. And that’s a shame, because the quality of the writing is phenomenal, from the riveting opening line, all the way to the last.
Earl’s pa does, in fact, go to jail; even if he wasn’t guilty as sin (and of it,) which he clearly is, everyone in town hates him with an abiding passion, most of all his wife and ten children.
“There wasn’t a man within a hundred miles of Sampson County who would stand up for Reinhardt Hahn.”
It is unusual for me to include so many quotes in a review, but as you can see, the writing is so clear, strong, and resonant that I cannot do it justice any other way.
As the title and first line suggest, the story is Earl’s, and we follow him through the remainder of his childhood and adolescence. At its end, I am thunderstruck when I read the author’s note explaining that the whole story is based on the truth. Earl was her grandmother’s brother; Reinhardt Hahn, or “Pa,” was her great-grandfather.
Friends, this is easily one of the best novels to come out of 2022, and I am convinced that the only reason it isn’t parked on the New York Times bestseller list is because it was self-published, and therefore it didn’t receive the kind of publicity that a major publisher could have provided.
I won’t say more; to do that, I’d have to fish out some more quotes, and they are even better when read in context. Highly recommended; D.S. Getson is an author to watch.
This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.
The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.
And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.
The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.
The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.
But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.” And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”
But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.
For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.
There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.
So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.
Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.
A few years ago I read and reviewed my first book in Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series, and I became immediately addicted. Since then I’ve never missed an installment, and after the 17th in the series, A Book of Bones, I more or less stalked the internet to find out when I could find the next in the series. It doesn’t disappoint. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for this, the 18th in the series. It’s for sale now.
Here, Connolly steps away from the crossed-genre, pants-on-fire entries he’s written recently to scribe a prequel. A couple of new readers have inquired whether to read this before all of the other Charlie Parker books, or treat it as the 18th. The fact is, you can take it in either direction. On the one hand, I have reached back and read a couple of the first in the series and whereas they are perfectly respectable detective novels, they don’t hold a candle to those he’s written more recently. Once I had read the 14th, which is where I began, I was spoiled and a wee bit disappointed by the earliest books in the series. So whereas it makes sense to start reading with this prequel, I fear some readers will notice a dip in quality if they read this masterful literary mystery Connolly has just published, and then dive into his earliest Charlie Parker books. Again, they aren’t badly written. But they aren’t brilliant, and the most recent five in the series, including this prequel, are. So take that and do as you like with it.
Parker is reeling, as the book unfolds, from the vicious murders of his wife and daughter by a killer that intended to slay him, but found them instead. He is convinced that their murderer is a serial killer, and so he has taken a leave of absence from the police force back home and is touring the country by car, chasing down every murder anywhere that bears a resemblance to theirs. He is a dangerous man, because he has no sense of self-preservation. He sees himself as a man that has lost everything, and such men will take risks that more happily situated investigators would consider unthinkable. He also has a source none of the others can access: his wife, his daughter appear to him now and then, and they tell him things that relate to the case at hand, things that nobody else knows.
Those familiar with the series know that Connolly’s most recent Parker books have veered more in the direction of horror, and they include a number of supernatural events that his earlier work does not. Here he steps away from it, and once again his only information from the great beyond is what the spirits of his loved ones share. His adversaries are purely mortal ones. And as to which is better, it’s hard for me to say. His last book prior to this one is a monster, and it includes a tremendous amount of historical research that I find appealing, along with some hugely original, sinister characters that surely must come straight from the bowels of hell. It’s amazing work.
But there’s something to be said for books like this one, too. Most of Connolly’s work is so edgy and so full of violence that I have had to take it in small bites, lest it affect my overall mood. I didn’t have to do that here. I can crawl under a quilt and read for hours without needing to come up for air. I always make sure I read something less malign for a few minutes before turning out the light, but at the same time, this is a much more comfortable read.
