BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN – Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain’s Big Lies in a Small Town (St. Martin’s 2020) is fantastic, page-turning thriller of a candy book. Chamberlain is a North Carolina author, and the novel is set in sleepy Edenton, which is not far from where I grew up.  One of the characters is even from Cary, which is where I currently live. I do love a book set in NC.

The mystery of the novel unfolds in dual timelines.  Anna Dale is painting a mural in 1940 and Morgan Christopher is restoring that same mural in 2018.  As Anna paints and Morgan restores, secrets, lies and a dead body tumble forth.

Anna is from New Jersey, and Edenton is so very different from what she’s accustomed to.  When she entered the national contest to paint murals for post offices, her choice was not Edenton. It wasn’t anywhere in the South. But she was selected and given the opportunity to paint the mural in the quaint, waterfront town.  She needs the money, so she accepts.  There are some hiccups. She’s an unchaperoned Northerner who wears pants and fraternizes easily with Jesse, a young Black man, and his family.  There’s also some bitterness because the town’s resident painter lost the contest, and to a woman from New Jersey at that. 

Morgan Christopher is in prison following being convicted of her third DUI, this time seriously injuring a young woman. She’s been sentenced to a minimum of one year and a maximum of three.  At the one-year mark, two strangers show up with a proposition that would grant her freedom.  The former art major is asked to restore a mural in Edenton, NC. She had been named specifically for the project in the will of a well-known artist from the town. Morgan, a recovering alcoholic, battles her demons, makes friends, and uncovers a bombshell of a mystery buried since 1940.

I don’t like that Morgan wasn’t actually driving the car and took the fall for her boyfriend. (That’s not a spoiler.)  I felt like that was a missed opportunity.  That’s really my only quibble. The dual timeline was crafted beautifully, and the pace is perfect. The characters are compelling, and the writing is tight and focused.  Overall, it’s a gripping novel that will keep you turning the pages to find out what secrets the mural holds, and what Morgan’s connection to the mural and Edenton is.  It’s delicious candy.

Read this book.

WOMAN OF LIGHT – Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Woman of Light (One World, Penguin Random House 2022) was a highly anticipated read and yet another example of where my expectations for a book are unrealized.  One could argue that it was over-hyped and that’s why it fell short, but I’d argue that its failings are due to not providing enough flesh to cover the bones of the plot.  The premise?  Fantastic.  The writing? Gorgeous.  The story-telling aspect?  Woefully lacking in certain areas.

The novel follows five generations.  It primarily focuses on Luz in the 1930s in Denver, but it does time-travel between 1868 and the 1930s.  This fragmented way of story-telling works well with Fajardo-Anstine’s writing style and the story of this family.  The time-jump sections are my favorite parts of the novel, but they are areas that I felt needed more flesh to give a stronger heartbeat to the novel; This is ultimately a family saga that is missing a bit of the umph of a real saga.

We’ll get to Luz in a minute, but I want to start with the prologue.  A woman, Fertudez Marisol Ortiz, abandons her baby to be found by the Sleepy Prophet in the Land of Early Sky, or the Lost Territory.  Fertudez tells her son “Remember your line.”  The baby is left with a bear claw.  The ghosts of four dead priests tell the Sleepy Prophet that the child’s name is Pidre.

Pidre is readily embraced by the town and the Sleepy Prophet’s line becomes his line.  (Oh, how I wish we had more on his mother.)  The bear claw and the connection to Pidre returns when he falls in love with Simodecea, the most interesting female character in the novel.  She’s a sharpshooter who killed her first husband during a performance when a caged black bear broke free and attacked her. She only signed up with Pidre’s show because he said there would be no bears.  They fall in love and have two daughters, Sara and Maria Josefina. But the bear will have Simodecea pulling the trigger again – this time, an unexpected “bear.”  Sara and Maria Josefina are left to make their own ways.

Both women fall in love with men who don’t deserve them.  Sara gives birth to Luz and Diego, and Maria Josefina, without her consent or knowledge, is given drugs to kill the baby growing inside her. She loses all interest in men at this point.  Sara goes a bit mad when her no-good husband leaves, and Maria Josefina takes in both Luz and Diego. Maria Josefina is the most reliable and steady of figures in Luz’s life.

Luz can read tea leaves.  Diego can tame rattlesnakes and have them do his bidding. (Never thought I’d care so much about two snakes.) The novel is primarily about Luz, “Little Light,” and her transition from girl to young woman in a racist and xenophobic Denver where the Klan marches and brown bodies are regularly beaten and broken by the white police.

