Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5+ Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A powerful novel and I don’t use that word lightly. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The story takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen year-old boy learning to be a man. He lives with his grandparents (“Pop” and “Mam”), his 3 year-old sister Kayla, and his mother (whom he calls Leonie) when she bothers to show up. Mam, Leonie, and both children have the “sight” — an ability to see and hear things that others don’t — and this filters into the story in significant and lyrical ways. The action centers around a trip to Parchman prison to retrieve Michael (the children’s white father) at the end of a three year sentence. However, the real story is about how a person can grow into an honorable and ethical human being when they are in a poisoned environment.

Jojo, Leonie, and Richie — the spirit of a young boy incarcerated at Parchman with Pop when he was 15 — are alternating narrators. The stories they tell weave together haunting tales of the past with their parallels in the present. Hints of voodoo and the thin veil between this world and the next suffuse the interlocking narratives.

The book is equal parts disturbing and heart warming; the end is quite glorious.

Some good lines
“Pop says a man should look another man in the face.”

“But it follows, even as I follow the trail of tender organ blood Pop has left in the dirt, a trail that signals love as clearly as the bread crumbs Hansel spread in the wood.”

“Even now, my devotion: inconstant.”

“I wait until the nicotine laps at my insides like a placid lake.”

“I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. “

As an aside, I looked up Parchman Prison because I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading and found the truth to be even worse: Check out the Convict Lease Program.

Review double-header…

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together. Over the roughly 15 years of the story there are romances, friendships, children, students, and always lots about the music.

At first I didn’t enjoy it as it seemed far more about individual dysfunction than music, but then I realized the author used this personal squirming to show the interplay between the growth of the entity and the growth of its constituent parts.

A compelling story for me, both in terms of the world of classical music performance and the personal motivations and challenges for each performer. I also found it interesting to see which characters I could relate to and which left me cold (I related best to Henry and Brit…). Would love to compare notes with others!

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 4

Kind of disappointing. Pretty obvious “ugly duckling becomes beautiful dancing swan” plot and stereotype characters (simplistic Chinese immigrants, semi-slutty, neurotic, but super nice and supportive ballroom dancers). What started out as an obvious story told in a sweet way became just an obvious story told without a lot of grace. Writing was decent but the characters and story were just too simplistic for me.

There were some very nice Lao Tzu quotes, description of Tai Chi and Qigong, and descriptions of ballroom dancing in the first half. And I did enjoy the characters at the beginning when they had more individuality and less stereotype to them. Somehow it feels as though the second half was written more hurriedly and more focused on plot and less on the character and environment that made the first half so enjoyable.



A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4
New words (to me):
• perjink – precise, neat (when you google this word, Merriam Webster asks where you found it – it isn’t used much!)
• Status Guilt – Being born into the structures of oppression because of an inherent characteristic (being male or white, for example). Nothing to do with choice or how you think or feel.
• mahlstick (or maulstick) – a stick used by painters as a rest for the hand while working

I love these books. When most people hear Alexander McCall Smith, they think No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. That’s a fun series (and I’ve read them all) but my favorite McCall Smith series is this one (the 44 Scotland Street series). These are annual novels compiled from his serialized (daily) stories in The Scotsman (an Edinburgh newspaper). They are charming, funny, and full of characters with both typical and atypical problems and opinions — a social commentary full of history, culture, and personality pulled from the lives of the varied inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street. This is the 12th in the series — if you haven’t read any I would start with the first just for the sheer pleasure of it, but you could easily start anywhere and not miss a thing as the author excels at providing context without extensive rehash. A sample of characters include the Pollacks — Stuart the mild mannered statistician, his ultra feminist, Melanie Klein devotee wife Irene, and their erudite and lovable son, Bertie; the artist Angus Lordie and his gold-toothed, lager slurping, dog Cyril; Domenica MacDonald, anthropologist; and Matthew Duncan, unassuming gallery owner and new father of triplets.

McCall Smith is a beautifully fluid writer. He is able to depict an entire way of thinking or the crux of a troubling situation with a single phrase. In some cases he turns this ability towards humor, as when one person tells another that one has a “civic duty not to stink.” In other cases he turns this talent to describe the core element involved in some larger issue — in this book, extreme versions of political correctness. This includes discussions (from multiple perspectives) of the need for Safe Spaces, the freedom to both have and express a different and perhaps unpopular opinion, and the skills or attributes that should be most highly valued when assessing multiple candidates for a position.

