Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (Historical and Literary Fiction)

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.

Plot:  4.5/5  Writing:  5/5  Characters:  5/5

The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.

Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.

Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.

If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)

Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:

“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”

“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”

“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”

“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”

“People always tired him, always had, always would.”

“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”

“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”

“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

Thank you to Mulholland Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Race is always front and center in this second “Highway 59 Mystery” book following the work of black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. In this episode, he is investigating the disappearance of a 9-year old white boy whose father (now incarcerated) was big in the Aryan Brotherhood. At the outset, it seems likely that the boy will be following in his father’s footsteps based on his early and nasty harassment of his black and native American neighbors. Set in the time period of the Trump election, the plot tangles together potential hate crimes, peculiarities of East Texas geography, and convoluted connections to history, family, and communities whose borders are not always what they seem. The latter is where Locke really shines.

The writing is good, the characters have real depth (FYI the black characters are far more sympathetic than any of the white ones). Darren Matthews is a great lead — strong, competent, and human — driven from an intense moral core. I appreciated his constant struggles with the morality of his actions, coupled with an awareness of his own flaws.

I read an advance reader copy and did find the writing to be a little muddier and in need of editing than the first novel (which I thought was spectacular). This is a solid mystery — convoluted plot, deep characters, good writing — but it doesn’t achieve the literary level of book one in which I found many, many, lines of perfect craft and deep beauty (see my review of the prior novel — Bluebird, Bluebird  — at:https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2018/11/07/bluebird-bluebird-by-attica-locke/).

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Characters: 5 Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5

A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing (see great lines below), truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

This is a story of murder in the small, East Texas community of Lark (population 178). Two bodies are pulled out of the bayou behind Georgia Sweet’s Sweet shop within days of each other — a 35-year old black man and a 20-year old local white woman. Darren Matthews, one of the few black Texas Rangers (his now-deceased favorite Uncle was the first) is unofficially asked to nose around the case. Darren is the epitome of the Hero — a strong, capable, focussed man who can’t bear to injustice — especially when it has a racial component. He won’t stand by as the black community takes the heat for the white girl’s death, but neither does he give in to the temptation of assuming the Aryan Brotherhood (ensconced just down the road at the Ice House) are to blame. He must work around a local (white) Sheriff who seethes under Matthews’ technically superior rank, the threatening Brotherhood members who would love to get “credit” for bringing down a black Ranger, and even a black community that doesn’t appear to trust him.

This 2018 Edgar Award winning book goes deep into the way racial tensions can fracture a community and give rise to crimes that are far more nuanced than your typical hate crimes. I couldn’t put this book down, though I have to say the stress level (for me, as I can never seem to separate myself from a book that feels as real as this one) was quite high.

Strongly recommended!

Some of my favorite lines:

“Seemed like death had a mind to follow her around in this life time. It was a sly shadow at her back, as single-minded as a dog on a hunt, as faithful, too.”

“Criminality, once it touched black life, was a stain hard to remove.”

“…men of stature and purpose, who each believed he’d found in his respective profession a way to make the country fundamentally hospitable to black life.” (about his uncles…)

“But sometime after he hit forty, the word Mama shot out as if it were a stubborn seed lodged in his teeth all these years that had finally popped free.”

“Most black folks living in Lark came from sharecropping families, trading their physical enslavement for the crushing debt that came with tenant farming, a leap from the frying pan into the fire, from the certainty of hell to the slow, torture of hope.

“For black folks, injustice came from both sides of the law, a double-edged sword of heartache and pain.”

Secrets, Lies, and Crawfish Pies by Abby L. Vandiver

Thank you to Henery Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of Secrets, Lies, and Crawfish Pies by Abby L Vandiver, which will publish June 12, 2018. All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

A fun, cozy, mystery – full of colorful Southern characters surrounded by good food and music.

Romaine Gabriela Sadie Heloise Wilder is a medical examiner in Chicago, in love with the married Chief of Staff of her hospital. When she loses her job and man through one swift act of downsizing, she is dragged home to East Texas (Roble, to be exact) by her voodoo and herbal remedy-wielding Aunt Zanne. When they arrive they find a surprise guest at the Ball Funeral Home and Crematorium — the family business. He fits right in, though, as he is quite, quite, dead. Romie solves the mystery with the help of her Aunt, the sheriff (a first cousin), and a couple of attractive beaux-in-waiting.

Fun, light, well-written. For those who care about these kinds of things, the author and most (perhaps all) of the characters are African American. I hadn’t heard of this author before, but she is quite prolific with three additional mystery series to her name — so if you like this one, you’ll have a lot more to read!