THE TREES – Percival Everett

My fifth read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Percival Everett’s The Trees (Graywolf Press 2021).  I read it in two days, devouring each hilarious and devastatingly brutal word. I didn’t have a funny novel about lynchings and racism on my bingo card but thank goodness the Booker longlist put this novel in front of me; it’s a belly laugh and a “fuck all y’all” in the same breath.  Kill Bill meets Jordan Peele barely scratches the surface of what the experience of reading this novel is.

I live not far from where the woman who falsely accused Emmett Till currently resides. While I was reading this novel, the grand jury declined to indict her on the warrant that was recently found. What does that have to do with Everett’s novel?  Everything.

Set in racist Money, Mississippi, the novel opens at Carolyn Bryant’s home.  It’s 2018, and she’s having some regrets.  Then the murders start. With each white body, the body of a Black man who looks eerily like Emmett Till is found.  The black body keeps disappearing only to show up at another murder. Two detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are brought in to investigate. The town isn’t exactly welcoming to the two Black detectives, and they really don’t like it when the Black woman FBI agent shows up.  But there are murders to solve and bodies to find.

But it’s not just Money.  Across the US, racists are being murdered. And the bodies of long dead people of color are found with them. It’s not just retribution for the murder of Emmett Till – it’s retribution for the murder of all those who were lynched.  While the dark comedy of a revenge fantasy carries the novel, the pages listing the names of lynched suck the air from the room.  It’s a plot point that feeds into the fantasy, but these are real names.  Real people.  It’s a stark reminder of a bloody history.

“When I write the names they become real, not just statistics. When I write the names they become real again. It’s almost like they get a few more seconds here.  Do you know what I mean? I would never be able to make up this many names. The names have to be real. They have to be real. Don’t they?… When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free.” 

“Carry on, child,” the old woman said.

This novel isn’t for everyone. It’s bloody and gruesome. It’s extremely dark humor centered on black trauma and racism.  But what a brilliant and blazing novel of revenge it is.

Read this book.

Booker count: 5 of 13

OH WILLIAM! – Elizabeth Strout

My fourth read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! (Random House 2021).  Despite being the third in a trilogy, Oh William is crafted such that it can be read as a standalone.  Written as a fictional memoir, the novel scratches at some things I typically dislike in fiction. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t wowed by Oh William.  For this type of writing to work for me as a reader, I must fall in love with the narrator.  And, while it’s a very unpopular opinion, I did not care for Lucy Barton.  Maybe if I read the first two of the trilogy, I’d have a different opinion of her, but the Lucy Barton telling us her story in Oh William is not someone I care about.

Lucy, a 64-year-old recently widowed novelist, explores grief, love and loneliness in this brief “fictional” memoir of a novel.  There is a comfortable familiarity with her ex-husband, William.  Despite being a philandering pompous jerk, she still sees him as her only “home.”  They’ve been divorced for years, and he’s on third wife, but they’ve maintained a friendship over the years.  When her second husband dies, Lucy finds a welcomed diversion in William’s struggles.  His third wife has just left him, and he’s just learned that he has a half-sister.  When he asks Lucy to join him on a trip to Maine to uncover more information about his German POW father and his half-sister his mother had left behind, she accepts.  The trip forces her to face her impoverished and traumatic childhood, her unhealthy marriage to William, and the continued struggles in her heart and mind.

In perhaps my favorite scene, Lucy is having a panic attack.  William, not exactly sympathetic, asks her why she’s having a panic attack.  She tells him his khakis are too short and it “depresses the hell out of [her].”

The novel is well-written, and Lucy is wonderfully developed and complex as a character, I just didn’t like her. Imagine getting seated next to an older woman, one who is slightly drunk and sad, on a long flight. It’s fun for a bit, but by the time you land you just want to give her your therapist’s number.  I’m pretty sure Strout recognized there may be a low threshold for tolerating Lucy – the novel is only 237 pages.

Should you read it?  It’s a quick read by a talented author.