Which is not to say that it’s tame. It isn’t. Someone has murdered Black girls in this tiny Arkansas burg, and Parker pulls into town right on the heels of the most recent one. Right away, it becomes obvious that there’s shifty business going on. The town is miserably depressed economically, and the local robber barons, the Cade family, have a deal in the works to bring a large manufacturer to town. The Cades stand to make a great deal of money, and the locals, poverty-stricken and jobless or badly underemployed, are convinced that better times are just around the corner.
And so it seems that nearly everyone has a stake in keeping the waters calm. The dead girls had to go and get themselves murdered, just when the deal’s about to go through? How inconsiderate. Yes, their killer should be found and brought to justice; but that can wait until the big dogs have signed on the dotted line. Prosperity is just around the corner. A scandal might ruin everything, and Parker refuses to cooperate, insisting on justice for the murdered children. The nerve of him.
Connolly’s signature elements—the malign, solipsistic, endlessly greedy local bourgeoisie; the poignance of Parker’s grief and his communication with his dead family; and the fast paced, complex plot with a zillion characters and some snappy banter are all here in spades. As usual, his writing style is literary, and so this may not be the best choice for someone whose mother tongue is not English.
As always, highly recommended. This is indisputably one of the year’s best. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for the 19th Parker book, because nobody else writes like this.
When it comes down to it, some people just have it coming to them.
Amy Engel is the author of The Roanoke Girls, a shocking thriller that proves she is a force to be reckoned with. The Familiar Dark is even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Dutton for the review copy. It’s for sale now, and you should get a copy to help chase away your cabin fever.
Eve Taggart was raised poorer than poor in a ripped up trailer in Barren Springs, Missouri; it’s “a slippery part of the world. People dart in and out like minnows in a shadowy pool…Folks here are hard to pin down, even harder to catch…It’s a place for people who don’t want to be found.” Her mother is an addict with a mercurial temper, and so when Eve gives birth to Junie, she resolves to parent differently from her mama, and to never take Junie to visit her. The more space there is between her present and her past, the better off Junie will be.
But when Junie and her best friend, Izzy are found in a public park with their 12-year-old throats slit, everything changes. Without Junie to provide for, all of the social conventions that Eve has so carefully nurtured, all of the tentative connections she has made with mainstream members of the community are gone in an instant. Eve’s older brother Cal, a cop, tries to provide a buffer between Eve and the town, between Eve and their mother, and between Eve and the disastrous errors she makes as a result of her grief; none of it does any good. And Cal is sitting on a secret of his own.
I am generally a reader that has between six and twelve books going at any given time, but once I was about a third of the way into this one, I read nothing else. Instead of asking myself which book I’d like to read right now, I knew exactly. The suspense is built numerous ways, by foreshadowing, by the little hints given by others in her tiny town, but there’s more to it than that. Part of it is Engel’s unusually vivid word smithery and the frank, unsentimental dialogue that moves it forward. But the meatiest part of this story is in the pathological family triangle that—resist it though she has—forms most of Eve’s world. The further we get into the story, the more layers are peeled away and the more we learn about Eve and mama, mama and Cal, and Eve and Cal. We learn some secrets about Junie that poor Eve didn’t know, but these are almost secondary as they reveal more about the three adults. It is mesmerizing.
Eve thinks she has nothing left to live for now that Junie is gone, but Mama, who’s been drawn to the killing like a vulture to roadkill, assures her she is mistaken. What’s left is vengeance. This resonates with Eve. Pulled into a press conference in which she doesn’t want to participate, standing alongside the other bereaved parents, people that are well groomed and whose social skills make them vastly more sympathetic figures to the public than she will ever be, Eve decides to cut to the chase. After the other two plead for possible witnesses to call in tips to the local cops,
“I pointed out at the cameras, stabbing my finger into the air…’I’m going to find you, you sick fuck. And I’m going to tear you apart.’