I found this novel lacking because it left me wanting, but it fills a void in the literary world as it follows an Indigenous Chicano family in the American West. The novel focuses primarily on the women – their strength, their sins, their secrets, and their magic.

For that alone, read this book.

AKATA WITCH – Nnedi Okorafor

I’m steadily reading my way through my TBR cart.  (Though it would appear I am adding more than removing.  My cart needs its own cart!)  I picked up Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (Viking 2011) because I wanted a bit of middle grade fantasy.  Akata Witch is the first in The Nsibidi Scripts series.  Akata Warrior is sitting on that cart and I’m waiting for Akata Woman to be released in paperback so they’ll match.  The series has been dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” but that really does it a disservice – the writing is sharper and rawer, the characters are diverse and vibrant, the stakes are much higher, and there’s an intensity that Rowling didn’t capture until more than half-way through the series.  Sunny’s Oha coven, a quartet that is admittedly very reminiscent of the Gryffindor trio, stands firmly apart from other magical friends.

Sunny was born in America to Nigerian parents.  She moved back to Nigeria when she was 9.  She’s albino and struggles with bullying and fitting in.  Her parents are harsh, particularly her father, and their relationship is a loving, but conflicting struggle throughout the novel.  Sunny learns she is a Free Agent, a magical being born to nonmagical parents.   She is under a charm that will not allow her to discuss the Leopard People or magic with them, driving even more of a wedge. 

Sunny lives a fractured existence.  She’s American, but Nigerian.  She’s black, but albino. She’s magic, but in a non-magic home. This first novel of the series shows significant growth in Sunny as she learns to see herself as she really is and to find her place in the world.

The plot of this novel is that there is a serial killer on the loose called “Black Hat.”  Black Hat murders and maims young children. Sunny and her three friends who form the unexpected coven are tasked with extinguishing the threat, saving two young children, and preventing Black Hat from unleashing a monster on the world.  All the while, Sunny must keep up with her magical studies and her human studies.

It’s a well-done middle grade fantasy that pulls from West African settings, legends, lore, and family dynamics.   Don’t brush it aside as a Nigerian Harry Potter – Sunny is no Harry and Leopard Knocks is no Hogwarts.  Akata Witch is a powerful novel about finding your true face and the power you hold.

Read this book.

TAKE MY HAND – Dolen Perkins-Valdez

In 1973 Montgomery, Alabama, Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, sisters both under the age of fifteen, were sterilized without their consent. The procedure was ordered and performed by a federally funded agency. Their social worker reported it to a local attorney, who filed a lawsuit.  Relf v. Weinberger brought to light the thousands of poor women of color, including minors, across the entire country who had been sterilized without consent by such federally funded programs. Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand (Berkley 2022) is loosely based on their story.

Without question, this is one of the best historical based-on-actual-events novels I’ve read.  And with the recent SCOTUS leaks and the continued disparity in medical care, especially reproductive care, this novel couldn’t be timelier.

Civil Townsend is a highly educated black nurse.  Her father is a doctor, and she was raised in a different world than the poor Black families living just miles away in the country.  Recognizing the importance of nurses in reaching certain communities, her activism led her to the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic.  She was one of eight nurses who saw patients at the clinic as well as doing house calls.  Her first house call was to give 13-year-old Erica and her special needs 11-year-old sister, India, birth control shots.  India had yet to start her period and neither girl had ever even kissed a boy, yet they were on birth control shots.  When Civil learns that the shot hasn’t been FDA approved and there have been studies indicating the drug causes cancer in beagles and monkeys, she stops giving them the shot.  She lies on the records and says they’re on the pill.

When the supervisor, a white woman, learns of Civil’s deception, she orders that the girls be sterilized.  She takes a Black nurse to the home, tells the family she’s taking them to the hospital for their shots, and has Mace, the girl’s father, and his mother make their marks on the consent forms they cannot read.  Civil is too late; the girls are sterilized.

What follows is a wonderfully crafted tale of the sins of the fathers and the hopes of the daughters. The legal drama aspect is captivating, especially with the treatment of the judge and his bias. The naiveté of both Civil and the young white attorney handling the case is woven so carefully and decidedly into the plot that you know, even while rooting for them, that victory will never be as sweet as they hope.  The pain of the family, especially the two sisters, and Civil’s guilt makes this novel bleed and weep and scream.  But there’s a light that shines.