Booker count: 4 of 13

BOOTH – Karen Joy Fowler

My third read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth (Putnam 2022).  While Fowler is no stranger to the Booker Prize (she was shortlisted in 2014), this is my first novel by her.  While reviews are relatively mixed, I found it a fascinating, well researched and executed historical saga about the Booth family.  Some of the criticism is that the novel has too much of the family, but that’s the entire point – this isn’t a novel about the man who assassinated President Lincoln, it’s a novel about the Booth family, American theatre, and a snapshot of a period in United States history; I couldn’t put it down.

“Are there ghosts?  How could there not be.”

In 1822, a famed Shakespearean actor leases farmland northeast of Baltimore to raise his family.  His first born is named after him, Junius Booth, or June.  Nine other children follow, with the second to the last being the one history remembers the most.  After June comes Rosalie, then the four children who would become childhood ghosts, then Edwin, Asia, John, and Joe.  Their father is a talented actor, unpredictable alcoholic, and a bit of a madman.  The family is secret because their father is still married to his first wife.

Despite their father’s attempts to keep the children away from acting, it’s in their blood.  So is a hunger for alcohol and a touch of madness.  From 1822 to 1893, we see the rise and fall and recreating of narratives of the Booth family.  Each sibling craves fame, glory, and most importantly, to be remembered.  They struggle with demons both real and imagined.  They suffer losses, shame, hunger, and failure.  Rosalie and Asia, the oft forgotten women of the family, complete opposites of each other, are the bookends struggling to hold the family together.

War draws nearer.  Loyalties of the family become divided.  But one constant is the call of the stage.  As the world begins to burn around them, Junius Booth’s sons continue to take the stage, all still battling the ghost of their now dead father.  They are theatre royalty; the Booth name means something, and the Booth children are chasing the same but different legacies.

Booth is a chunk of a novel, but it is far from a slog of a read. 

Read this book.

Booker count: 3 of 13

THE COLONY – Audrey Magee

My second read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Audrey Magee’s The Colony (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022).  While it clearly drips with Booker-type, it didn’t work for me because of an intense hatred or general indifference for the characters (excluding James and his mother).

During the summer of 1979, while Ireland is rocked with violence, an English artist and a French scholar descend upon a remote island in Ireland where the few inhabitants cling to a dying language and dying way of life.  Mr. Lloyd has arrived in the hopes of breathing new life into his drab art after his wife left him for someone more talented.  He claims he’s there to paint the cliffs and promises not to paint the people.  It’s a promise he never intended to keep, and the people immediately become his subjects.  Mr. Masson has channeled his inner demons of growing up with a French father and an Algerian mother (who had to give up her language) into studying and encouraging preservation of the Irish language spoken on the island.  Both men use the inhabitants as a means to their end of perceived glory and renown, and they’re both awful.

James is the youngest inhabitant of the island.  His father drowned while fishing, and James is adamant that he will get off the island and never he a fisherman.  Mr. Lloyd tolerates the teen, and James is the first inhabitant he draws.  James has a talent for art and shows Mr. Lloyd how his birds are wrong and how he hasn’t properly captured the light in the ocean.  Mr. Lloyd takes his tips and improves his work, promising the boy he is going to take him back to London with him and they’ll have an art show.  Their banter, while Lloyd is a selfish little man, peppers the novel with a bit of cheek and humor.  Ultimately Lloyd steals James’s art concepts, copying his work and incorporating it into his own with no intention of giving the boy credit or of taking him to London.  In the most heartbreaking scene of the novel, Lloyd paints over an image of James holding paint brushes and rabbits, replacing them with fish – making the boy the one thing he never wanted to be – a fisherman on the island.

So much of the novel is from the perception of the outsiders, but there are passages where neither the Englishman nor the Frenchman are present. These few but beautiful sections give barely a taste of who these people actually are – so much of the perception of James and his mother, let alone the others, is just colored by the interactions with Lloyd and Masson.  This was an intentional choice, but it just didn’t work for me.

The novel is broken up with news sections recounting the violence throughout Ireland.  As the novel progresses, the inhabitants discuss the attacks, and those sections join the thread of the story. This works extremely well.

The prose is beautiful, but it gets a bit murky sometimes.  The rhythm and cadence are such that you can hear the water lapping at the currach, the cry of the terns, the charcoal scratching on paper, the unfurling of long red hair, a woman slipping out of her clothes, a man sighing.

I didn’t like this book, but it was extremely well done.

