SECOND PLACE – Rachel Cusk

In January, I resolved to read the 2021 Booker Prize longlist.  The list was released last week, and I immediately put in my requests at the local library.  (That was another resolution – to use the library more.) Three of the books haven’t been released in the US yet or have limited distribution, which is a bummer, but five are currently in my house.  The shortlist will be announced on 9/14 and the winner will be announced on 11/3, so I have time.  Let’s do this.

I started Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021) with high hopes, but this 180-page novel is about 160 pages too long.  Had it been any longer, it likely would have been a very rare DNF for me.  The opening where the narrator meets the devil on a train in France and watches as he sexual assaults a child and does nothing set the stage for something that wholly under-delivered, but I’m not surprised it was longlisted as it oozes a certain Booker type – the type where the book clearly thinks too highly of itself.

The novel is narrated by a woman known only as M.  She’s middle-aged, whiny, and insufferable.  She addresses the novel to “Jeffers,” but the reader is never made privy to who Jeffers is.  He undoubtedly represents a very open nod to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence stayed with her for a bit.  M’s second husband, Tony, is also a caricature of Luhan’s Native American husband, Tony.   The reason for a fictional retelling of Luhan’s memoir is a mystery to me, and I do not think it was successful.

The novel focuses on M’s obsession with the eccentric and difficult artist, L, as well as her desire to matter, to be seen.  She’s an author, but little is said of her books.  She’s a mother and a wife, but seemingly not very good at either.  Describing her dark-skinned husband as “more of an ugly than a good-looking man” and having difficulty communicating with him, M is primed for an obsession with an artist that could destroy her marriage.

She invites L to come stay with her and Tony at the “second place,” another home on their property set up for guests.  She thinks it would be good for his artistic creativity, and he eventually agrees.  But the man proves to be far less than the art that spoke so surely to her – he is a horrible, unkind man – and his interactions with M are far from the beautiful, seductive, passionate images M had visualized.

Cusk can clearly write, and there are some quite lovely passages and ideas in the work.  The jealousy directed at M’s daughter over the fear of completely disappearing and being replaced by a younger version of herself is a constant theme, humming as an undercurrent beneath the obsession with L, and represents some of the best writing of the short novel.  But there are far more misses than hits.

This is a hard pass for me and that’s a line I rarely draw.  Next.

THE DIRTY BOOK CLUB – Lisi Harrison

Lisi Harrison’s The Dirty Book Club (Gallery Books, 2017) is what happens when the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants grows up and pants become erotic novels.  Embracing the bonds between women, The Dirty Book Club begins in 1962 when a group of friends start their own secret club, the aptly named Dirty Book Club.  The DBC is centered around books about sex and the own sex lives of the four original members.  The women seal the pact of secrecy with the smoke of their Lucky Strikes. 

M.J. befriends one of the original DBC members when she moves to California, but the friendship is short-lived as Gloria soon moves to Paris to honor another pact of the original DBC.  The move to Paris marks the time for a new set of members for the DBC.  The founding members pick their replacements, hand them the keys to the club, and a list of rules.  The four chosen women, M.J., Britt, Jules, and Addie, are little more than strangers and would never have organically created that friend group. 

Forced into the relationship by the four women who hand selected them,  the new members are wary of each other and reluctant to read the dirty books and share their deeply guarded secrets.  But the original DBC expected such resistance – each member has drafted a letter to correspond to a reading selection.  These letters, the insight into the women whose friendship has lasted over half of a century,  help form the bonds between M.J., Britt, Jules and Addie – bonds that strengthen over secrets and sex, love and loss, hope and heartbreak.

The erotica, significantly more taboo during the original DBC’s tenure, is the bridge that brings the four young women together, but it is their hearts and the need for female companionship that wraps around them and holds them in the club.

It’s a cute book.  It doesn’t put a lot of flesh on the bones of some pretty serious issues (abuse, alcoholism, depression, adultery, miscarriage), and that seems a bit of miss, but it’s a cute and easy read.

