Africaville, by Jeffrey Colvin****

Narrated by Robin Miles

My thanks go to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy; after publication, I used an audio book to finish it, thanks to Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s available to the public now.

There are two reasons I was drawn to this story. The first is the setting, which is primarily in Nova Scotia’s Black community. I have never read or heard a story set there, and so I was intrigued. There’s also a Civil Rights Movement tie-in, and for me, that sealed the deal.

The book starts out as a rough read, involving dead babies and “bad luck” babies that weren’t dead but needed killing. I was so horrified that I had to restart the book several times to get past it. Now that I have, I can assure you that once you’re past the introduction, that’s it. The dead babies are done. I’m not sure I would have lead off with this aspect, because I’m probably not the only reader to pick the book up and put it down fast. In fact, had I not owed a review, I would not have returned to it. I’m glad I did.

The story itself is ambitious, covering three generations of a family there. At the outset we have Kath Ella, who has ambition, but also a mischievous streak. I find this character interesting, but there are times when I don’t understand her motivation. The story is told in the third person and not all of her thoughts are shared with us, and so there are times when I’m left scratching my head. When the end of the book arrives, I’m still wondering.

Kath’s son and grandson comprise the second and third parts of the story; apparently the term used back then for passing as Caucasian was called “crowing,” and we see some of that. There are too-brief passages involving the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow in the Southern U.S., and I am disappointed not to see more about this or have the characters involved more deeply. What I do see of it is the surface information that most readers will already know.

Toward the end there’s a subplot involving getting an elderly relative out of prison, and I like this aspect of it, in particular the dialogue with the old woman.

The setting is resonantly described throughout.

All told, this is a solid work and a fine debut. I look forward to seeing whatever else Colvin has to offer. As to format, although Miles does a lovely job reading, something of the triptych is necessarily lost when we don’t see the sections unfold. For those that can go either way, I recommend the print version.

Full Throttle, by Joe Hill*****

I’m late to the party, so by now this book has a pile of accolades; every one of them is earned. I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and HarperCollins. I am fond of short stories, all the more so when the stories are as riveting and suspenseful as these. How else could the reader get any sleep at all, if there wasn’t a natural stopping point at the end of each story? If you like this author’s work, or if you like horror stories—not all of them, strictly speaking, fit into the genre, but we can consider the collection horror, nevertheless—or if you just like a good short story collection, reach for this one.

Hill begins with the title story, “Full Throttle,” a gritty tale of parenting gone wrong. I couldn’t put it down, and friends, I can always put a book down. I read too much to obsess over my fiction, but this story owned me till it was over. The next story, “Darkened Carousel,” a story of slightly thuggish teens encountering carousel horses with unusual powers was every bit as strong. Another favorite is the one about wolves on a train, and I especially appreciated the line, “You smell like privilege and entitlement…this is first class, after all.”

In fact, all of these are excellent. I had read “In the Tall Grass,” and to be honest it isn’t my favorite, so I skipped it this time. That’s the only story I don’t wholeheartedly recommend, and the collection gets all five stars from me because I consider the book to be worth every red cent it costs, even without it.

The only downside of a collection like this—and this only applies for reviewers and others with a finish date in mind—is that it’s easy to set the book aside whenever a story ends. I sidelined this collection after the first two stories in order to conquer a pair of 700 page tomes that were on the brink of publication, and eventually this book became the one that made me feel guilty every time I looked at it. Recently I checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and since I had enjoyed the first two stories so much, I decided to begin again from the start. There’s a string of excellent readers, some of them famous, and those that like listening should consider this version.

As is generally true of the genre, there are triggers all over the place, and there’s some R rated material. If in doubt, read it yourself before handing it off to the middle schooler you are trying to home school during this pandemic.

To those that love the genre, this book is highly recommended.

At Home With Muhammad Ali, by Hana Ali*****

Muhammad Ali is the sort of larger-than-life historical figure that nobody forgets. I was offered an opportunity to read and review this biography written by his daughter, Hana, and I jumped at the chance. Her recollections are bolstered by the vast archives that her father intentionally left, cassette tapes of every phone conversation that took place from his home, along with letters, photographs, and journal entries. Ali knew he was making history, and so he consciously left copious documentation behind. This wonderful book strikes the perfect balance, deeply affectionate and intimate, emotionally honest, yet never prurient or mawkish. My thanks go to the author for the beautiful hardcover copy, and for this opportunity.