Booker count: 2 of 13

TRUST – Hernan Diaz

The Booker Prize longlist was announced last Tuesday, which means my Booker countdown has officially started. I began the baker’s dozen of books with Hernan Diaz’s Trust (Riverhead Books, 2022), a cocky and bold literary experience about truth and memory, trust and fiction. The novel is told in four separate parts by four separate fictional characters. (I was quickly reminded of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.)

The first section is Bonds, a fictional novel by Harold Vanner.  The second is a rough, work-in-progress autobiographical sketch of Andrew Bevel. The third is a memoir by Ida Partenza, and the fourth is the diary of Mildred Bevel.  How Diaz works these four very different styles and voices into one cohesive and breathtaking novel is indicative of his literary genius, and why I anticipate this novel to make it to the shortlist.

Bonds was a work of fiction that was extremely well-received and read by everyone in New York.  Telling the story of the eccentric and filthy rich Wall Street tycoon, Benjamin Rask, and his equally eccentric wife, Helen Rask, the novel chronicles Rask’s rise to near godlike status in the financial industry, soaring even higher during the market crash that he profited from, and his wife’s cocktail parties, support of the arts, and eventual fall into madness.  Benjamin and Helen Rask were fictional, but clearly based on Andrew and Mildred Bevel. (I’m pretty sure Truman Capote inspired Vanner’s character, who we never actually see.)  Andrew decides to write his own story to erase the history provided by Vanner. He hires a young Italian woman, Ida Partenza, to write it while simultaneously using his power and influence to destroy Vanner and erase Bonds from the world.  In his version, Mildred is a delicate and feminine wife who succumbs to cancer. Ida quickly realizes that Mildred likely falls somewhere between how Vanner wrote her and how Andrew wants her remembered.  Decades later, the Bevel papers become open to the public.  Ida has been riddled with shame, guilt and curiosity for her efforts in rewriting a history and misremembering a woman, so she finally seeks the truth.  She finds the slim volume titled Futures in the collection – it’s Mildred’s final diary.

Trust is one hell of a cleverly executed ride that shows not only how power and money can rewrite history, but how strong and intelligent women are treated and remembered (and forgotten) by the men in their lives.   We see this not only with Andrew and Mildred, but also with Ida and her jealous boyfriend, Jack.

Read this book.

Booker count 1 of 13.

INFINITE COUNTRY – Patricia Engel

Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country (Avid Read Press, 2021) is a brief but bittersweet snapshot into the lives of a mixed-status Columbian family divided by borders.  While the novel is well-written and a very important read, it was a disappointing display of missed opportunities for this reader. As some of you know, I was an immigration attorney and worked primarily with undocumented individuals. I still lose sleep over some of my clients, their beautiful families, and the Orders of Removal I could not stop. In many ways, this novel was triggering because the family’s situation mirrored so many of the case files I had wept over and still think about years later.  Pushing that visceral reaction aside, the main missed opportunity is in the two sisters – Talia, born in the US but raised in Columbia, and Karina, born in Columbia but raised in the US.

We get a lot of Talia.  When the novel opens, Talia is being held at a facility for teen girls as part of her sentence for an assault.  She orchestrates her escape, and the novel charts her return to Bogota and her father; she has a flight to join her mother and siblings in the US, and she can’t miss it.  This escape and journey home is complex, with layers of resilience, fear, determination, and a disjointed feeling of belonging but not belonging.  These were my favorite sections.

While we get some Karina, it’s not nearly enough. Karina was born in Columbia and entered the US with her parents under a visa.  When the visa expired, they overstayed and became ghosts.  The slightest indiscretion could have them deported.  Karina remembers when her father was deported and what that did to her mother.  Karina would be eligible for DACA, but that isn’t permanent, and she didn’t apply because she was afraid to reveal her undocumented existence for fear of exposing herself and her mother and being deported.  (This was a valid fear under certain administrations.)  Like Talia, their brother, Nando, was born in the US and will be able to petition for their mother when he’s 21, but Karina’s options are limited.  She’s undocumented in the only country she knows, and a stranger to the country she risks being sent back to. Her story is part of why immigration reform should be a no-brainer, and her sections, while limited, drip with resilience, fear, determination, and a disjointed feeling of belonging but not belonging.