CLAP WHEN YOU LAND – Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel in verse, Clap When You Land (Harper Teen 2020), sings with beauty, love, loss, and family. Told in alternating views, the novel follows two teenagers whose father is killed in plane crash – neither knowing of the other’s existence.  But when the plane goes down and they must accept that their beloved Papi is dead, the secrets unravel.

Camino Rios lives in the Dominican Republic with her healer aunt.  She’s learned the Dominican ways at her aunt’s side, and she dreams of coming to the US to study to be a doctor.  Papi sends money that pays for her fancy private school and allows her and her tia to have certain luxuries, like a generator and plenty of food in the kitchen.  He visits every summer, carving out those precious months just for her.  She’s waiting alone at the airport for her father’s descent when she learns of the crash.

Yahaira Rios is Papi’s New York City daughter.  She’s extremely skilled at chess, but she’s stopped playing.  Her girlfriend, Dre, is her closest friend and sweetest love.  She doesn’t understand why her father leaves every summer or why she isn’t allowed to go to the Dominican with him.  She is angry with her father and doesn’t say a word when he leaves – her feelings bottled up tight inside, always the chess player even when she’s not playing the game.  She’s sitting in the cafeteria when she’s called to the office and told of the crash.

And with the words “no survivors,” Papi’s two worlds, and his two beautiful daughters, collide, and the duality of his existence is made known to those who loved him most – a duality everyone but the girls already knew. 

Laced with grief and grit, anger and acceptance, beauty and bitterness – this tale of two sisters who lose their father and find each other will linger on your lips like a first kiss or that first bite of a fruit in season.

Read this book.

BLACK SUN – Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun (SAGA PRESS 2020) was one of last year’s hotly anticipated releases, and I can see why.  Inspired by various pre-Columbus American cultures, this epic fantasy is full strong female characters, magic, politics, and prophecies.  It is the first of the Between Earth and Sky series, and Fevered Star is slated for publication on April 19, 2022.  (You better believe that’s a preorder!) 

Black Sun features numerous LGBTQ+ characters, and what is remarkable is how their “queerness” isn’t a plot device.  Characters like The Knife, who uses the pronouns xe/xir, and the healer who was born a man but is now a woman,just are.  They weave in and out of the story, their sexuality no different a descriptor than their eye color.  (A quick toe-tip in history would let you know that the “sin of queerness” is a very “White Western World” construct that was a tool of colonization and Christianity, so it shouldn’t be surprising that in this world Roanhorse crafted that was inspired by pre-Columbus American cultures sexuality just is.)

 The novel opens with “Today he would become a god.  His mother told him so.”  Serapio’s mother scars his skin with the marks of her people, feeds him poison, and sews his eyes shut.  One of the last things he sees with his own eyes is the crow god eating the sun.

The opening is set ten years before the Convergence, the time when Serapio will fulfill the prophecy of his people, the Carrion Crow, during a winter solstice that will collide with the solar eclipse – when the sun will be at its weakest.

Weeks before the Convergence, Xiala is bailed out of jail following a questionable drunken sexual encounter that a woman’s husband did not approve of and made captain of the ship that will carry Serapio to Tova.  Xiala is Teek, a magical daughter of the water.  (Think mermaid and siren.)  She senses the magic in Serapio, and the water and the sky become companions.

Meanwhile, in Tova, Naranpa, the Sun Priestess, is preparing for the winter solstice.  She is a Dry Earther, and many within the Sky Made Clans do not believe she should have been made a Watcher.  She is challenged by some of the other Watchers and affluent people from the Sky Made clans, Golden Eagle in particular.  Her position and her very life are being threatened.  After a failed assassination attempt and the death of the matron of Carrion Crow, the earth runs red.

The murderous political situation has left Tova vulnerable and ripe for Serapio to fulfill his destiny as the sky goes dark.

Black Sun  is a wholly original, fantastically crafted epic that will etch itself into your skin like the haahan of the Carrion Crow. 

Read this book.

THE STILLNESS BEFORE THE START – Jennifer Ann Shore

If you’re looking for a well-written YA romance that is sweet with endearing characters, look no further than Jennifer Ann Shore’s The Stillness Before the Start (2020).  Shore is phenomenal at capturing the voices of teenage girls who are strong and confident while still figuring life out.  I don’t read this genre often, but I will always make an exception for Shore because of her female characters.  Metallic Red remains my favorite Shore novel, largely because of Mina, but The Stillness Before the Start and Harper Reed are a very close second.