A note before I continue: usually when I review a book, I refer to the author by his or her last name. In this case, however, the last name is shared by author and subject, and so when I use the name ‘Ali,’ I refer to the boxer, whereas I refer to his daughter and biographer by her first name.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t watch boxing, which my mother considered a nasty, violent sport; I was inclined to agree with her, and so when Dad turned on a boxing match on television, she and I beat a hasty retreat. However, it was impossible to miss my father’s agitated shouts at the TV whenever Ali was on it. Ali’s brash confidence, his refusal to humbly look at the floor while talking to white interviewers, his fervent proselytizing on behalf of the Muslim faith frightened a lot of Caucasians, particularly those who, like my family, lived a life that never intersected with people of races different from our own. But my father wasn’t just afraid of Ali; he was angry. How dare he! On television! He called him a clown; he called him an idiot. There was a lot of that going around at the time, as the Civil Rights Movement strove to change the racial contours of American society, not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the nation.

Many years later, when I began studying education in preparation for teaching public school, in particular language arts, American history and civics, one of the most critical parts of my own graduate school curriculum had to do with serving children from underserved racial and ethnic groups, and part of that was in holding up positive role models to foster self-esteem in every child. My classmates raised the name of Muhammad Ali, and I could see that they were right; say that name around any Black child, especially a little boy, and watch his chin raise perceptibly, his spine straighten, and a gleam come to his eyes. This is what interested me about Ali, not his athletic record, but his principled stand in regard to Civil Rights issues, and his assertion that Black men in America should walk tall.

As I began reading Hana’s glowing tribute to her daddy, I began to wonder more about his boxing career. Ali began boxing at age twelve! There’s a practice you won’t see today; but Louisville, Kentucky during the post-war boom was a much different place than anywhere in America today. By the time he was old enough to shave, he was already accomplished at his sport. And the more I read, the more convinced I was that I should not review this biography without watching some boxing. I went to YouTube over and over, and I watched Ali with Sonny Liston, with Joe Frazier, with George Foreman. I learned a lot about the sport, including the fact that it’s not really all that violent, and it involves just as much skill as other team sports. And also: that man was talented, and he was so damn smart.

And this is the side of Ali that the public never really saw. Who knew that he preferred brainy women with independent ideas? In the 1960s, this was a rare thing among men. Who knew that he wouldn’t let anyone, whether family or staff, raise a hand to his children? Nonviolent parenting all the way. There wasn’t much of that around back then, either. Part of his indulgent nature was due to his faith, but part of it was a deep fear that some hateful person would try to hurt him by kidnapping his daughters. Given the way Hana describes her childhood self, it might have become a Ransom of Red Chief situation. Among the mountains of documentation Ali saved is a hefty collection of letters sent home by preschools and schools decrying Hana’s scrappy behavior. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the recordings she shares:

“’Hana, say ‘I’m a good girl.’

“’I’m a good girrrrl.’

“’Say ‘I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“’I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“Say ‘I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’Say ‘I won’t scratch the boys no more.’

“’I won’t scratch the boys no more.’”

Hana recalls him as a gentle father who remained available to his children despite his busy career; each day began with her careening down the stairs to find him in his den, where he might be having a phone conversation with one of many American celebrities as well as world leaders. He spoke with Brezhnev, Ghaddafi (who wanted to contribute to the war chest of a Black American presidential candidate), and Deng Xiao Peng, who wanted Ali to train Chinese boxers. He offered his services to President Jimmy Carter in the 1980s, hoping he might use his religion as a connection to the Iranians holding American citizens hostage.

In another section she recounts the time he happened by a police cordon. A man was out on a ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump; Ali persuaded the cops to let him get past the cordon and speak to the man. There are photographs of him holding the would-be jumper in his arms after he was rescued.

Whereas other public figures often bemoan their lack of privacy, Ali loved being famous, and he loved his fans. Sometimes he left home just to go out and find some of them and talk to them. It’s refreshing.

Yet Ali wouldn’t have been an easy man to be married to. Part of this dovetails with his generosity; he often tooled around in his Rolls Royce when he wasn’t training or working, and when he saw homeless people he’d load them into his car, bring them home, and put them in a guest room until he could arrange a lovely hotel suite for each of them. It’s a sweet gesture, but although Hana doesn’t mention how her mother reacted to it, I can tell you right now that for me, that would get old fast, coming home and not knowing how many strangers had taken up residence. And whereas Ali had more respect for the women in his life than most men did back then, his marriages were clearly never intended to be equal relationships.

But his relationship with Hana was an idyllic one, and this shows in the many engaging photographs that punctuate the text, one after another in which she and her father pose using identical body language, some of which are pretty funny. She also speaks with the pain she feels, even today, of her parents’ divorce, which she is convinced was primarily due to a misunderstanding.

