TRUE BIZ – Sara Nović

I’ve read a lot of books in the past almost four decades, and I can say with absolute certainty that none of them were like Sara Nović’s True Biz (Random House 2022); deaf representation has been woeful absent in my literary canon.  This book is… I’m not sure I can find the words.

Part teenage angst and rebellion, part women’s fiction, part mystery, part YA romance, part history lesson and all love letter to the deaf community – this is an “own voice” novel, and Nović’s experiences, frustration and anger bleed through.

The novel focuses on February, a ‘coda’ who longed to be deaf to the point of shoving a pencil in her ear to stop the noise. She grows up to become headmistress of River Valley School for the Death.  She lives with her wife, Mel, and her deaf mother on school grounds. Her mother is suffering from dementia, a new school year is starting, there are serious budgetary concerns, and an ex is teaching at the school. February is just a touch stressed.

Austin is a legacy kid, with deafness going back in his family tree for generations. His mother had broken tradition and married a hearing man, but the family takes pride in the fact that Austin was born his deaf.  He has been given every accommodation and opportunity to be successful in life.  When a surprise pregnancy gives him a hearing sister, the family must make some difficult choices.

Charlie is a bitter and angry kid.  The cochlear implant her mother had insisted on when she was a toddler has never worked as intended, and her hearing world is a disjointed buzz.  She’s never learned ASL and has spent her life mainstreamed in a hearing world where she is forced to rely on lipreading and failing miserably.  After a custody battle, she is enrolled in River Valley, and February enlists Austin to show her around.

The novel opens with Austin, Charlie, and another River Valley teen missing and February dealing with the police.  What follows is what led up to that moment and the aftermath.

True Biz is ASL slang that roughly translates into “real talk,” “seriously,” “really.”  Nestled between the chapters are lessons from Charlie’s ASL class, lessons from February’s remedial history class on deafness, information provided by Charlie’s roommate on BASL, a social media entry from the popular “mean girl,” and other perfect additions to the story.

This book is a visual and interactive genre-hopping experience that you’re unlikely to forget.

Read this book.

PROOF OF ME & OTHER STORIES – Erica Plouffe Lazure

Erica Plouffe Lazure’s Proof of Me & Other Stories (New American Press 2022) cements her rightful place as one of my favorite southern contemporary short story authors. We studied at ECU together and I’ve been a fan since that first story we workshopped.  I’ve previously compared her work to Bobbie Ann Mason and Flannery O’Connor, and that Southern grotesque wit and charm that they are so known for just oozes from the pages of this new collection.

I’d read some of the stories before because they’d been published in other journals, and “The Shit Branch,” which first appeared in Tahoma Journal is still my favorite thing Lazure has ever written. It’s about family and missing pieces and misunderstandings and missed chances.  And that’s a theme that echoes throughout the series of stories that weave in and out of each other, consistently bringing us home to Mewborn, a small town in eastern NC, and its colorful cast of inhabitants.

I couldn’t get “Annealed” out of my head because it’s cleverly written, but also of how much it reminded me of O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”  But instead of a crooked Bible salesman who steals Joy’s prosthetic, we have the skate-boarding Juniper who steals the narrator’s scabs (and money), but untethers her from cheating husband who has finally left and a life that was weighing her down.

There are Shad queens and affairs. Marching bands and suicides.  Pancake suppers and overdoses.  There are dreams and prodigal sons.  There are baby shower decorations and secrets buried in a family swamp.  The pages are littered with the broken, discarded and lost – from stuffed ducks and Monopoly pieces to innocence and hearts.

Read this collection.

PEACH BLOSSOM SPRING – Melissa Fu

Family sagas are one of my most favorite genres. They tend to be epic, chunky novels that hit that sweet spot for me. When I saw Melissa Fu’s Peach Blossom Spring (Little, Brown and Company 2022), I knew I had to have it. It boasts a stunning cover, and it follows a time in China that I know very little about. My main complaint is that it could have been longer; Renshu/Henry needed a bit more flesh put on his sections.

The novel opens in China in 1938. Meilin is the beloved wife of Dao Xiaowen, and she’s given the family their only male heir. Meilin birthed the son of a son, and the world revolves around Renshu. After Meilin loses her husband in the “War of Resistance,” the family is forced to flee the advancing Japanese. Meilin’s brother-in-law, Longwei, keeps an eye on Meilin and Renshu as best he can, but Meilin questions his motives and doesn’t want to be in his debt.

