THE WISE WOMEN – Gina Sorell

Actress-turned-author Gina Sorell’s second novel, The Wise Women, will be released by Harper on 4/5/2022.  (I rec’d an advanced copy through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you!)  It’s a hug of an “everything works out in the end” story about mothers, daughters and sisters. There were some missed opportunities in developing the fragile and complex relationships, but it’s a comforting, feel good Hallmark movie of read and where I would have preferred more flesh to the story would have taken it out of that realm.

The “Wise” women are Wendy Wise, former Ask Abby/Miss Manners type columnist, and her two daughters, Barb and Clementine. When the novel opens, the youngest of the two daughters has just learned that her husband had lied to her and instead of purchasing the home she’d given him a down payment for, he’d invested in his own business. Clementine is horrified to learn she’s been renting the home of her dreams for two years and is on the brink of eviction because the rent hasn’t been paid. She’d let her Peter Pan of a selfish man boy husband manage their finances on the advice of Wendy Wise. (Wendy didn’t know she was giving her daughter advice.)

Barb, the older sister who had essentially raised Clementine when their mother was trying to build up her brand, has her own issues. She’d loaned her sister money for the house, she’s over-extended her finances, she’s questioning her role as a real estate developer as she watches her work destroy the individuality and uniqueness of neighborhoods in favor of cold high rises, and she’s concerned her girlfriend is cheating on her – again.

Wendy has been “let go” by the magazine in favor of younger voices, and she’s married husband number three and moved to Florida.  Her children have no idea.

It’s a novel of secrets and misunderstandings.  There’s a particular memory that lingers in Barb’s brain of being left home with a sick Clementine while their mother went out.  Barb had to call 911 and the police were almost dispatched.  Wendy also remembers that night.  She remembers the work party and the promotion and all the battles she had to fight to be successful enough to stand on her own and care for her children.  Much of the presentation of Wendy is a caricature, but the moments that scratch beneath the surface to show her fears and sacrifices are tenderly wrought.

The characters of Dominic, Jill, and Samantha could have been better utilized.  The Sunny and Todd drama was unnecessary and distracting.  And Seth was far too cliched.  I wish we could get away from the idea that when a woman’s marriage is over, she has to immediately get into another relationship.  I thought the novel was going to hold fast to Clementine becoming independent and unafraid (especially after the focus on her mother’s second and third marriages) and it comes close, but then there’s Seth.  Perfectly harmless and safe, but unnecessary; she could have had her happy ever after without the promise of him.

The cover is stunning with its design and colors, but it’s a complete misrepresentation of the novel.  I think a cutesy illustrative cover like The Kiss Quotient with the three women (and a treehouse, lip balm, the Wise books, etc.) would have been more fitting.

In short, it’s a quick, feel-good read. 

INTERIOR CHINATOWN – Charles Yu

Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown (Pantheon Books, 2020) was a bit of an unexpected delight.  It’s witty and dark, entertaining and heartbreaking, insightful and inventive.  I didn’t expect it to be as hilarious as it was, but Yu’s smart writing in this script format brings a lot of truth layered in comedy.

Willis Wu is an actor who dreams of being more than “generic Asian man.”  His father had successfully managed a titled role as Sifu, the Mysterious Kung Fu Master, and Willis wants to follow in his footsteps.  His father’s fame was short-lived, and Sifu soon became “Old Asian Man.” Willis’s mother is also an actress – her roles ranging from Pretty Oriental Flower to Girl with Almond Eyes to Old Asian Woman. Those in Chinatown don’t get title roles – they get stereotypes. It doesn’t matter if they’re Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, etc., Hollywood has carved out a limited role for Asians and treats them all the same.

The treatment in Hollywood is paralleled when Willis provides his father’s backstory:  As a young man, Ming-Chen Wu attends graduate school and teaches undergraduates.  Two of his roommates are from Korea, one is from Japan, and the fourth, Allen, is also from Taiwan.  Allen is brutally attacked, and the assailant said, “this is for Pearl Harbor.” 

“Young Wu thinks: it could have been him.  Nakamoto says : it should have been him.  All of the housemates realize: it was them.  All of them.  That was the point. They are all the same.”

In Chinatown, Ming-Chen loses his identity by first becoming Sifu and then slowly sinking into oblivion as “Old Asian Man.” Willis is well on his way to following in his father’s footsteps – losing himself while chasing a dream to be a top-billed star. Reality blends with fiction as he begins to struggle with differentiating the role he plays from the life he lives.

It’s a dark and witty take on #hollywoodsowhite, but also on America as a whole.  The script writing style takes a minute to adjust to, but what a perfect way to tell this story.

