When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (Literary Fiction / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5

A crashed plane in the middle of the night in a small airfield in North Carolina. The dead body of a local black man is found nearby. A sheriff up for reelection in a week and very likely to lose to a younger man who is at the very heart of a good old boy network — to which many of the deputies also belong. And a daughter who returns home suddenly after the heartbreaking loss of her baby. These are the elements of this literary mystery.

The writing is very good in terms of the carefully crafted sentences and the sensitivity and depth of the main characters (Winston Barnes, the sheriff; his daughter; and to some extent Jay, the young black boy who is sent to live with his sister, the now widow of the victim). For me, the plot teetered between gripping and extraneous. Although the crime and the sheriff are front and center, this reads like literary fiction far more than crime fiction and the elements of plot that work to solve the crime are like sudden jagged edges introduced in spurts. I had a very hard time with the characters as well (other than the three I’ve mentioned). They were deeply stereotyped, reinforcing the dangerous divides our country is facing. Bradley Frye — property developer, running against the sheriff for reelection — drives a truck with confederate flags, calls black people the “n” word regularly, and has no trouble terrorizing the town. I also hated the ending — there was enough obvious foreshadowing that it was easy to see what was going to happen but somehow the sheriff didn’t. He behaved uncharacteristically, and I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers. The daughter theme resolves but had little to do with the crime plot.

I did enjoy much of the reading, but the ending and the stereotypes were such that I can’t recommend it.

Thank you to William Morrow and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on September 21st, 2021.

All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss (Literary Fiction / YA)

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

All the Little Hopes is a double coming-of-age story set in a North Carolina tobacco farming community from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Thirteen-year old Lucy Brown lives with her family on a tobacco and honey producing farm when she meets Allie Bert Tucker (Bert) who was shipped away from her Asheville mountain home when her mother died. The story alternates between their voices as they rapidly move from strangers to best friends to family. Lucy worships Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective; Bert wants more than the “puny life” she was headed towards back home. They both get what they want when a German POW camp provides labor nearby and men — not the nicest of men — start disappearing.

The story is firmly embedded in factual events and surroundings — WWII on the home front with a beeswax contract with the government; cheap labor from a nearby POW camp and community misgivings; an entire world of German glass marbles and the ubiquity of earned marble skills; purple honey with potentially healing properties; and Shape Note Singing (look it up — it’s cool) as examples. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, segregation, and attitudes are matter-of-factly included without being the focus on the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is billed as Literary Fiction but could easily serve as YA. It’s a small and local story painted on a big and global canvas that gives insight into young lives maturing under the auspices of war, propaganda, and local culture. Great characters and an intriguing plot as told from the perspective of youngsters who were forced to gather information piecemeal and fit it into their own emerging mesh of internal knowledge.

Some good quotes:

“I don’t tell Bert that sometimes I wonder if Irene’s heart is too small. She isn’t very amiable, and she’s stingy with kind words, like she’s scared she’s going to run out. It must be tiresome being Irene.”

“It’s got bits and pieces that glue me together when I’m coming apart.”

“It ain’t nice to shine a light on the ugly, but the ugly came home with Whiz and sits in our front yard.”

“We’ve crossed some invisible line into the land of beguile, and I feel a power I never knew before.”

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.