Meilin’s prized possession is a scroll she keeps tucked in her sewing box. Xiaowen had given it to her before he left. When life gets hard and scary, she gently unfurls it and tells its story to the children. The beautiful antique and her voice have a calming effect during a time of uncertainty and chaos. Somehow, the pair (and the scroll) survives in a ravaged landscape. Renshu and Meilin eventually seek refuge in Taiwan – the tickets secured by Meilin sacrificing two things that meant the world to her and their passage secured by papers belonging to others; this marks the first erasure.

Meilin makes a life for her and her son in Taiwan. She and Longwei eventually reunite, and she uses his money and influence to secure Renshu’s passage to the United States so that he can continue his education.

The novel then follows Renshu, who becomes Henry, as he navigates Illinois, the conflict in China an ever-present worry in his mind. The Kennedy assassination leads meeting a man who introduces him to Chopin. Chopin introduces him to Rachel. And Rachel introduces him to love. And Renshu continues to fade away.

After graduation, Henry and Rachel move to New Mexico where a child is born. Lily is named for Henry’s favorite cousin, but his daughter will never hear her story. Henry struggles with his past and his present, ever cognizant of the fact that actions he takes in the US could be dangerous for his mother in Taiwan. A language and a culture become lost; a mother erased.

Despite a desire to know, Lily is denied access to her Chinese heritage, and a bitter disconnect takes root. The final portion of the novel follows her to Texas and then New York as she struggles with finding her identity. When Meilin becomes ill, Lily joins her father as he returns to Taiwan. A healing begins as life is breathed back in the old stories.

In this novel of three lives, Meilin’s section roars with fierceness and pride. It is beautifully crafted and framed in a colorful history and rich story-telling tradition. This is lost in Renshu’s section the moment he becomes Henry and moves to the US; the writing, much like the character, loses its vibrance. Some of the beauty is rediscovered in Lily’s sections, but the novel never quite sings the same.

It’s a novel of family and perseverance. Of history and art. Of storytelling and loss. Of escaping and surviving. Of mothers. It’s about finding your own peach blossom spring and rewriting the ending.

Read this book.

HONOR – Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar’s Honor (Algonquin 2022) was very nearly a rare five-star read, but the generic and forced ending quickly yanked that top rating.  I cannot talk about this book, particularly what I disliked that brought the rating down, without spoilers.  If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.

Last warning.

Honor is extremely well-written and captivating; I couldn’t put it down, and that is a credit to Umrigar’s amazing talents.  Smita left India when she was 14, and there is a bitterness her home country leaves in her mouth that teases the pages until she finally reveals the traumatic events that led to her family fleeing.  The attack on her family and forced conversion to Hinduism could have been revealed just a touch earlier.  Instead, Umrigar dances around it before vomiting the details in what comes across more as an info dump.

Smita has returned to India to help a friend following an accident – there was a bit of a misunderstanding about what Shannon meant by “help” and instead of helping her friend recover, Smita is using her vacation to cover Shannon’s news story about Meena, a Hindu woman whose brothers set her and her Muslim husband on fire to restore the family’s honor.  An activist attorney had convinced Meena to pursue criminal charges and the verdict is expected any day.

As Meena lives in a very rural area of India where women shouldn’t travel alone and as Smita’s Hindi is rusty, one of Shannon’s friends, Mohan, joins her.  The more time she spends with him, the more she finds herself attracted to him.  Smita’s upbringing, experiences, and romance with Mohan become a distorted mirror of Meena’s life.

Meena’s story is the heart of this novel, with Smita but a vehicle to share it.  The two mangoes on the cover represent Meena’s womanhood (there’s a scene wherein she refers to her breasts as mangoes and stresses that despite working, she is still a woman) and a sweet and forbidden romance (her love story begins with Abdul bringing her two mangoes).  

Following a corrupt trial and a not guilty verdict, Meena is murdered.  She knew her brother would finish the job, and both the attorney and Smita didn’t recognize her pleas for help.  Meena manages to hide Abru before they come, and with her dying breath, Meena makes Smita promise to take her daughter with her to America.

And this is where the novel became a generic and forced romance.  Smita and Mohan agree to adopt Abru and they fall in love.  Smita struggles with returning to the States but ultimately decides to stay in India, at least temporarily.  It’s not a happily ever after but it is a happy for right now ending.  And I hated it; Meena’s life, romance, and child that she named “Abru,” which means ‘honor,’ deserved so much more.

Should you read this book?  Absolutely.  Because even with an ending I loathed, it is one of my top reads of the year.

