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.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

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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The Legacy, by Gary Gusick***

thelegacy Gusick’s hero, Detective Darla Cavanaugh, became an instant favorite of mine when I read the screamingly funny Officer Elvis, and so when I saw that Random House Alibi was about to publish this third book in the series, I scrambled quickly over to Net Galley to snatch up a DRC. Though Gusick is a tremendously courageous writer, one that seeks to stand uncompromisingly on the side of the angels, this time he’s stepped over a line in the sand that was better left uncrossed. I look forward to the next book in the series, but am not sure I can recommend this one.

The book will be available to the public December 6, 2016.

Darla has been planning a leave of absence. She and her husband, a doctor that runs the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, have been unable to have a child of their own, and there’s a baby waiting for them in China. But she has to go quickly, or the adoption won’t go through. It is then that she receives a special request to investigate a murder. She says no; this is one time her family comes first. But the summons is from the governor. His daughter is dead, and he wants Darla to find out who did it.

This reviewer actually has an elderly relative that was tapped to investigate the murder of a governor’s aide in the 1980’s, and he didn’t want to do it either. There was a question of organized crime being involved, and it was dangerous. But as he pointed out at the time, there are some things you can’t say no to. It’s like being invited to tea with the queen; you have to go. And so it is with Darla.

By far the most endearing character here is Darla’s partner, Rita Gibbons:

“Rednecked Rita was…half a licorice stick short in the manners department, a deplorable character flaw in the state of Mississippi.”

When a witness that’s being interviewed coolly inquires as to whether Rita is a “Natchez Gibbons”, Rita tells her that she is actually a “Red Hills Trailer Park Gibbons”, from outside of Louisville.  And oh, how I wanted to engage, because this character is enormously entertaining, but there’s a problem, and it is at the core of the story’s premise.

You see, at the beginning of the story, we learn that Caitlin Barnett, the governor’s adopted daughter, who is African-American, was found hanging from a tree on the campus of Ole Miss. And once we have a lynching—whether it’s racially motivated and a real lynching, or whether there’s an ulterior motive and perhaps the body was posed there to deceive us—we can’t have any fun.

Here’s my litmus test to see if I am overreacting: I imagine giving this novel to one of my African-American family members to read, and I imagine what their reaction to it would be. Would they give Gusick props for pointing out that racism is still alive and flourishing in American society? Would they be glad that he has raised the issue of the Confederate flag? Or would they be slightly queasy, as I was? And immediately I knew that I would never, ever ask any of them to read this book, and if I did, they would probably take my husband aside sometime soon and inquire as to whether I was on any strange new medications.

In other words…no. Once there’s a lynching, or the appearance of one in a story, there can be no giggles, and we can’t rock and roll. It’s a hot stove top kind of issue; it’s not something we can touch, whatever our fine ultimate intentions might be, if we’re going to be partying anytime soon.

I still admire Gusick. Who else would have the rare courage to open oh, so many cans, and release oh, so many worms? But if one has the heart of a lion, one also needs some judgment, and this is where his story comes undone.

Although I cannot recommend this book to you, I look forward to reading this author’s work in the future. He’s done great work before, and he’ll do it again.

The Last Road Home, by Danny Johnson****

thelastroadhomeThe Last Road Home, bold and impressive new fiction by Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson, came to me free thanks to Net Galley and Kensington Books in exchange for an honest review. It tells the story of Raeford “Junebug” Hurley and his friendship with neighboring twins, Fancy and Lightning Stroud. Junebug is Caucasian; the twins are African-American, politely referred to during that time as ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’. The story is set during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s, but in rural North Carolina, the Klan stands tall and strong and absolutely nothing has changed in terms of race relations. Junebug finds himself riding on the fence rail from hell. This fascinating tale will be available to the public in late July. Those that love good historical fiction should read it.

The book begins with one horrible loss after another. At age 8, Junebug’s parents are both killed in a car wreck, and he goes to live with his grandparents.  His life is pleasant and stable, helping his grandpa run the farm, but then his grandpa dies too. And by the time his grandmother dies, I have decided that the theme of this story must be grief and loss, or given the number of religious references, perhaps there is some sort of Christian redemption theme here. And on both counts, I find I am mistaken. Johnson is a masterful storyteller, and there is nothing simplistic in how this novel unfurls.

For while Junebug has plenty of questions about the religious fervor that pervades small towns of the South during this era, by the time he buries his grandma, he has had it with religion. “The preacher said a prayer, asking the Lord to be with me in this time of grief. I’d had all of God’s shit I could take and didn’t need His sympathy. If he said it was ‘God’s Will’, I might choke him.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer.

At age 15, orphaned and the sole remaining member of his family, he is on his own. “Fifteen was considered adult in farm years.” Lightning leaves home suddenly, unhappy with the limitations placed on Black men in his part of the world. Fancy is left behind, and she is the only friend Junebug has within walking distance of home. As friendship turns to passion, both find themselves occupying a dangerous place in their community. Given that they are cold shouldered simply for appearing in town together to run an errand, the thought of letting their feelings for one another be known is terrifying.  He recalls his grandma’s admonition:

“’Junebug, you need to understand that cruelty and memory have been married together a long time in the South.’”