Harper is a high school senior who is accustomed to planning her every move.  To date, she’s been wholly successful at it; she’s going to be valedictorian, she’s going to win the scholarships, and she’s going to be able to pursue her dreams.  Her dreams include James, the best friend who is as close as family.  Harper is playing the long game, and she plans for her relationship with James to move beyond friendship once in college because high school sweethearts never last.

Enter Dylan Archer.  He’s gorgeous, rich, and James’s sworn enemy.  What could he possibly want with Harper?  When he asks for her help in AP English, she can’t say no; she loves English far more than she dislikes Dylan.  As she gets closer to Dylan, she begins to see that she can’t plan for everything and that maybe the things everyone thinks she should want aren’t the things she actually does want.  Dylan shows her the contours of her heart.

The Stillness Before the Start made me nostalgic for 1990s teen rom coms – She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You in particular.  It’s a connection that isn’t lost on Shore, who openly nods to these sweet movies of my teenage years.

The Stillness Before the Start is a sweet teen romance – a candy read that features a lot of candy (there’s always candy in Shore’s novels!).  This feel-good read is perfect for folks who want believable characters, and a little more sweetness and little less angst in their teen romances.  I’m sure you’ll love Harper and her defiant curls as much as I do.

Read this book.

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL – Zakiya Dalila Harris

Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl (Atria Books, 2021) is a surprising, unsettling, laugh out loud, edge of your seat sort of read that comfortably sets you down one path before abruptly shifting gears and leaving the reader gulping up each page to the end in what becomes one hell of an unexpected ride.  I had not read any reviews of the book prior to reading, and I strongly recommend you avoid spoilers – you need to come at it blind to fully appreciate its genius. Because of that, I’m not really going to go into much detail, especially details from the latter half of the book.

It was an uncomfortable read for me because I’m white and I read it from a place of privilege.  While I didn’t work at a publishing house, I did briefly intern at one.  And #publishingsowhite was a thing long before there was a hashtag.  (In my younger days, that was a pound sign, y’all.)  It’s a timely read.  The fact that it made me uncomfortable is a good thing, and it’s part of the power of this novel – it unapologetically is a #blackgirlmagic novel that doesn’t water itself down too much to be “palatable” for white readers.  And that’s the voice we all need.

Nella is the only black employee at an affluent publishing company.  She’s been trying to get her company to pursue more diverse employees and authors, but there hasn’t been much forward movement.  And then she smells it – cocoa butter.  She can barely contain her excitement; they’re interviewing a black girl.  When they hire Hazel, Nella is ecstatic.  Suddenly, she’s not nearly as alone, and the two women connect on a level that only those with shared experiences can.  Or so Nella thinks.  But then someone starts leaving her notes, telling her to leave Wagner.  Is it Hazel?  Is there only room for one black girl? Is Nella just paranoid and losing her mind?

I really want to talk about hair and the historical and cultural importance of it, but I’m not.  Just know that what Harris does with hair is brilliant.  The Other Black Girl is not a perfect read, and it stumbles in some areas, but where it excels more than makes up for the stumbles.  I want more.

Read this book. 

THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND – Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left Behind (Penguin Books LTD (Great Britain), 2012, Viking Penguin (USA), 2013) is the first Jojo Moyes’s book I’ve read.  I’d been reluctant to read Moyes due to plagiarism allegationsand likely will not read The Giver of the Stars for those reasons, but I did enjoy The Girl You Left Behind.  Written in a comforting and easy style, The Girl You Left Behind is a quick and engaging read – a candy book that had the potential to carry more of a punch but never quite swung.