THE BOOK CHARMER – Karen Hawkins

Practical Magic meets Hart of Dixie but set in North Carolina?  Don’t mind if I do.

Karen Hawkins’s The Book Charmer (Gallery Books 2019) is a charmer of a candy read.  It’s a sweet, slow burn set in a magical, lazy southern town in NC.  The first of the Dove Pond series, The Book Charmer is seemingly about Sarah Dove, the town librarian.  Sarah is a book charmer.  Not only can she talk to books, but they talk back.  The books tell her who needs to read them, and Sarah gets the books in the hands that need them most.  She’s known since she was young that Dove Pond would need saving, and until Grace Wheeler showed up, she thought she’d be the one to do the saving.  But when the serious woman from Charlotte moved in with her niece and Mama G, Sarah saw the signs; Grace, not her, was the one to save Dove Pond.

This is my biggest issue with the novel – it’s not about the book charmer, it’s about Grace finding her place.  Sarah helps considerably, but the novel focuses on Grace and the slow burn of her falling in love with the town and her neighbors.  Grace is struggling in Dove Pond.  She’s been uprooted, moving to Dove Pond in the hopes that familiar surroundings will help her foster mom, Mama G, as the slow creep of Alzheimer’s sets in.  She’s also struggling with taking the role of parent to her young niece.  Grace is angry, frustrated, tired, terrified, and grieving. She wants nothing to do with Dove Pond, but it wants everything to do with her.

I loved watching Grace struggle before finally letting her guard down.  Hawkins did a wonderful job of showing the internal battle as she fought against admitting she was drowning.  The scenes with Mama G and the progression of her disease are heartbreakingly crafted. My favorite is one such scene where Grace realizes Mama G has forgotten how to knit and the ball of yarn is simply a string of knots.  It’s a brief scene that propels the love story, but my gosh is it beautifully done.

The magical realism is perfect – whispers of the magical talents of the Dove sisters, hints of magical teas, talking books, and animal familiars.  But I was promised a book about the book charmer, and that’s the book I wanted.  I wanted Sarah and Blake, and Hawkins merely teased at that love story.  I don’t know that I’ll read all the Dove Pond books, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for Sarah’s love story.

If you want something sweet and comforting, like throwing on sweatpants, ordering takeout and watching Gilmore Girls, read this book.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY – Matt Haig

I finally got around to reading Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library (Viking 2020).  Y’all didn’t tell me it was A Christmas Carol on repeat – just heavy on the suicide and not so much on the Christmas.  If Hallmark movies allowed references to suicide, Lacey Chabert would be playing Nora; she already has experience with the theme from the 2015 Hallmark movie, “Family for Christmas.”  That’s not dig – I thoroughly enjoy Hallmark movies – I just didn’t expect this novel to read so much like one – albeit one that Lemony Snicket wrote.

As far as the plot goes, you’d have to be actively avoiding it to not have any inkling of it because it was everywhere when the book was first published.  The novel is about a woman who attempts to take her life and finds herself in the “midnight library” – the place between life and death where she’s given the ability to see what her life would be had she zigged instead of zagged.  Nora tries on numerous lives for size.  Some are worse than the life she sought to end, and some are better.  Much like Goldilocks, she’s trying to find the one that’s just right.

The writing is witty, and the humor is dark but sweetly nuanced.  I think not having a cat in each life was a misstep.  It was the perfect opportunity for a familiar, and Volts was the perfect vessel for that.  With Nora’s first selection, I did think Volts would be reoccurring and was very excited for how that would play out.  I’m still a touch disappointed.

It’s a charming, quick story that reads as familiar because of Dickens.  The canon (and years of Christmas movies) well prepared us for the ending, but Haig’s voice gives the tale a bit more life.  While I think it’s overhyped and triggering, I do think it’s worth the read.

Read this book.

NOWHERE FOR VERY LONG: The Unexpected Road to an Unconventional Life – Brianna Madia

I’ve been following Brianna Madia since just before the Dagwood incident.  (If you know Madia, you know what I’m referring to.) Part of what drew me to her are her abilities as a storyteller. Full disclosure – I have been openly critical of how she feeds the social media beast, the dangerous devil-may-care attitude she employs that sometimes puts her dogs in very dangerous situations, and a lifestyle that comes across as more about the likes than the experience.  I am critical, but I don’t hate her.  There are some folks with a level of hatred that rises well above toxicity into a danger zone; I guess it comes with the influencer territory.  When you are reading reviews of her first book, Nowhere for Very Long (HarperOne 2022), I encourage you to keep that in mind and weed out the bullshit.