It’s a heartbreaking, agonizing read with its title coming from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s alleged last words: “Ben, make sure you play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”

“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home”

It’s not lost on me that I’m posting this on Juneteenth.

Read this book.

THE CHERRY ROBBERS – Sarai Walker

Sarai Walker’s The Cherry Robbers (Harper 2022) is a slow burn of a classic Gothic ghost story that just misses the mark.  I wanted to love it, and there are some fantastically crafted sections, but the overall feeling I was left with was “meh.”  That is due in large part to the lackluster and unsatisfactory ending and the wicked slow beginning.  Gothics have a slower pace, but the beginning of this novel is just painfully slow.

I don’t like the title.  I’ve read the D.H. Lawrence poem Walker is referring to and there is so much unrealized potential. We get there somewhat with cherry blossoms and a young sex scene and in a shade of lipstick, as well is in the female ghosts and there is, of course, the virginity of the girls that is a huge plot point, but… I don’t know.  I think I’d like to have seen more with the birds.  Belinda’s stuffed wren could very well have been a throstle or song thrush.  There are three dead birds in the poem and five dead sisters in the book.  A title could have been pulled from the works of Tennyson, a poet used throughout the book, or from “The Goblin Market,” which is also referenced and would have been perfect with its emphasis on sexuality and the leap between girlhood to womanhood.  The title is catchy, but it doesn’t work with the text.

I expected so much from the plot, and I know me well enough to know that’s why I’m disappointed.  Iris Chapel is one of the six Chapel heiresses to the Chapel firearms fortune. The family’s fortune comes from blood money, from the firearms that took many a life.  Iris’s mother, Belinda, with her own traumatic past, is forced to marry or be homeless.  Luck of the draw, she ends up marrying into the Chapel family and moving into the huge “wedding cake” of a Victorian home that becomes her cage. Belinda’s husband repeatedly insists that she fulfill her wifely duties, and she gives birth to six daughters, losing a bit of herself each time he touches her and dying a little with each pregnancy.   Belinda’s own mother died giving birth to her, and that trauma serves as a bridge connecting Belinda to the spirit world.  Those who died by Chapel firearms haunt her. I wish her story had been more prominent.

Belinda has a premonition that something horrible will happen to Aster if she marries.  Iris is the only one who believes her, and young Iris tries to delay the wedding by destroying wedding favors and wedding gifts.  The day after her wedding, Aster dies a horrific death after returning to the wedding cake Chapel home.  “The Chapel sisters: first they get married then they get buried.”   After Aster, comes Rosalind.  Then Calla.  Then Daphne, whose death is just a bit different.  Iris and Zelie try to outrun the curse, but Zelie falls in love with a man.  Then there’s just Iris, trying to outrun a ghost and the family curse.

Best scene: The sisters watching their father dig Aster’s grave.

Worst: When Walker writes “blood splatter” instead of “blood spatter.”  It would have been a great sentence if she’d used spatter. (It’s nitpicking, I know.)  It actually would make a great title for a different non-gothic book –  Blood Spatter and Pastry.

Do I recommend it?  Meh.

AN ISLAND – Karen Jennings

A little more than a month before the Booker Prize 2022 longlist is announced, I finished the 2021 longlist.  As several of the selections weren’t published in the States until this year, it took some time, but I did it.  I ended with Karen Jennings’s An Island (Holland House Books 2020, Hogarth in the US 2022), a tiny little book with a sparse little story and a striking cover of the surf making a face on the sand with a person walking toward it.  It’s an allegorical post-colonialism novel set in an unnamed African country, but Jennings is no Gordimer or Coetzee or even Galgut – it didn’t work for me.

The novel, taking place over the course of four days, follows Samuel, a lighthouse keeper.  Samuel, imprisoned during the rebellion for over two decades, is now 70.  He is uncomfortable around people and likes the life of solitude he’s carved out on his island.  A body washes ashore, which isn’t unusual.  But what is unusual is that this body is still breathing.  The man is a refugee, and they don’t share a common language. As the hours stretch, Samuel, showing signs of paranoia and dementia, slips into a past in a country that had no place for him.

The sparse novel addresses  colonialism and its after impacts, the refugee crisis, xenophobia, PTSD, and political corruption in a man vs. himself dressed up like a man vs. man.  It’s a very quick read and very Bookery, it just didn’t work for me.