Read this book.

EVEN AS WE BREATHE – Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

“And now it seems possible that love is the only thing that will outlive us all, but only if we continue to tell its story.”

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s Even as We Breathe (The University Press of Kentucky 2020) is a layered and fragile history, cloaked in mystery and romance, that is executed in a way that pays homage to the tradition and art of storytelling.  The heart of Clapsaddle’s debut, the rhythmic and lulling thump! thump!, gets in your blood until you can smell the dirt and taste the smoke.  This novel with its oft neglected voice of my home state makes me excited for the stories to come.

Cowney Sequoyah, a Cherokee from Cherokee, is struggling with his identity, his future, and his family.  His mother died not long after giving birth, and his father, a man Cowney never met, died at the tail end of a world war.  He was raised by his father’s mother, his Lishie.  While he lives with Lishie, Cowney works with his Uncle Bud, and is subjected to a significant amount of verbal abuse, bitterness and anger at the hands of his father’ brother- a man so consumed with guilt, shame, anger, and grief he can’t see straight.

Even as We Breathe opens with a 19-year-old Cowney preparing to head to the Grove Park Inn and Resort for a summer job.  It’s 1942, and a second world war is raging – a deformity from birth having prevented him from enlisting.  He is eager to escape Cherokee, and a summer at the Grove Park Inn, which is currently housing foreign diplomats who are called “guests” but aren’t allowed to leave, is just what he needs.  Especially if it means he’ll get to spend time with Essie Stamper, a beautiful girl from Cherokee who will also be working at the Inn.

Cowney has sweet, stolen moments with Essie in a room seemingly forgotten by the rest of the Inn.  They play dominoes and tell stories.  They dream and take pictures with the camera Cowney’s loveable boss lets his use.  They’re both working to save money to leave Cherokee for good, and Cowney fancies himself falling in love. But Essie has her own secrets, a love letter squirreled away and a romance that nearly destroy them both.

When the daughter of one of the diplomats goes missing, Cowney, the only Native American male on staff, finds himself an easy target to blame.  In finding the truth of the missing girl, he stumbles over the truth of himself, his father, and his Uncle Bud.  And much like with Essie, the story that unfolds is not as it first appeared, but both will define his life.

Bears hold special meaning to the Cherokee, and the use of bears in the novel is probably my favorite aspect.  From the significance of Bud trying to convince Cowney to help him in trading bear organs with the Asian “guests,” to the wounded bear he encounters, to the mother bear who screams at him -the black bear is artfully utilized in ways that holds meaning and purpose that go well beyond the pages.

Even as We Breathe is a delicate love letter to a people, a history, and place.  It will settle on your skin and linger long after the last page.  And if you listen, you might just hear Edgar in the sway of the trees.

Read this book.

SKIN OF THE SEA – Natasha Bowen

“Here is a story.  Story it is…”

Billing Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea (Random House 2021) as Children of Blood and Bone meets The Little Mermaid does it a bit of disservice; just because a book centers around Yoruba spirits (Orisa/Orisha) doesn’t mean it has to be compared to every other book that also pulls from West African mythology, and Skin of the Sea deserves so much more than surface comparisons.

The novel is set in the 1400s as slave ships make the dark and deadly journey through the Middle Passage.  In the depths, Simi gathers the souls of the discarded and broken brown bodies tossed over the sides and carries them in her brilliant sapphire necklace to her maker, Yemoja, who will bless them prior to their final journey to Olodumare.  Simi is a Mami Wata, one of seven, created by Yemoja to assist in gathering the abandoned souls.  (She’s a mermaid with a mission.)

Simi doesn’t recall much of her life before Yemoja turned her into a Mami Wata, but memories of her mother and her father and the life she knew before come to her when she stands on two feet.  She’s reluctant to completely give up those memories and clings to the humanness of her.

When the body of a young man sinks into the depths that are her domain, she is surprised to see he still lives.  She has two options: wait for him to die and take his soul to Yemoja, or save him and beg forgiveness later.  She chooses the latter, and her and Kola’s destinies become entwined.

Simi has unknowingly broken a rule that could result in the destruction of all Mami Wata. She is tasked with begging forgiveness of Olodumare, but she must find a way to speak with him directly as the trickster and messenger god, Esu, will not relay any messages on behalf of Yemoja and the Mami Wata.  Kola has his own reasons for seeking out Esu and Olodumare.