I requested and received an advanced copy followed by a final version prior to publication.  (The pub date is set for 4/5/2022.)  And, as critical as I am of her, what drew me to and kept me as a follower is only amplified in the memoir; Madia is an extremely gifted storyteller.

Some minor issues: the memoir flows along chronologically for the most part, but some placements are a bit off – this is more noticeable toward the end where it is apparent a conclusion is being fumbled for.  These misplaced sections are jarring and detract from the general feel of the memoir; it’s clear they are important sections, they just don’t really have a home in the work. 

Madia is completely detached in some of the sections, especially the section concerning Dagwood’s incident.  She writes from what I recognize as a place of self-preservation, one step removed, but it still reads raw.

I was quite impressed with how she handled her ex-husband throughout the work.  It’s respectful and delicate.  Her memories, even the bad ones, are soaked in the love she had for him – the love they had for each other.  They were both Lost Boys; tragedy forced him out of Neverland and her further in.

While the memoir is about Madia’s “unconventional life” and her off the road experiences, it’s more about the internal struggles and workings of her head and heart.  The pages are soaked in the darkness of depression. When she recalls a particular memory of taking the family dog with her while searching for her father’s new home so she wouldn’t be tempted to run off the road and kill herself or seeing the picture he kept in his new home of his stepdaughter and fighting back the red-hot heat of anger, the blackness creeps into the pages. 

Nowhere for Very Long is about getting lost and finding yourself along the way.  It’s about wearing the go-go boots, swimming naked, and getting a third (or fourth) dog.  It’s about falling in love and growing apart.  It’s about trauma and fear and guilt and shame.  It’s about letting go and living.  It’s about healing your inner child. It’s about hope.

It tastes like sunbaked earth that leads to a hidden spring that no one knows about but you. It smells like flowers growing wild and untamed. It sounds like howling at the moon.

Read this book.

THE TOBACCO WIVES – Adele Myers

Adele Myers’s The Tobacco Wives (HarperCollins 2022) hit several of my boxes: debut author, NC setting, and the author is a fellow UNC alumna.  It’s one of the few new releases I’ve prioritized in my TBR, and while there are some notable issues, I don’t regret it.

Quick & dirty summary: After 15-year-old Maddie’s father dies in WWII, her mother becomes a bit unhinged while dealing with her grief, anger, and desperation.  She abandons Maddie with Maddie’s aunt, a seamstress in Bright Leaf, with no clear date for return.  While Maddie visited her aunt every year and had learned to sew under her tutelage, she’s never come this early in the summer – it’s too busy and important a time for the seamstress who makes the formal attire for the “tobacco wives.”  When her aunt becomes sick, Maddie finds herself forced to fill in.  She uncovers a confidential letter that could destroy not only her aunt’s livelihood, but the fabric of the entire town.  But the consequences of staying quiet are even worse.

I’m from NC, and any one from this state knows tobacco built us.  We know how much the leafy green plant defined our existence and built our empires.  And we sure were proud of our Bright Leaf tobacco, an accidental development in the 1830s.  (A slave created the curing process by accident, and we’ve never given proper credit where credit is due.) Our biggest sports rivalry, UNC & Duke, is even called Tobacco Road.  We know our tobacco.  And we know (or know people who know) tobacco farmers whose lives forever changed in the 1960s when the surgeon general released his report about the dangers of tobacco.  And that is why I think Myers’s conscious decision to set her novel in 1946 and play with the timeline regarding known dangers and studies regarding tobacco use annoys me.  The novel is historically inaccurate and should be viewed as a reimagined past.

On a related note, the novel also struggles to find its identity.  The opening is far removed from the “Nancy Drew-light” story that eventually emerges.  Myers could have readily removed the letter Maddie finds regarding the dangers of smoking from the plot – there was no need to have Maddie “go up against” the rich ladies in the fictional Bright Leaf.  There was enough meat to what she already had without it – post-WWII, women in the workplace as the men were returning home and wanting to return to their jobs, the great divide between those who ran the tobacco empires and the hardworking men and women who kept them running, how advertising built the tobacco industry, and a young seamstress abandoned by her mother while still grieving her father who finds herself in a world she couldn’t even imagine.  Maddie’s relationship with Mitzi had so much potential.  So much meat without having to play fast and loose with timelines.