“I thought about all the press conferences I’d seen over the years, parents trotted out for missing kids, killed kids, abused kids. Everyone feels sorry for those parents, those mothers, until they don’t. Until the mothers don’t cry enough or cry too much. Until the mothers are too put-together or not put-together enough. Until the mother are angry. Because that’s the one thing women are never, ever allowed to be. We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”
Does this ring as true to you as it does to me? Sooner or later, the mother always gets the blame. And so now I am still riveted and I am nodding. Uh huh. That’s right, Eve. Tell it!
When a novel is as outstanding as this one is, I almost hate to read the last fifteen or twenty percent, because often as not, that’s where it comes undone. Either the solution doesn’t hold water, or a hard cold tale of murder and revenge takes on a sudden sentimentality that doesn’t match the rest of the book; in these I sometimes picture editors and publicists urging the author to provide a feel-good ending, and the author ultimately bending. As I progress, I have figured out what the poignantly sweet ending to this one will likely be, if Engel goes in that direction.
But she doesn’t.
Instead, this story is one of badass female bonding gone dark, dark, and darker. Oh hey. The title.
People talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I had a pair of imaginary bill collectors, so no matter which way I turned, there was somebody to remind me I needed money. That’s how I ended up on a train at four o’clock in the morning with my nephew and a hundred pounds of weed.
Bryn Greenwood met acclaim with All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which
I also read and reviewed, and I liked it a lot, but The Reckless Oath We Made is special, possibly the best novel we’ll
see in 2019. The charm of the narrative voice is just as strong as the last if
not more so, but there’s greater character development. It’s quirky and
groundbreaking, and I will love this story until the day I die. My thanks go to
Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. You can buy it now.
Zhorzha—you can call her Zee—is
in a state of perpetual crisis. Her father is in prison for robbery, and her
mother has fallen apart, become a hoarder, massively obese, and agoraphobic to
boot. At age 12, Zee was forced to leave home, and has been sofa cruising ever
since. Recently she’s been staying with her sister LaReigne, but now LaReigne has
been kidnapped. Zee and her nephew Marcus are stranded with nobody left to call
for a ride; then her stalker steps forward and offers them a lift, and she
It’s the beginning of something
Gentry has been following Zee for
years; he saw her at physical therapy when she was recovering from a serious accident,
and the voices in his head told him that he must be her champion. He doesn’t
harass her, but he is always there. When all hell breaks loose, Gentry
transports her to her mother’s house, but it’s even worse there. She is
humiliated to have him—or anyone—see what kind of squalor her mother has
chosen, but Gentry sees her mother
entirely differently, and since his narrative is peppered alternately with Zee’s
and occasional glimpses of side characters’ perspectives, he tells us:
There, in the inner chamber, reclined upon a throne of red leather that scarce contained her serpentine hugeness, was the dragon Lady Zhorzha called Mother. My lady was blessed with a great mane of fire that ne comb ne blade might tame. Mayhap in the dragon’s youth, she had worn such a mantle, but in her age, her hairs weren grayed.
Fearless, Marcus approached the throne and flung himself upon the lady dragon. For a time, there was kissing and lamenting, for they weren greatly distressed with the fate of my lady’s sister…I would go upon my knee, but the dragon’s hoard was too close upon her.
At one point someone asks Zee
whether she talks like Gentry too, and she replies, “Honestly, I don’t always
understand what he says. I got a C in English in high school, and we never got
to Shakespeare. I wasn’t in the advanced class.”
In fact, the juxtaposition of
Gentry’s old world speech and Zee’s contemporary, frank responses that keep the
story hopping. I laughed out loud several times when we moved from his speech
to hers, for example:
Lady Zhorzha! Art’ou well?
Oh, thank fuck, Gentry. Yes. We’re okay.
But as much as I love Gentry, I
love Zee harder. Zee is utterly believable, and she is unlike any other
character I have read anywhere. She explains, when she’s asked whether she goes
hunting with Gentry, that she wouldn’t know how; she comes from generations of “citified
white trash whose main food-related struggle has to do with “opening dented
cans of off-brand Spam from the food bank.”
Zee is a large woman, and I am so
heartily tired of tiny-firecracker female protagonists that I am cheered tremendously.