While on their journey, the pair encounter yumboes, pale fairies, who assist them.  One yam-sized fairy, Issa, serves as their guide.  In addition to the yumboes, they also encounter other magic beings including the Ninka Nanka (a West African Nessie) and bultungin (shapeshifter/werewolf who can shift into a hyena).

As frequently seen in mythology and folklore, the art of storytelling plays a central part to the novel, and Esu has guarded his domain with a story that must be told correctly to pass. It’s perhaps my favorite part of the novel.

Skin of the Sea is a short, quick-paced read that can serve as an introduction to some of Yoruba’s well-loved figures, including Mami Wata and Oldumare. (And even Olukun, a dark and dangerous god chained to the ocean floor so as not to destroy the world – and a god that Simi makes a deal with.  Let’s just say I’m certain he will factor into the second installment.)  It’s well crafted, but some character development was sacrificed to keep that chaotic pacing that is integral to the story.

It’s not just “a black Little Mermaid” but if that is what gets someone to open the pages, then it’s a black Little Mermaid.

Read this book.

WE WENT TO THE WOODS – Caite Dolan-Leach

I probably wouldn’t have picked up Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went to the Woods (Random House 2019) had I seen the comparison to Donna Tartt.  I don’t know if Dolan-Leach studied the literary brat pack from Bennington, but her work is certainly reminiscent of that particular group of writers and their self-absorbed and unlikeable characters who show no growth or development. 

Mack, the narrator, was an anthropology PhD student until she was quite publicly removed from the program following her involvement in a reality TV series called The Millennial Experiment.  (It was the Real World meets Preppers, y’all.  And stuff got real.)  She became public enemy number one when she outed another housemate as trans with the intent to hurt that person, and cancel culture did what cancel culture does. Mack moved back in with her parents and picked up what jobs she could.  (The reveal of her fall from grace is unnecessarily and painstaking delayed.)

She’s looking for an escape when she meets Louisa, Chloe, Beau and Jack, and living “off the grid” on the “Homestead” is an easy ask of her.  It doesn’t hurt that all four of her new friends are breathtakingly gorgeous, and Mack wants to have sex with all four of them at some point in the novel.  She’s self-aware and understands that lust drives her ready acceptance to be part of this community they’re building. 

None of the characters are likeable.  Except for the dog, who, btw, dies.  (Spoiler alert.  Sorry.)  Mack in particular is frustratingly inconsistent.  She teeters between educated scholar who observes more than participates and half feral child of Neverland who ignores the very real and very serious signs that the Homestead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  She investigates and questions certain half-truths she’s told but abandons the inquiry and never returns to it.  Maybe it’s intentional character development – Dolan-Leach’s way of showing someone so willing to overlook glaring issues just to “belong” – but it’s so very annoying.

Beau is every cult leader in history.  He’s attractive, mysterious, sexual, passionate about something, a leader. He’s the kind of man people would do stupid things for.  He and Louisa are the masterminds behind the Homestead, and they’re not exactly truthful about the intent as their off the grid lifestyle is teetering over into the dangerous world of activism and domestic terrorism.  Chloe is a flower-child – a lover of love – who is battling her own internal demons and hoping the quiet of the woods will bring her peace.

The Homestead is not the first community of its kind on the property, and Mack finds and hides a journal by one of the original community members.  When she puts on her scholar hat and isn’t running naked through the woods with her wolf-dog, the book’s heart beats a little stronger. The history of the first community and its crimes juxtaposed to the Homestead and their crimes is where this novel excels, but it just can’t get out of its own way.

It’s not a “bad” book, it’s just not for me.

ANXIOUS PEOPLE – Fredrik Backman

“Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of…”

If you’re going to split a book into the next year, you better make sure it’s a damn good one.  Otherwise, you’ll be cursed to read lukewarm works that just miss the mark for the entire year. (A bookish superstition that I’m not going to question.)  And so, as the clock counted down the last minutes of 2021, I selected Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People (2019, translated 2020 Atria Books) because Backman doesn’t disappoint. As I turned the last page on the first day of the new year, I knew without a doubt I’d read what will be one if not the top read of 2022.  What a way to start the year.

Backman is a heartbeat author, writing characters and communities so full of love, it spills over and leaks from your eyes. His books are hugs, eyelash kisses, and belly laughs – told in a voice that is uniquely grandiose yet understated all at the same time — and Anxious People was an absolute delight.

On the day before New Year’s Eve, a group of people are taken hostage by a would-be bank robber with not a toy gun.  I say “would-be” because the bank was cashless and no one was robbed, but that’s neither here nor there.  The robber flees the bank and ends up at an apartment showing, the potential purchasers become the hostages.  A father and son police duo are on the case, and when the robber goes missing after the hostages are released, they realize that someone had to have helped.  The son will not rest until he can “fix it.” He’s worried the robber is injured, and he wants to help.  Helping is his thing.  He comes by it honest though, with a priest of a mother and a cop of a father.