“Don’t tell me I’m undocumented when my name is tattooed on my father’s arm.”

In short, I think it’s an important novel, but I may have been too close to the subject matter. The mythology is beautiful, and I would have loved to have seen more of it. I would have liked more flesh on Talia’s experiences growing up with her grandmother while her father becomes sober and knowing her mother and siblings are in the US. And I certainly wanted more Karina.

Should you read this novel? Yes.

Will the people who need to read this novel the most ever pick it up?  Doubtful.

MIDNIGHT AT THE BLACKBIRD CAFE – Heather Webber

Heather Webber’s Midnight at the Blackbird Café (Tor-Forge 2019) is Southern magical realism novel of family and second chances that is as sweet as tea should be.  If you liked The Book Charmer (Karen Hawkins, Dove Pond series), you’ll love this.  It’s that same type of candy read, set in a sleepy Southern town with just a bit of magic and mystery.  (Hart of Dixie meets Practical Magic.)

It’s a comforting sort of read because you know that everything is going to work out in the end.  Broken hearts will mend.  Prodigal daughters will return.  Fragmented families will reconnect.  And animal familiars will get things back on course.

Anna Kate Callow knew about Wicklow, Alabama, but her mother insisted she never set foot there.  Her grandmother’s death, however, forces her to the place her mother had once called home.  There, she confronts a town that had fiercely loved her grandmother.  Anna Kate had intentionally been kept a secret from Wicklow, and especially the Lindens, and the town is rattled to learn of Zee’s heir.

Zee owned and operated the Blackbird Café.  There, she baked pies with just a hint of magic.  The blackbirds would sing messages into the pies, carrying messages from the dead to their loved ones in their dreams.  She left the café to Anna Kate, with a couple of strings attached. Anna Kate is in town for just a couple of months to clear it up before medical school back up North.

Natalie Linden Walker has returned to her hometown after the death of her husband.  Filled with rage for the man she’d loved and battling a lifetime of dealing with her cold, demanding mother, she needs answers and healing.  With just a few years separating them and despite a lifetime of being told not to trust the Callows, Natalie forms a friendship with Anna Kate.

Birders have flocked to the town because word of the blackbirds has piqued their interest.  They’re sitting up lawn chairs, tent cities, and breathing new life (and money) into the formally dying town.  

Alternating between Anna Kate and Natalie, with brief sections of interviews with the town folk regarding the birds, the novel has an undeniable charm and ease.  It smells like zucchini bread and fresh baked pies, and it feels like a hug and someone telling you to sit down and stay awhile.

It takes you home, and you’ll want to stay.

Read this book.

THE LOST QUEEN – Signe Pike

Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen (Touchstone 2018) is the first in a trilogy following Languoreth, twin of the man who’d inspire the legends of Merlin and forgotten queen of sixth-century Scotland.  The first of series opens when she is 10, just after the death of her mother and ends when she’s 32 and standing dead center of a war between a tyrant king (her father-in-law), and her brother alongside the Dragon Warriors.

The historical novel is full of powerful, feminine energy, highlighting the silent strength of the women who worked behind the scenes of powerful men. Languoreth’s father had embraced and fostered the wild ways of his only daughter, even more so after the death of her mother.  He allowed her to be trained in ways oft forbidden of women.  Despite cultivating an independent streak, her father never shielded her from what her future held; as his only daughter, she would marry and marry into a noble family.

When she’s 14, she meets the man who will claim her heart.  Not long after, she finds herself betrothed to the son of a Christian king.  The marital alliance is a business transaction intended to protect her people and the ways of their ancestors.  Her husband is a kind but quiet sort, and he’s been playing the long game to ensure his father will name him as successor.  Languoreth must bite her tongue and bend to fit into the space she’s been given, or all would be for naught.  She must become Queen; she’s given up everything for her family, her people, her ways, and she will play her part until her husband is named king.

It’s a bittersweet love triangle laced with magic and visions and soaked in blood and betrayal. History largely forgot Languoreth and the power she wielded, making her a footnote in history as an adulterous queen who was “saved” by Saint Mungo. Her brother was remembered as being a “madman” before becoming immortalized in the tales of Merlin. But this novel of faith, fealty and family gives voice to a child who grew to one of the most powerful women in Scotland during a turbulent and chaotic time. 