DAUGHTER OF THE MOON GODDESS – Sue Lynn Tan

Sue Lynn Tan’s Daughter of the Moon Goddess (HARPER Voyager 2022), with its gorgeous cover and intriguing premise, was a book I wanted to love more than I actually did.  It’s far more juvenile and tropey than I expected, and I had issues with the pacing, world building, and character development.  Xingyin is poorly developed and relatively stagnant.  While some of her flaws are intentional character flaws for our “chosen one,” others derive from a lack of editing and lack of tightening of the story.

The novel is inspired by Chinese mythology, and the premise is fantastic.  Xingyin’s parents were both mortals. Her father was a skilled archer who shot down a threat to the realm.  His reward was an elixir of immortality.  Xingyin’s mother, Chang’e, took the elixir to save the life of herself and her unborn child.  The Celestial emperor was livid that Chang’e took the elixir, and she was exiled to the moon where she became the Moon Goddess.  No one knows that Xingyin even exists.  If the Celestial Kingdom learns of her existence, punishment would be swift and great.

Xingyin leaves the moon to protect herself and her mother.  Disguising her identity, she sets out on a quest to free her mother.  Over the years, she earns favor with the prince and is awarded the opportunity to train at his side.  Her talents in archery are quickly apparent, earning her the respect of many soldiers.  The Celestial Emperor and Empress hate her, and they hate that their son is becoming enamored with her.  Passions are doused with a betrothal that will cement allies, and Xingyin begins to explore other interests, including remembering her quest and falling for Captain Wenzhi.

A love triangle develops in this battle between light and dark with a star caught in the middle.  Through it all, Xingyin remains on her private quest to save her mother.

There are lot of monsters, battle scenes, merfolk, mind control, blood, political intrigue, dragons, betrayal, deceit, and magic.  The relationship between Xingyin and the prince reminded me of Feyre and Tamlin, especially during one particular scene that I won’t spoil.  The relationship between Xingyin and Wenzi also has hints of Feyre and Rhys. 

There are parts, particularly toward the latter half, which are quite lovely, but I found the novel a bit disappointing.  It could have been great, but it just barely scratches the surface.  Much like Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones¸ I think the book struggled with what it wanted to be.  Adult high fantasy it is not.  I would place it between middle grade and YA fantasy, but it needs tighter editing and a clearer focus. 

This book is well-loved, so I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I doubt I’ll be continuing with the duology.

But that cover…

UNLIKELY ANIMALS – Annie Hartnett

“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Annie Hartnett’s Unlikely Animals (Ballantine Books, 2022) is a tenderly crafted work full of heart and quirkiness.  We’re only in June, but I’m close to ready to call it as my favorite for 2022; it’s near perfect.

The novel, set in the fictional Everton, NH, is narrated by the residents of the Maple Street Cemetery. The inhabitants, both those long dead and those recently departed, see all and know all that happens in Everton; they’re just not allowed to meddle in the affairs of the living.  Keeping an eye on their beloved town allows them to hold on to a bit of life.  When the town’s prodigal and magical daughter, Emma Starling, returns, the cemetery is electric with excitement.

Emma had been born with a healing gift, the Charm.  She was expected to heal the hurt, but she returns home a med school dropout with no job and no healing powers.  She couldn’t help her brother, Auggie, when he became addicted to opioids, so she’d stayed away.  Now she’s back, but she can’t save her father, Clive, who is dying from a brain disease that has him hallucinating animals, making rash decisions, and spending his days with the ghost of Ernest Harold Baynes, the real Doctor Dolittle.  But maybe she can help her dad find her childhood best friend, Crystal, a drug addict whose gone missing.

The novel is “both funny and sad, the kind of story we like the best.”  At its heart is the spirit of family, both those we are born into and the ones we make.  It’s wild with a fierce love that bites, and sweet with the tameness of second and third chances. The true story of Harold Baynes, his remarkable wife, and their many animals is woven in such a way that Goldilocks would approve it as “just right.” 

I couldn’t put this hug and a belly laugh of a novel down, and Moses, the Great Pyrenees mix, and Rasputin, the 18k pet fox, left paw prints on my heart that will have me recalling this work with a smile for days to come.

Read this book.

THE COUNTRY OF ICE CREAM STAR – Sandra Newman

Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (Chatto & Windus, 2014; HarperCollins, 2015) has been on my TBR for years, and I finally picked it up.  This post-apocalyptic novel is about a destroyed America, set 80 some years after a “killing fever” called WAKS decimated the country.  The white people died or fled to Europe, where WAKS was being managed and the Russians were largely in control.  In America, pockets of communities developed, and tribes formed.