Taken hostage are Ro and Julia (a young lesbian couple who are very, very pregnant), Estelle (an 87 year old whose revelation about Knut had me biting my lip), Lennart (a mystery man in a bunny suit who had me laughing aloud), Roger and Anna-Lena (perhaps the most unexpected of the bunch, they are flippers with a few secrets of their own), and Zara (a wealthy banker whose been on her own journey, a decade’s old unopened letter serving as her albatross). As the robber repeatedly bemoans, they are indeed the worst hostages ever.  But the robber is pretty much the worst robber ever, so they all deserve each other.

The view from the apartment turned crime scene is of a bridge.  A man jumped from it ten years ago.  A young woman didn’t because a young man was there. Roger says bridges are supposed to bring people together.  And when a robber tried to rob a cashless bank and ended up at a showing for an apartment with a view of that bridge, another kind of bridge was built and a bunch of “idiots” were brought together.  The result is beautiful slice of life, love, laughter, and sacrifice.

Read this book.

THE SENTENCE – Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (Harper 2021) was my last read of the year, and it was my favorite read of the year.  (I didn’t think anything would edge out Black Sun, but Erdrich’s effortless, timely and amazing storytelling did.  I shouldn’t have been surprised; Erdrich has been weaving some of my favorite stories for decades.)

Set in 2020, The Sentence is a time-capsule of a novel that slices across your skin like a serrated knife; it hurts with the truth of itself.  The novel opens on All Souls’ Day in 2019 and ends a year later, carrying the reader through the initial fear and confusion of Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed (the novel is set in Minneapolis), and the election.  Nestled between events that will forever mark the year are the individual lives, and that is where Erdrich always shines.

Tookie is a felon.  She was sentenced to sixty years after she carried a body across state lines.  She was doing it for love and money, but she didn’t know about the drugs strapped to his body.  The white women who’d orchestrated the entire transport, using Tookie as the mule for their dead mule, received a slap on the wrist while Tookie was made an example of.  Years later, the racial disparity of sentencing resulted in her sentence being commuted.

She takes a job at independent bookstore because an old schoolteacher had gifted her a dictionary while she was imprisoned, and a love of reading and literature flourished. (The bookstore in the novel is Erdrich’s own indie, Birchbark Books. Erdrich even writes herself into The Sentence as the owner who makes a couple of appearances and is on a book tour when the world shuts down due to Covid.)

Upon her release, Tookie marries the tribal cop, Pollux, who’d arrested her.  He leaves the profession not long after her arrest, but his former profession and the arrest cause some tensions to bubble to the surface during the protests following George Floyd’s murder.

As the world burns around her, Tookie and the bookstore are being haunted by a former customer.  Make no mistake, Flora isn’t the only ghost Tookie has to face in these pages. She must face the demons of her past and the ghosts of today to move forward. How Tookie’s walls come down and the ice around her heart melts marks Erdrich still as one of my favorite authors; few can write a beautifully broken and memorable character as she can.

Sixty years is a sentence, but so are “The door is open. Go.”  And this is a book of life; it’s full of rawness and reality, a jagged scar of a read, but oh the hope.

Read this book.

TRISTAN STRONG KEEPS PUNCHING – Kwame Mbalia

The third and final installment of Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong series, Tristan Strong Keeps Punching (Disney Hyperion 2021), was a near perfect conclusion to a story that writes itself in your bones and whispers in your sleep. All three works were five star reads for this bookdragon, and I know had I read this as a tween, it would be a series that would stick with me all the days of my life.  It *is* a series that will stick with me all the days of my life.  Put this book in little hands – little hands of all the beautiful shades of brown and cream we come in.  Let them read.

Tristan Strong Keeps Punching takes place just after the conclusion of the events in Tristan Strong Destroys the World. If you recall, Alke was destroyed and its inhabitants were released into Tristan’s world. The final installment begins with Tristan in New Orleans at a family reunion and juggling the task of finding those from Alke, including his friends. As if the task didn’t already seem insurmountable, who should show up but King Cotton.

While many of the heroes and villains from the prior two novels make appearances, there are also new ones that highlight the tortured history and continued racism and hatred in America.  Patty Roller and the theft of children and souls, the chilling danger of Harold and Darla, the meaning behind many of the spirituals… it’s all almost too much for Tristan, our resident storyteller who sees the magic and the trauma, and he is nearly consumed in a fiery rage.  Quite literally.  His magic boxing gloves burst into flames that he can’t control, and he nearly destroys the world.  Again.