This last was explored in more detail as Stuart Pollack, the epitome of a mild mannered, amiable, and highly competent statistician working for the government, goes up against two less qualified women for a well-deserved promotion. His wife Irene — the caricature of an uber-feminist who does not think highly of her husband or of men in general, nevertheless wants to help him attain this promotion as they need the money. She explains that his being highly qualified for the position is of no help because “You have used your inherent advantages to claim contested territory.” She further explains that “The least well-qualified person in terms of diplomas and degrees and whatever might be the best-qualified in terms of social goals — in terms of how an appointment may progress the objective of a fairer society.” In her view, the age of meritocracy is dead and not soon enough! I was so impressed with the way McCall Smith could capture the essence of a (to me) troubling viewpoint! I am completely in favor of a meritocracy with ongoing efforts aimed at establishing a fair distribution of opportunities for people to develop that merit!

Let me hasten to add that most of McCall Smith’s female characters are wonderful. He is one of the few male authors whose female characters don’t make me cringe. I admire his courage in taking on some of the more ridiculous fringes of political correctness in this book. His characteristic kindness and desire for Civility (with a capital C) comes through the pages as he tries to show multiple perspectives about the evolution of societal norms.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

Writing: 3 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A bizarre ride through a coming-of-age story laced with philosophical conundrums on the nature of reality and our place in the world. Noah Oakman is a high school senior equally focused on typical high school matters such as girls and where to go to college and more atypical matters such as the nature of reality and his place in the universe. He is somewhat obsessed with David Bowie and his Pathological Authenticity. Spinning on Bowie’s biography — “Strange Fascination” — Noah has his own four Strange Fascinations. These play an important role when he wakes up after a drunken party to find that the world has changed subtly: his mother has a scar she never had before; his best friend Alan is now a Marvel Comic fan, rather than a DC Comic fan; and his Shar-pei “Fluffenberger the FreakingUseless” is now a highly energetic alternate animal and thus renamed “Mark Wahlberg.”

I found the novel deeply interesting, though a little long winded. To be fair, I read an advanced copy so perhaps it has been tightened up a bit. Thought provoking and appealing characters, plenty of juicy (to me) reflective commentary on the universe, and streaks of sci-fi spread throughout. Great lessons on friendship, family, doing the right thing, honesty, forgiveness, and (my favorite) the understanding that you can love flawed things.

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas, which will publish July 31, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

A gripping YA whodunit replete with surprising plot twists. Monica Rayburn is still trying to find out the truth about the horrific events that took place 5 years before. This is when Sunnybrook stopped having cheerleaders — because they all died within a month of each other.  One of the cheerleaders was Monica’s beloved older sister, Jen. (As an aside, what is it about towns with “Sunny” in the title — Buffy’s Sunnydale was not a happy place to be either!)

It had just the right amount of suspense — not so much that I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but enough that I could not put the book down. Full of realistic confusion, false leads, and the impact that suspicion — whether warranted or not — can have on relationships.

Great for fans of One of Us Is Lying.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A fun, tangled novel about mathematics, the search for truth, and some atypical family dysfunction. The Severys are a clan of advanced academics — Isaac is a top mathematician, working on the ultimate deterministic equation based on chaos theory; son Phillip is a well-known string theorist whose output has been dwindling in both quantity and quality as he ages; utterly anti-social daughter Paige is hard at work on her Book of Probabilities which she estimates will be 565 volumes and which she doesn’t expect to finish in her lifetime. Adopted grandchildren Hazel and Gregory are the “normal” members, a failing book store owner and police officer respectively.

The novel opens with Isaac’s self predicted death and continues with wild scurrying on the part of everyone else to get their hands on what might be the equation that can literally predict everything. While there is plenty of reference to interesting mathematical problems and the motivation of those who pursue them, there is even more familial drama with insertions of mysterious agents who also yearn for the magic equation.

While the existence of such an equation lends a speculative fiction aspect to the book, it’s really more of a mystery mixed with family drama and characters more intellectually oriented than most.  All in all pretty fun to read, well written, and hard to put down.

(OK – I realize this is two reviews within the space of an hour –  I’m fast but not that fast 🙂  Just took me awhile to finish the Morton review while this one just wrote itself…)

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

Richly detailed historical fiction with a convoluted plot pulled from a set of narratives scattered across time but centered on place: Birchwood Manor — a 400 year old house immersed in myth and mystery. Murder, mayhem, stolen heirlooms, and old artifacts form the center of the story, but they exist in a sea of love, loss, and a range of historical settings including Queen Elizabeth and the Catholic persecution of 1586, the (fictional) Magenta Brotherhood artist group of the mid 1800s, the establishment of a school for young women in the late 1800s, London and environs in WWII, and modern day archival work. It’s engrossing but complicated — I found that documenting a timeline as I read was extremely helpful.

The writing is good but a little long winded for my taste. On the other hand, if you love historical dramas you may enjoy the longer opportunity to immerse yourself in the 500 pages of intriguing characters and historically accurate details. Did I mention that one of the narrators is clearly a (compelling) spirit that has been bound to the house for over a century?