The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood*****

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 takes it.

It’s the beginning of something beautiful.

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 favorite.

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.

Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera*****

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; believe it.

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.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson***-****

3.5 rounded up.

Cussy Mary Carter delivers books to the rural poor folk of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky during the Great Depression. I read this quixotic tale free and early, thanks to Sourcebooks and Net Galley; it’s available for purchase now.

Cussy is the daughter of a miner; her mother is dead, and her father is dying slowly of Black Lung, known to them locally as “the miner’s sickness.” She has no siblings. The government pays her to follow every possible winding path to reach out-of-the-way homes, loaning books, magazines, and the scrapbooks assembled of odds and ends by the librarians themselves. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise grim little town.

I like Cussy Mary, but I have to admit that I am more attached to Junia, her mule—and if you read this book, you’ll see why. Everything Cussy does is fraught with peril, and though I seldom do this, I cheat and look ahead because although I can tolerate any fate for the human characters here, I need to know whether anything will happen to Junia. Junia serves as Cussy’s transportation, watchdog (watch mule?) and best friend. Ordinarily I am no more attached to hoofed animals than any other city dweller, but this plucky critter has me at hello.

One of the best single moments in historical fiction occurs when Cussy Mary is confronted by a rattlesnake on a path. A shot rings out, and a neighbor woman steps out of the trees holding a gun and yells, “Back. That’s my supper.”

The story’s greatest strengths all have to do with setting and historical detail. Cussy Mary and her father are among a relatively rare racial group that no longer exists, people possessed of blueberry-blue skin. They were often shunned by those they lived among, some of whom regarded them as “colored” (as did local law), and others of whom feared they carried a curse. I had never known about the “blues” before reading this novel, and this is historical fiction at its best, that which educates us and makes us like it.

I would have liked to see more subtlety and ambiguity in the development of Cussy Mary and the lesser characters. Everyone here is either a good person or a bad one. Richardson’s good people never have bad moments or vice versa. I understand when Cussy Mary turns down offers of food even though she is hungry; part of it is the pride that is an inherent part of the culture, and she also fears that those making the offer may be giving up their only food of the day. I understand this the first time she tells us, and the second, and the third…but by the time I see it again (and again, and..) I am rolling my eyes and wishing fervently that once, just once she will say thank you and scarf down the biscuit, or the apple, or the whatever. On the rare occasion she accepts food, she takes it to someone else, and then she goes home and eats thistles. It makes it difficult to believe her character, because nobody is that saintly every minute of every day.

Nonetheless, I recommend this book to you, because there’s nothing else like it. If there were a body of fictional literature widely available regarding this time, place, and its people, I might say differently, but as far I can see, this is it, and the setting is strong enough to just about stand on its own. Those that enjoy the genre will want this book.

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


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.

Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*****

Oh hell yes. Congratulations to Jesmyn Ward for making the long list of the #NationalBookAward for 2017.

Seattle Book Mama

SingUnburiedI had never read Ward’s work before, and now that I have I will follow her anywhere. Sing Unburied, Sing is a literary masterpiece, and one that fits the time in which we live. It opens up all sorts of thorny questions for examination, but like most thorns, it stings. I received my copy free and early courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley. This title is available to the public now.

Jojo and Kayla have been raised by their grandparents in rural Mississippi; Mam and Pop are their source of love and stability. Leonie, the mother they call by her first name as if she were a sister, drifts in and out, using copious amounts of meth and other drugs. Michael, the children’s Caucasian father, is being released from Parchman, the notorious prison where he has been sent after having killed Leonie’s brother, Given. Given comes to her when she’s…

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If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.