Tristan must learn to control and direct his anger and his grief, something he’s struggled with throughout the entire series, if he is ever going to be successful in the facing King Cotton and stopping Patty Roller.

The importance of storytelling and of finding and telling the lost stories is what drew me to Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and that theme sang loudly through the entire series.

Tell the stories.

Read the stories.

Remember the stories.

And keep punching.

ONCE THERE WERE WOLVES – Charlotte McConaghy

Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves (Flatiron Books, 2021) is a slow burn of an environmental novel that begins tumbling fast into a whodunnit. McConaghy skillfully masters three classic literary conflicts in this novel that initially appears to be man versus nature before turning to man versus man before showing its true colors as man versus self. The plot is captivating and the writing is strikingly beautiful; however, some scenes teeter too far into the “trauma porn” realm for this to have been a five-star read.

Inti Flynn grew up thinking she was part of the forest, and she wasn’t wrong.  As an adult, she’s made wolves and their reintroduction to the wild her mission.  When the novel opens, she’s just arrived in Scotland where she and her team will be releasing fourteen gray wolves into the Highlands. The reintroduction is met with resistance and fear from the local farmers, and Inti must walk a delicate balance to ensure the project is a success.  But Inti has little patience for humans, the true monsters of the world, and playing nice with them isn’t in her wheelhouse.  The wolves and their return to the wild are her life’s mission; she couldn’t care less what the locals think.

Inti wasn’t always so hard and unyielding.  She’d been the soft one growing up, the one her mother insisted needing toughening up due to a rare condition called mirror touch synesthesia that allows her to feel the sensation of being touched when watching someone else being touched, both caresses and blows.  But something had happened to her twin sister, Aggie, when they were in Alaska.  Something that Inti had witnessed and felt.  Now Inti is hard and unapologetic, and Aggie is a silent shell of the woman she once was. McConaghy is slow to reveal the root of Aggie’s trauma, but the novel is littered with hints that the actual triggering moment could have remained off page.  She opted, however, to include it.

When a local (a man Inti knows to be a wife beater) turns up dead, Inti does what it takes to protect her wolves.  She believes the animals were framed to cover up the true murderer.  As the novel tumbles forward toward its bloody and cold truth, we see just how far Inti will go to protect her pack and how her pack protects her.

Once There Were Wolves reminds us that the big bad wolf was never the villain of the story.  For someone who loved Julie of the Wolves as a child, this one held fast to my heart.  It’s a beautiful read that gently reminds us that we have to be better stewards of the world we’ve been given, while also reminding us of the importance of family and love.

All creatures know love.

Read this book.

WHEN TWO FEATHERS FELL FROM THE SKY – Margaret Verble

Margaret Verble’s When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky (Mariner Books 2021) is one of those disappointing novels that simply does not live up to its potential. It’s a perfectly okay read, but I wanted it to be as great as a historical novel written by Verble about a Cherokee horse diver should have been. Instead, I got a big ole chaotic slog with a lot of disconnect and dead animals.

Set in Nashville in the 1920s, the novel focuses primarily on Two Feathers, the Cherokee horse diver “on loan” from a Wild West show. Two’s name is actually Nancy Benge, but that’s not going to sell tickets, so she adopted a “wild Indian” stage name. Verble’s use of names and the importance of them is something that is carried well throughout the novel, especially with Two, Crawford, and Little Elk. Crawford is one of “the Crawfords,” an affluent black family in segregated Tennessee. He is Two’s closest confidant, and they’ve bonded over the care of the animals. The zoo where Two and Crawford work was built on an Indian burial ground, and Little Elk is a ghost who was killed before reaching manhood and stuck with a childish name. He isn’t the only ghost who shows up in the pages, but he is one of the more impactful ones.

When Two suffers an injury that breaks both her body and soul, she stays on at the Glendale Park and Zoo. She does so because getting home would be a painful, bumpy endeavor. Because she was seriously injured while on the job, Mr. Shackleford seems quite agreeable to letting her stay on even though she can’t dive; they’ll find something for her to do.  One of the workers, Jack, is obsessed with Two even before the accident, and as she recovers, his advances become dangerous.  He is a poorly written caricature of evil; had Verble focused more on him as a character and less on packing the novel with 1920s Nashville history and distracting sidetrips and plots, the novel could have been a five-star read.

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky is a novel of race in the Prohibition-era South, but it just gets too wrapped up in itself, and it is just a little too clunky to excel.