She’s nearly six feet tall, and her
uncle says she is “Built like she could hunt bear with a stick.” When she is
leaving the emergency room after a scare involving her mother, a staff member
advises Zee to lose weight herself. One of Gentry’s friends notes that “Honestly,
if she dropped fifty or sixty pounds, she would be pretty hot.”
And the thing I appreciate the
most about this is that her weight not our central problem. It isn’t a problem
at all. Zee is a romantic heroine who is fat, but this is an incidental part of
her character. The problem is the kidnapping, and it’s complicated by all of
the other challenges faced by poor people, challenges that Zee has to face
without much of a tool kit; but between the kidnapping and the point when
LaReigne is found, other life-changing events take place, and the Zhorzha we
see at the story’s end is both wiser and happier than she is at the outset.
Greenwood doesn’t just avoid
stereotypes in recounting Zee’s plight; she knocks the knees from beneath them
and gives us breathing human beings and real world plot points instead, and she
does it without being obvious about it. This is no manifesto; it’s more like a
magnificent modern-day fairytale.
Take Gentry again, for example.
Gentry is autistic, but he is not friendless, and he has some mad skills that take
bullies unawares. Also? Gentry is
adopted. He is white; his adoptive mother is Black. Again, this is incidental
to the story, but readers cannot miss it; there’s a very brief spot that brings
it front and center, and I cheer when I see it.
Those that read my reviews know
that I seldom gush, but this story is perfect in so many ways that I cannot
help myself. By this time next year, I will have read roughly 140 more books,
but I will still remember Zee, and I will still remember Gentry. This is among
the sweetest stories of 2019, a new
I highly recommend this book to
everyone that has the literacy skills and stamina to brave Gentry’s prose. Get
it at full price or discounted, from the library or stolen. You won’t be sorry.
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.
Deb Spera is a force; small wonder that Call Your Daughter Home is the book that bloggers have been talking
about. This barn burner of a debut goes on sale today. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harlequin for
the review copy. It curled its fingers
around me on page one, and by page ten I knew it wouldn’t let me go till it was
done with me. It ended as powerfully as it began.
The year is 1924. Gertrude Pardee lives with her four little
girls in a shack in the swamp in Third World conditions; they are nearly feral.
A storm is coming, but Gert has a job to do. Her brutal ass hat of a husband
lies dead in the swamp, dispatched by the bullet she blasted into his brainpan.
As the storm bears down, she peels off her only dress and strides naked into
the muck to deal with his corpse:
“Alligators feed once a week, and sometimes, if the prey is big enough, they don’t need to eat for almost a year. But I don’t know how long it takes a gator to eat big prey. Daddy never said nothing ‘bout that and I never asked.”
Our other two main characters are Retta, the first free
woman in her family, and Annie, Retta’s employer. Retta cares for Mary, Gert’s
youngest, when Gert is too sick and injured from the broken face she sustained
the last time Alvin beat her; Retta’s husband Odell and her neighbors all tell
her that it’s trouble to bring a white child into Shake Rag. “Don’t get messed
up with that white family. No good can come of it,” and she knows it’s true.
What if the girl dies? But Gert coaxed her into it, telling her it would be the
Christian thing to do, and Retta is moved by this sick, helpless five year old.
She assures everyone it’s just for three days.
Miss Annie is a Caucasian small businesswoman and wife of a
farmer, yet she has trouble of her own; there’s some dark family baggage she’s
been avoiding for a good, long while. As the storm bears down, evidence comes
to light and she is forced to see it. Not one of us would want to be Miss Annie;
Spera weaves a captivating tale, and we see the world from
the disparate points of view of all three women, each of them told alternately
in a first person narrative, and we’re also told how they see each other. The
setting is dead accurate, brooding and thick with dread, and it scaffolds the
development of each character more capably than anything I have read recently.
It is Retta that tells us that as we give birth, we must call
out to our child so that “whichever soul is at the gate will come through.” She
called out to her girl as she birthed her, but now she is gone. In fact, each
of these three women has lost a daughter, and this provides the central theme
of the story.