Carefully crafted, the novel is both fragile and forceful; just as likely to pepper the pages with sweetness as blood spatter.  The Lost Queen is a mouthful of a novel, the kind you savor, and I will be here until the last beautifully rendered page of the trilogy.

Read this book.

JUST FOR YOU – Jennifer Ann Shore

Jennifer Ann Shore writes some of my favorite candy books.  With a comforting and familiar writing style and characters that ring both real and unique, her YA works are quick, delicious reads.  Her latest, Just For You (Indie published, 2022) is no exception, and it proved the perfect read for a stormy summer night.

Violet is in her senior year of high school. College applications have been submitted, and she and her friends are in that waiting stage where senioritis hits the hardest. Her two best friends, Kara and Erica, had a falling out with each other, and Violet tries to split her attention between the two.  It makes things a lot easier since Kara goes to a different school.  Kara is on her school’s varsity hockey team, and Violet is her biggest fan even though the team is her school’s rival and Erica’s boyfriend is on that team.  While at one of Kara’s games, she meets Penn Westbrook, and she can’t deny the attraction.

As if juggling two friends who don’t get along and a first love interest in one’s senior year isn’t enough, Violet’s absentee father is trying to rekindle a relationship with her because he wants her to be part of his new family.

Shore doesn’t write pretty but empty wallflowers; her female characters are bold, intelligent, determined, and fierce.  They’re flawed and figuring things out in that difficult not-quite-an-adult time, but unlike so many romances, they’re not defined by their love interests and they don’t have to change how they look or act to win the guy.  There are characters who fit that mold, Erica being one, but what Shore does with them is noticeably different than her heroines.

Shore depicts realistic chaos with characters full of heart.  The relationships that Violet has built tend to be healthy, and those that aren’t are relationships she’s working on setting boundaries with.  Her relationship with her stepfather is possibly my favorite part of the novel.  (Well, other than when Penn brings her a succulent instead of flowers and when Kara throws a punch.)

Penn’s kiss and Violet’s baked goods aren’t the only things that taste like sugar; this novel is sweet but not in a way that’ll leave you with a tooth or tummy ache. 

Read this book.

WAHALA – Nikki May

Nikki May’s Wahala (HarperCollins 2022) is Sex in the City meets Working Moms meets a psychological thriller. The novel, set in England, revolves around a group of three Anglo-Nigerian friends whose worlds are shattered when a fourth joins. It’s vibrant, colorful, and enough to make you hungry.  (There are even recipes at the end. I would love to try my hand at moin-moin or jollof rice, and I’m hungry just thinking about it.)

Ronke is my favorite. She is a caregiver with the personality of a warm hug.  She’s who you call to take care of your kids.  She’s the one you call when you’re sick and hungry.  She’s the one you call when you’re sad and lonely. She’s dependable and loyal. She wants to get married and have kids, but her picker is a little broken.  Her current boyfriend, Kayode, is a sore spot with her friends.  They don’t think he’s good enough for her.

Boo is my least favorite. She’s married to a Frenchman and is the only one of the group with a child.  She’s insufferable. She’s dissatisfied with her life, which makes her susceptible to being manipulated when Isobel joins the group.

Simi came from money, but her family lost it when she was young.  She’s spent significant time trying to bridge what her life was like before and what she’s successfully built it up to. She’s married to Martin and life is golden.  Only he thinks they’re trying for a baby, but she doesn’t want kids.  Isobel is one of her childhood friends, from when Simi was filthy rich, who has suddenly reappeared.

Isobel is extremely wealthy and privileged.  She manages to weasel her way into the group with her charm and chameleon-like personality.  The other women, especially Boo, embrace her and welcome her into the group – well, except for Ronke, who keeps her at arm’s length.

Wahala means trouble, and this book is full of it. As Isobel gets her hooks into the women, secrets tumble forth and lives are forever changed.  Can their friendship survive Isobel?

This a brilliant debut.  It’s fast-paced, intoxicating, and positively delightful. And a TV series is already in the works from BBC. I can’t wait.

Read this book.