The novel opens in 1916 France where Sophie Lefevre is running her family’s hotel with her sister while their husbands are fighting in the war.  The Germans have seized her town and requisitioned the hotel, forcing her to serve the troops everything evening.  Her anger and resentment spill out in dangerous and defiant ways. The new Kommandant is different – he knows and appreciates art, and he engages her in conversations about the art scene she and her husband, Edouard, had been a part of in Paris.  They form a connection.  At the heart of that risky connection is a painting by her husband that hangs in the hotel.  The defiant, proud, and sexy girl in the painting is a far cry from the shell of a woman that stands before him, but it is undoubtedly Sophie.  An obsession is born.  Pushed to the edge of desperation, Sophie makes a choice that smears her name and wipes her from history – nothing left but the painting.

That painting is at the heart of another “war” nearly a century later.  Liv Halston’s husband, David, had purchased the painting on their honeymoon.  After four short and sweet years, he unexpectedly died – his beautifully designed house and the painting all that remains. Depressed and quickly becoming desolate, Liv tries to move on.  When Paul enters her life, she begins to see there is hope.  And then he sees the painting.  Paul works for a company that tracks down and returns stolen works to their rightful owners, and he’s been hired by the Lefevre family to recover Edourard’s The Girl You Left Behind.  As the legal battle over the potentially stolen artwork unfolds, Liv and Paul work to track down what happened to Sophie – the tortured battle lines between them clearly drawn.  If the artwork was stolen by the Kommandant, it must be returned.  But what if it wasn’t?  What happened to Sophie?

The moral dilemmas presented for both Sophie and Liv are rife with missed opportunities; this is the area where the book could have been elevated beyond candy, but these sections are brief and glossy – merely paying lip service to the very real and serious issues of the treatment of women and stolen art during wars. While I wish certain aspects had been given more life, I’d still recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction with a hint of mystery and romance.   I’ve heard The Girl You Left Behind is a bit different from Moyes’s other works, so keep that in mind if you’re expecting it to be another Me Before You.

THE RIB KING – Ladee Hubbard

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben may be the two you recognize, but they’re certainly not the only racist imagery used to market goods in America’s tortured post-civil war through today era.  Black iconography has long been something that has fascinated Americans, and black caricatures and stereotypes were used to sell, sell, sell – largely to white consumers.  These racist and stereotypical images proved a lucrative marketing strategy, but not for the black population; white businessmen continued to profit while the face of the brand and often the inventor of the product took the crumbs he or she was given while being expected to perform and be grateful for the opportunity.  This time in American history provides us the setting for Ladee Hubbard’s The Rib King (HarperCollins, 2021).

The novel opens in 1914 and quickly introduces the reader to August Sitwell, groundskeeper for the (formerly) affluent Barclays.  He’s been there for fifteen years and is part of the Barclays all-black staff. (The Barclays do not believe in “race mixing” among their domestic employees.) Every year, the Barclays bring in 3 black children from the orphanage – it’s cheap labor and it allows themselves to pat themselves on their back about giving back to the community.  As one of those orphans who stayed, Mr. Sitwell pays special attention to these children, especially the three from 1914.  When he encounters them reading a novel, The Life and Times of Cherokee Red, Wild Man of the Reconstruction, he takes the book from them, doubting they’re telling the truth when they say one of the guests had given it to them, and goes immediately to his employer.  Mr. Barclay dismisses him, saying one of the guests from Florida had been handing them out and claiming some relation to one of the characters.

This novel is the catalyst for all that is to come.  Unable to read, Mr. Sitwell pays his landlord to read the book and tell him what happens.  Even though retold with misstated facts and a cast devoid of black people, he recognizes the story of the thriving all black community he’d been raised in, a community that was decimated when he was a child.  Anger begins to bubble up.

When one of the orphans finds himself in a spot of trouble, Mr. Sitwell does what he thinks has to be done – he sells the sauce he’d crafted using his mother’s recipe and Mamie’s talents, signs his likeness over to the company, and betrays the household.

The Rib King jumps forward a decade after Mr. Sitwell signs the contract.  Jennie, a domestic from the Barclay household who’d been friends with Mr. Sitwell until he’d destroyed everything, is the proud owner of a beauty salon.  She’d been forced to get married in order to make the purchase, but that was just another hoop to jump through.  She’s developed a salve, Mamie’s Brand Gold, and is trying to sell it to a big company – she wants to see it on shelves across the country.  The deal hinges on her relationship with the Rib King, and on her getting Mr. Sitwell to step down and away from the product. She hasn’t spoken to him in years, but he is still destroying everything.  Armed with her wit and own ambitions, Jennie quickly realizes people aren’t what they seem, everyone has their own agenda, and revenge is a dish best served cold – with a little bit of sauce.