Those left in the “Nighted States” do not survive past their early twenties, and the country is populated with children.  The novel is “Children of the Corn” meets “The Walking Dead” meets Dread Nation.  Only better.

Our hero is Ice Cream Star, a fifteen-year-old Sengle.  She describes her people as follows: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.”

Other tribes include the Christings, though only Tophet and his wives remain in Massa woods, the Lowells, led by El Mayor, and the Nat Mass Armies, with their NewKing, Mamadou.  Outside of Massa woods are other groups, including the Catolicos and the Marias, and the armies at Quantico.  There are also Roos (or Russian soldiers), who are stealing children.

The novel opens with Ice Cream Star and some other Sengles raiding an evacuation house for supplies.  In the house, they find Pasha – a Russian solider.  Ice Cream takes him as a prisoner and eventually begins to communicate with him.  She soon learns that the Russians have a cure for WAKS, or what the Sengles call “posies.” Ice Cream’s older brother, Driver, is sick with the posies, and she becomes determined to get the cure for him.

What follows is an unpredictable, bloody political ride.  There’s a forbidden love with Mamadou, a love of necessity with El Mayor, and a very deep bond with Pasha Roo. None of the three men approve of the other, but Ice Cream will do what is necessary to protect her people.  Ice Cream is eventually kidnapped by the Catolicos and placed in a ruling position as the new Maria with Pasha being the white Jesus that she’s supposed to sacrifice.  It’s entirely political and ripe for a rebellion as the ruling class among the Catolicos are the “Spaniels” who speak “Panish” and the English are the workers.  As Ice Cream is English-speaking, she becomes the Maria of the common man.  All the while, she’s playing the long game to get to Quantico and parlay with the Russians for the cure to save Driver.

It’s a highly inventive novel that immerses the reader in a world with a made-up patois that combines English, Spanish and French.  This evolution of language is entirely realistic in this setting with no adults.  The commitment to the language for the duration of nearly 600 pages makes it a trying read, but such a rewarding one.  I do want to note that the author is white, and the novel is from the POV of a young, Black girl.  While I did not find it offensive or disrespectful, I would recommend reading reviews by BIPOC reviewers that may address this.

It’s a long, hard novel, but it is raw and brilliant.  You’ll fall in love with Ice Cream Star.

Read this book.

WHAT THE FIREFLIES KNEW – Kai Harris

“Her smile is like a gigantic, dripping ice cream cone, after I stuff my belly full with dinner. Even with a stomachache, I want that smile.” (7)

Kai Harris’s debut novel What the Fireflies Knew (Tiny Reparations Books) is a classic Bildungsroman, with a loss, journey, conflict, and growth.  What makes this novel unique is that it is a black Bildungsroman, and while Harris is not directly tackling the stolen and lost stories that left a literary canon brimming with coming-of-age novels written by white folks about white folks but woefully lacking in diversity, she intentionally puts four books in her main character’s hands that showcase the disparity and lack of diversity in literature.

The novel opens with almost-eleven Kenyatta Bernice (KB) finding her father dead.  KB doesn’t fully understand what killed her father or what a “fiend” is, she just knows he’s never coming back.  The novel quickly jumps forward several months.  They’ve been living in hotels and depression is wrapping its arms around KB’s momma, only KB doesn’t know its name.  KB’s momma takes KB and her older sister, Nia, to their grandfather’s home for the summer.  KB doesn’t understand where her mother is or why Nia has become so distant and mean.  With secret and open hurts, the novel lights up with family, forgiveness, and hope – shining in the darkness like the fireflies KB’s granddaddy teaches her how to catch.

KB is an avid reader, and her favorite novel is Anne of Green Gables.  While at her grandfather’s, she reads Their Eyes Were Watching God.  She recognizes the book is far too old for her, but it’s the first time she’s seen a character “with skin like mine and hair like Nia’s, who’s gotta figure stuff out just like us.”  She astutely recognizes that her father was her mother’s Tea Cake.  For her birthday, she selects The Secret Garden, another canonical Bildungsroman, but then Nia gives her the fourth book, Amazing Grace.  Nia readily tells her that the book is below KB’s reading level, but she “thought it would be nice for you to read a book about a girl who’s just like you, for once.”

And I hope this novel can do that.  While not marketed as such, this novel reads like a middle grade novel with a clear and unique voice that is limited on shelves.  While parts are indeed heavy, drug use and assault, it’s life and KB should sit next to Anne and Mary.

Read this book.