Feminists and those that love Southern fiction have to get
this book and read it. There’s nothing like it. Do it.
Kya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh. The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.
This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.
Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.
Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’. Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.
Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.
The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.
One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.
I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.
Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.
Darl 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.
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.
Ward is a force to be reckoned with, a literary power house whose books everyone should read. I read the third book in this trilogy, the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing last summer, and then I knew I had to read everything else she had ever written. When I saw that this title, the first in the same trilogy, was being released again and that review copies were available, it seemed like Christmas. Many thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. This book was released again last week and is now for sale.
Twins Christophe and Joshua are graduating from high school, exuberant and full of plans for the future. The sole source of tension, a longstanding one that is integral to their deepest senses of self, is whether their mother, Cille, will put in an appearance. She lives in Atlanta, but she might come home to see them walk. Then again, she might not. They assure each other that really, only Ma-mee matters. Ma-mee is their grandmother, but she is the one that raised them since they were tiny; in fact, their grandmother really wanted them, and their mother really didn’t.
When their graduation present arrives—a used but still nice car for the two of them to share—they snicker to one another and say this means Cille isn’t coming. She’s done with them for sure now, bought her way out of a personal appearance. But Joshua still hopes; Joshua still longs for her.
Their father, Samuel, lives locally, and it is at him their anger is unequivocally directed. Known as the Sandman, he is beneath the contempt of even the most humble local citizens, a meth addict with a mouth full of rotting teeth that will do anything, no matter how humiliating or unprincipled, for even the smallest sum of drug money. Samuel has never pitched in a dime to help Ma-mee raise them, but now that they are adults—at least officially—he has come sniffing around. The twins’ rage toward him is measureless.
The thing that makes this story so visceral, so moving, and so deeply absorbing is the character development and the complexity of the relationships between and among the twins and the two women. Cille’s insensitivity makes me punch my pillow a couple of times. Can she not see how little food they have, despite their proud claim to be fine, just fine? Every gesture, every word is weighted with meaning. No statement, no financial transaction, no arrival or departure is without weight. The blues festival Cille has planned to attend as part of her vacation—to which the twins are of course not invited—and the money carelessly dropped on a rental car could go so much farther to help her elderly mother, who is legally blind now, but instead she leaves Ma-mee to her eighteen year old sons to care for. They both assume they will be able to get jobs once they have high school diplomas; they have no police record, and they’re not too proud to apply at fast food outlets and other retail locations.
The best jobs to be had are on the docks, but not everyone can get one. Their cousin observes, “Everybody and they mama want a job at the pier and the shipyard. Everybody want a job down there can’t get one.”
And so “reality [rolled] over them like an opaque fog…” Joshua, the lighter of the twins, is hired, but Christophe can’t get a job there or anywhere else. And so a new division is born, and a new source of tension develops. Joshua feels guilty, apologetic, and yet as time goes on, as he sweats for long hours in the Mississippi summer sun carrying chicken guts and who knows what else, his brother absents himself and comes home high; he sleeps into the day, and sometimes shows up late to pick Joshua up from work. He’s given in to his cousin’s invitation to deal drugs, and that puts everyone at risk.
Over and again, I can see that the twins are still children. Young men don’t grow up quickly anymore. They are children emotionally and developmentally until their mid-twenties, and yet this burden is Joshua and Christopher’s to carry; the choices they make are not the choices of criminals or saints, but the choices of children. Yet they carry the burdens of men, and they are aware this is because of the defection of their mother.
Ward’s more recent work is even better written than this one, and yet it’s harsher, too; I had to put it down from time to time, because it was getting dark out there. This story in contrast is one I could read for hours on end, and I did. There’s violence aplenty as well as tragedy, but this is a reality I can look at without flinching, and that’s worth a great deal too.
Highly recommended to those that love outstanding literary fiction, African-American fiction, Southern fiction, and family stories.