Read this book.

THE SECRET, BOOK & SCONE SOCIETY Ellery Adams

A few months ago, I entered a “name the cover” contest that Ellery Adams was hosting on Insta.  (If you don’t follow her, you should.  She has fantastic content and gorgeous bookish photos!)  She surprised me by including one of her books in the prize package and what a fun little treat The Secret, Book & Scone Society (Kensington Books 2017) is for anyone who loves books.

Set in Miracle Springs, North Carolina (we all know how much I love an NC setting!), The Secret, Book & Scone Society focuses on Nora, owner of Miracle Books.  Nora, physically and mentally scarred from a past she’d love to forget, has a bit of a gift – she provides alternative healing in the form of literature.  As Nora is a former librarian and current bookstore owner, the novel is chock full of literary references from Harry Potter to Atticus Finch, Water for Elephants to A Man Called Ove, and Shakespeare to Amy Tan. 

When a visiting businessman is found dead on the train tracks, Nora knows something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Nora, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, forms the Secret, Book, and Scone Society – a sisterhood of misfit and broken booklovers with devastating secrets.  The bond that forms between the women while they investigate the death of the businessman is my favorite aspect of the novel.

When another body turns up and one of the members of the Secret, Book, and Scone Society is arrested for the murder, there’s no turning back. But there’s little a group of well-read women with bellies full of comfort food won’t do for each other – and it’s that connection between the group of women that sets this book apart for me.

If you’re looking for a good summer read to add to your stack, this is a solid choice.

SLOW DANCING ON DINOSAUR BONES – Lana Witt

I picked up Slow Dancing on Dinosaur Bones by Lana Witt (Scribner 1996) from a local library sale a few years back.  Intrigued by the title, I tossed it into my purchase pile without hesitation.  ($5 boxes, y’all.  $5 boxes.)  It’s sat on my TBR since.  I finally picked it up and read the blurb, surprised to see it is a southern gothic novel.  (The title and cover had me envisioning a sweet romance, heavy on paleontology.)  I love a southern gothic, and the references to Flannie Flagg and Lee Smith had me quickly settling in with it.

Talk about missed opportunities.  The book had such potential, ticking off each ingredient of a southern gothic with ease but falling victim to trying to be “too much.”  The two main plots don’t work in harmony, and I wish the focus had been Rosalee or the mining company – not straddling between the two.

Set in Pike, Kentucky, this slice of life novel is full of the grotesque characters and dark humor expected with a southern gothic.  Gilman Lee runs a mechanic shop, but he’s better known for his wild parties, bluegrass, bootleg liquor, and womanizing.  Gemma Collet is marked by depression after her body loses all pigmentation due to severe vitiligo as a teen.  Self-loathing and hate make her quite the cynical and difficult person.  Rosalee Wilson, Gilman’s ex-flame with the beautiful voice, had left town after developing a coke habit but has returned clean and on the run.     There’s Ten Fifteen, Gilman’s best friend, whose hands are stuck like the hands of a clock at ten fifteen.  There are literal skeletons and figurative ones.  There’s the mining company trying to cheat folks.  There’s Tom Jett, a philosopher from California who grew sick of the ocean and sought the mountains.  And there’s Frank Denton, the villain who will do whatever it takes to find Rosalee.  And let’s not forget the waste of space that is the drug-dealing banker.

Witt hits the heart of the town best when music is playing, and those sections are some of the best written of the novel.  Rosalee’s attempts to escape Frank and Frank’s hunt for her are intriguing but not fully fleshed out.  Gilman taking on the mining company and the relationship between Pike residents and the company could have carried the novel without the abusive and murderous Frank and Rosalee plotline.  There were a lot of missed opportunities by mushing these two plots together, and it left me a bit disappointed.

This was the type of read that makes me mad because I could see such potential, and it just fell short.  I also don’t think the cover and title work with this story. 

Pity.