There’s a great deal here about Ali’s religion; there’s really no way to tell his story without it, since it motivated nearly everything he did. There are places where I am ready to be done with it; but just when it threatens to slacken the pace of the narrative, Hana wisely segues on to other topics.

To remember Ali is to remember the virulence of the overt racism of twentieth century America. The way that the media played up every violent thing any Black man or boy did; the stereotypes involving the jungle, and the unpredictability of Ali’s personality, all served to underscore the false notion of hidden menace deep within the man. Ali is the first Black man I ever saw on television that didn’t keep his eyes down when talking to reporters, and who didn’t downplay his own strength. He scared a lot of Caucasian people half to death, merely by being successful, strong, and confident.

But Hana doesn’t dwell on any of the negative publicity; instead, she shows us who he really was. Ali loved to write poetry, for example, and he loved to read. He had never gained strong skills in spelling or grammar, so some of what he produced came out looking a little rough, and yet its merit is undeniable. What a voice! Who knew that a fun day out with his daughters often meant a trip to Barnes Noble to load up on good books?

The book’s ending is perhaps the most poignant of all. Hana recalls her father, an old man in his seventies, weakened by Parkinson’s, viewing footage of himself after the Foreman fight:

 “I wrestled with an alligator, and tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. Just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”

Watching himself he muses, “Man, I was something!”

I defy you to finish this book without a lump in your throat or misty vision, as Hana tells us, “Sometimes I still feel like that five-year-old girl roaming the halls of a mansion, waiting for her daddy to come home.”

Highly recommended.

Dead Land, by Sara Paretsky*****

Detective Vic Warshawski was born in 1982, a time when a woman advocating for herself, or another woman, or women on the whole were few and far between. Such a woman often spoke softly, hesitantly, and to reassure the listener that she wasn’t stark raving mad, she might begin by saying, “I’m not a feminist or anything, but…” And so for the lonely few of us that were uncloseted, audacious feminists, this bold, brazen, unapologetic character was inspirational. Vic is fictional, but Paretsky is not. It was leading lights such as hers that made me feel less alone. I have loved her from then, to now.

Paretsky is no longer a young woman. I know this because I am a grandmother myself, and she is older than I am. For her readers that wonder if she’s still got it, I have great news. She’s better than ever.

By now I should have thanked William Morrow, Net Galley, and Edelweiss Books for the review copies. You can get this book April 21, 2020.

Victoria’s young goddaughter, Bernie Fouchard appears in an earlier story, and now she returns. Bernie’s youthful passion and impetuous disposition counter Vic’s experience and more measured responses. I liked Bernie when she was introduced, and am glad she is back. Chicago’s shady politicians are about to quietly sell a prime chunk of the city’s park lands to developers; the corrupt nature of the deal makes it essential that the whole thing be done fast and with as little publicity or public input as possible. Bernie and a handful of others learn of it, and they protest at a meeting at which the city fathers had hoped to slide this oily project through. There are arrests, and soon afterward, Bernie’s boyfriend is murdered.  

At the same time, Bernie tries to help a homeless singer named Lydia Zamir. Zamir is brilliant and was once very famous, but everything crumbled around the time that her lover was shot and killed; she’s been living under a bridge, filthy, disoriented, playing her music on a child’s toy piano. Now Lydia is missing. Lydia’s champion has been a man named Coop, and Coop is missing too. Before pulling a bunker, Coop deposits his dog outside Vic’s apartment, earning her the enmity of neighbors that are already up in arms over the barking of Vic’s own dogs when she is gone. Now Vic has every reason to help find Coop, Lydia, and the murderer. At the same time the reader must wonder how the sleazy deal, the murder, and the disappearances are connected. The pacing is urgent and my interest never flags; the haunting mental image of Lydia and her small, battered piano tug at my social conscience, all the more so as the world is hurtled into quarantine.

Long-running characters Lottie and Max, who are like parents to Vic, and newspaperman Murray, a close friend of Vic’s, return here, and I love them all. No doubt this colors my response as well. I have known these characters longer than my husband of thirty years; at one point I realized that somewhere along the line, I had separated the other books I was reading (some of them quite good) from this one. I had my books-to-read category, but I had mentally shifted this story into the same category as my family business. I should check on my sister, who’s been ill; I wanted to set a lunch date with one of my kids; and I should check and see whether Vic is having any luck finding…oh hey. Wait a minute.

Can you read this story as a stand-alone? You sure can. However, this bad-ass, hardboiled Chicago detective is an addictive character; once you’ve read it, you’re going to want to go back and get the other 21 in the series. I swear it. You probably won’t experience the nostalgia that I do, but a damn good read is a damn good read, any way you slice it.

Highly recommended.

Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha*****

The quality that distinguishes Cha from other top-tier mystery writers is her absolute fearlessness in using fiction to address ticklish political issues.  Your House Will Pay is impressive. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins. I am a little sick at heart that I’m so late with my review, but this book is rightfully getting a lot of conversations started without me. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

Our two protagonists are Grace Park and Shawn Matthews. They don’t know each other, but their families intersected one critical day many years ago.  The Parks are Korean immigrants, the owners of a small pharmacy.  The Matthews family is African-American, and they have never stopped grieving the loss of sixteen-year-old Ava, who was shot and killed one evening by Grace’s mother in a moment of rage and panic. The other thing shared by Grace and Shawn is that both were quite young when it happened. Shawn was with his older sister when she was killed and has memories of what happened; Grace has been shielded from the event and knows nothing about it until the past opens itself up in a way that is shocking and very public.

The story alternates between the initial event, which happened in the 1990s, and today; it also alternates between the Park family and the Matthews’.  The development of the characters—primarily Grace and Shawn, but also Shawn’s brother, Ray and a handful of other side characters—is stellar. Throughout the story I watch for the moment when the narrative will bend, when we will see which of these two scarred, bitter families is more in the right, or has the more valid grievance. It never happens. Cha plays it straight down the middle. Both families have been through hell; both have made serious mistakes, crimes against one another. And ultimately they share one more terrible attribute: both families have been callously under-served by the cops and local government, for which relatively poor, powerless, nonwhite families are the dead last priority.

Cha bases her story on a real event, and she explains this in the author’s notes at the end of the book.

As a reviewer, I am closer to this than many will be: my family is a blend of Caucasians, Asian immigrants, and African-Americans. I read multiple galleys at a time, shifting from one to another throughout the reading parts of my day, but it is this story that I thought about when I wasn’t reading anything.

The first book that I read by this author was from her detective series. When I saw that she had a galley up for review, I was initially disappointed that this wasn’t a Juniper Song mystery, but now that I have seen what Cha is doing and where she is going with it, I see that this had to be a stand-alone novel. There isn’t one thing about it that I would change.Highly recommended to those that love the genre and that cherish civil rights in the U.S.; a must-read.

Best Historical Fiction of 2019: Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts

Honorable Mentions:

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson*****

Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, which I read and loved. I was thrilled when I saw that she was about to publish another book, and even more so when I found a review copy; thanks go to Edelweiss and Harper Collins. This book is for sale now.

For centuries, Western scholars have tried to tease apart the many unknown aspects of Polynesian history. The islands are spread across an area of the Pacific Ocean (and beyond) so large that all of the Earth’s landmasses could fit into it, and there would still be room for an extra one the size of Australia. And yet there’s undeniable evidence that they navigated from one to another in canoes, without compasses or written maps of any kind. How the heck did they do it?

Thompson discusses the early European efforts, from the ‘discovery’ of various islands—and she points out that Europeans jealously guarded information, and so British explorers didn’t benefit from what the Spanish found, for example, and vice versa—to present day. She talks about the differing points of view, languages, and cultural divides that prevented the white folk from understanding what islanders were trying to tell them, and from believing that they knew as much as they did. As far as I can tell, Thompson is the first Caucasian writer to approach this subject with respect for the islander peoples about whom she is writing; her husband and sons are of Maori descent, and so for her, this connection merges the academic and the personal.

The thing that makes Thompson so readable is her wry take on the errors made by those that came before—mostly the Westerners that approached the area with paternalism tinged with more than a little racism in many cases. I’ll be reading along and thinking yes yes, this is interesting…and then I’ll come across a remark and reread it—did she just say what I think she just said? And then I am laughing out loud. Find me a geographer, an anthropologist, a sociologist that can do that. In particular, her unpacking of the whole Kon-Tiki debacle is unmissable.

If I could change anything, it would be to have been able to read this before I went into teaching instead of after retirement. I taught a lot of Islander kids, and the wisdom is that when we teach American history, we incorporate the history of each ethnic group represented in the classroom. I knew how to include my African-American students, and I knew what to tell kids of Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. I had material for my Latino kids. But with my Islander students, all I could do is say that I had truly tried to find information for them, but what little I found was so deadly dull and written at such a high literacy level that it wouldn’t work for them. And what would really kick ass is if this writer, at some lull between high-powered academic projects, could write something for children or young adults of Maori descent. Right now, English-speaking Pacific Island kids have one Disney movie. That’s it.  

This book is highly recommended to every reader with post-high-school literacy ability and stamina. It’s a cultural treasure, and though I rarely do this with galleys, I will go back and read this again, because there’s no way to take it all in the first time, even when making notes.

What a wonderful find.