Johnson does an outstanding job of depicting white neighbors’ responses to the notion that our protagonist is linked romantically with Fancy. At first they are able to maintain the age-old fiction that she is his housekeeper, but she goes home at night, then sneaks back in darkest night to lay beside him. The muted references, little hints given by Caucasian elders nearby to guide the young white farmer away from a liaison that doesn’t fit local expectations, are rendered skillfully. There are a number of really vicious racial epithets tossed casually around by the local landowners, not always even in anger, sometimes in ugly jokes, as this writer knows from childhood experience is the way racists behave when a white supremacist perspective is not something being fought for as an outlier, but rather the dominant, even comfortable, norm. As the book continues, not only anti-Black pejoratives, but also nasty terms regarding Jews and Asians are tossed into the vernacular. None are gratuitous; they are an undeniable part of the setting, which would be revisionist without them.

Fancy and Junebug seem doomed. He tells her, “It feels like my life’s sprung a lot of leaks, and I’m running out of fingers.” She points out that she only has ten fingers too.

I was watching for the pat ending, the comfortable happy fiction that novelists are often drawn toward. Every time I thought I knew where the story was headed, it went somewhere else. Johnson is brilliant at breaking apart stereotypes, making setting real and immediate, and his character development is strong apart from some minor inconsistencies toward the end. And his framework is materialist by and large, showing that our surroundings and role in life shape us in ways we sometimes don’t expect.

Those interested in this period of history or that love excellent fiction should order this book. It will be available to the public July 26, 2016; strongly recommended.

Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves****

worklikeanyotherReeves makes her debut here with a deeply moving, haunting tale of a man that tries to do the right thing and finds his entire life miserably, horribly gone wrong instead. Thank you to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC; this book is available for purchase March 1, 2016.

Roscoe marries Marie, the woman of his dreams, a woman that speaks little but recognizes every bird call in the state of Alabama. When her father dies, he gives up being an electrician, work that he loves, in order to move to the farm they inherit. Unlike his father-in-law, Roscoe’s own father has always looked down on farming as a poor man’s last resort. Roscoe thinks he has found a compromise by bringing electricity, and with it mechanized farm tools, to Marie’s father’s farm; he won’t have to sweat in the fields, and he has found a way to continue doing the work her prefers. Pirating electricity from the lines out on the highway is against the law, but it’s nothing to make a man do hard time. If he is discovered, he’ll pay a fine and the electric company will install a meter. No harm, no foul.

That’s what he thinks, anyway.

Everything goes to hell in the blink of an eye when someone dies grabbing hold of a live wire located on his improvised set up. He is charged with manslaughter; with a halfway decent attorney, he should be able to get the sentence suspended or reduced, since no harm was intended, but Marie chooses not to hire anyone to represent him. She tells the state to give him a court appointed attorney, and instead she pays for an attorney for the man that has assisted him, knowing that the state of Alabama will come down harder on a Black man, a man that has worked for her family since she was a tiny child.

She can afford two attorneys, as we later learn. It isn’t about the money. It’s about blame. It’s about cold, hard vengeance.

We follow Roscoe as he makes his way through the trial, bewildered not to find Marie in the courtroom. We follow him through his years in prison, a system that tells the public it is there to correct bad habits and teach men skills they can use for the future. It’s a cruel, cold lie. And so although Roscoe’s experience is better in some ways than that of Wilson, who is sent to the end of the prison reserved for men of color, his sentence is much longer, with parole denied again and again as Marie fails to advocate for him.

Reeves is a genius with prose. Were I to rate this book solely on her skill as a writer, this would be a five star review, hands down. The kind of lyrical quality shown here is not a thing that can be taught; at some point, the word smithery put to use here is a matter of talent, and Reeves possesses enough for all Alabama.

My sole concern here is credibility. I don’t want to give too much away because you should read this novel, but I have to say that the way the last portion of the book plays out could never, never occur in the Jim Crow heart of Dixie. One could almost imagine some of it occurring in a different way, one closely guarded and unseen by the community, but to have things set up as they are when Roscoe finally gets out of prison and have the local storekeeper be aware of it, regard it as either normal or as private business that is no concern of his, strains credulity beyond the most magical prose. That house and farm would have been burned to the ground. It could never have happened.

Reeves has developed Roscoe’s character with depth and intimacy, and this is the greatest strength of her story; the first 75% of the plot is also well paced, with tension gently building as a story arc is meant to do. But the spell is broken during the last portion by the problem mentioned above.

Reeves is an author likely to go forward and do great things, and this is a strong debut. Apart from the one distraction mentioned, this book is highly recommended to those that love good fiction.

Half of Paradise, by James Lee Burke ****

halfofparadiseJames Lee Burke has been writing for roughly fifty years now, and this was an early effort, published in 1965; I think it was his first, in fact. It starts out appearing to be short stories, but the narratives involving three individuals eventually make one crushing point about the dismal, cynical failure of the US criminal justice system, which rains down its uneven blows hardest upon the poorest sectors of the population. He never actually says it. He goes one better, by demonstrating it through his fiction.

Those who have read his Edgar winners (Neon Rain and Black Cherry Blues) have come to expect brilliant rendering of setting and complex, absolutely believable character development.

As for me, if Half of Paradise, not an award-winning story but strong nevertheless, a stark, brutal, depressing book reminiscent of some of Russell Banks’s work (but with a Southern exposure) were as good as Burke were ever going to become, I would still choose to read his work over that of most other writers. And because it is indeed grim–and anything with this subject matter ought to be–I always have another book going, too. Actually, I usually have four to six books that I read in rotation. By not making more than one or two of them morbid, I keep myself from plunging to the depths one otherwise might while reading it.

A worthy early effort, still worth reading today if you can stand the sting of the “n” word.