That said, this is a solid debut.  It’s a quick read with a lot of interesting moving pieces.  I encourage you to read the book and focus on those pieces, not on the inaccurate timeline or the letter regarding the studies.

LACUNA – Fiona Synckers

J.M. Coetzee published Disgrace in 1999, receiving his second Booker Award for the novel set in post-apartheid South Africa. The already-celebrated author received even more kudos for this harsh and violent take on the role whites had in South Africa and what was the price to be paid for apartheid.  In Disgrace, the price is the rape of a white woman by several black men.  However, the novel doesn’t follow the woman – it follows her sexually-depraved father who is struggling with a changing landscape that he can’t control. The rape is an unseen trauma – an empty space in the novel, a lacuna – and Lucy silent.  Enter Fiona Snyckers’s Lacuna (Europa Editions 2022 – Pan Macmillan South Africa 2019).  Snyckers not only gives Lucy a voice, she writes directly back to the man himself.  She’s not going to let Lucy live like a dog – she’s going to let her live like a victim.  (Lucy refuses to call herself a survivor.)

Lacuna is a work of fiction about an author named John Coetzee. When a colleague, Lucy Lurie, is attacked and gang raped while visiting her father, Coetzee claims her story and writes Disgrace.  Coetzee used Lucy’s rape to make a statement about post-apartheid South Africa, and Lucy feels as if she’s been violated twice – her voice stolen from her and replaced with a narrative she does not support.  She’s denied her voice. Her emotions.  Her right to be angry. She’s told to be more like “fiction-Lucy.”

Snyckers’s Lucy is an unreliable narrator with PTSD and a vivid imagination.  She pictures confronting Coetzee at his home in Australia.  She envisions how she will testify at trial.  She imagines a world in which she, like Coetzee’s Lucy, became pregnant following the rape.  Sessions with her therapist are not to be trusted.  Her very story isn’t to be trusted, and she know this; it is her story and she will tell it how she pleases.

Disgrace is one of my more recommended novels, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed Lacuna nearly as much without having read and admired Disgrace.  I recommend you read them back-to-back – they are bookends to a story that blends and merges and bleeds and screams, and I can no longer imagine one without the other.

Read this book.

BLACK GIRLS MUST BE MAGIC – Jayne Allen

I finally got my hands on Jayne Allen’s Black Girls Must Be Magic (HarperCollins 2022 – originally published as Black Girls Must Die Exhausted: And Baby Makes Two in 2019 by Quality Black Books). The follow-up to Black Girls Must Die Exhausted continues Allen’s love letter to Black women, and all women. 

The second installment opens less than two years after the end of the first. Tabitha learns of her fertility issues in the first novel.  Upon the advice of her fertility doctor, the one viable embryo was transferred seemingly successfully.  The second novel opens after the transfer.  Tabitha is determined to be a “single mother by choice.”  She later refers to this as “single mother by courage” after speaking with her doula.

In the initial stages of the pregnancy, she is cautious and afraid.  At the appointment that would signal she’s moved from the risky zone to a viable pregnancy, she receives some unsettling news.  The baby is healthy and growing, but it’s unsettling news all the same and the trajectory of her life changes.  This unexpected turn results in her ex, Marc, returning to her life, and Tabitha is forced to accept that she has to lean on others.

In addition to being forced to make unanticipated decisions, Tabitha is fighting for another promotion at work. This time, she’s seeking a seat at the anchor desk. The microaggressions in the workplace and from the viewership continue; people have complained because of her natural hair, and her boss is concerned the ratings will drop. Tabitha wants to fight it, but she’s exhausted.  Luckily, she does have a village, even at work, to support her.

The novel seems empty without Granny Tab, but Granny Tab’s fabulous friend, Ms. Gretchen, fills some of the void.  Tab’s friends Alexis and Laila also appear, but it’s not the same. Laila barely appears, and Alexis is struggling with her own choices related to her marriage.  Despite being brought together in the first novel and reminded of the importance the three play in each other’s lives, they’re all keeping secrets and not leaning on each other when they should.  It’s disappointing, especially since Tabitha references the “village,” which assumedly includes Laila and Alexis, that will help raise her child.

This novel seems more of a pushed together pregnancy steppingstone to the third installment, which will hopefully give Tabitha, Laila and Alexis the happily ever afters they all deserve.  I’m not sure when the pub date is for the third and final installment of the trilogy, but I’m ready. 

It’s women’s fiction. It’s funny. It’s joy. It’s life.  I’d recommend this series to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction.

Read this book.