Saturday, January 25, 2020

Review: 'Just Watch Me'

Just Watch Me
By Jeff Lindsay
December 2019
ISBN: 978-1524743949

An impossible heist -- a huge statue anchored in place -- is pulled off with ease as Jeff Lindsay introduces his new protagonist, master thief Riley Wolfe. Nothing is impossible to Riley. The more out-of-reach something appears to be, the more determined he is to grab it. But after a success like this, how can he possibly top it?

Hmmm, perhaps an exhibition of Iranian crown jewels would be fitting. Guarded by an elite company of former U.S. Army Rangers and the Iranian Guard? Plus a new alarm system? It's impossible. So, Wolfe decides it's perfect.

The heist aspect of Lindsay's novel is the best part. There is a blend of bravado, research, misdirecting the marks of the heist and lots of disguises to entertain.

Wolfe also has a backstory. This isn't his real name. But he is being hunted by a dedicated FBI agent who has come close to finding him before. An agent who is determined to hunt him down this time, starting with Wolfe's real story. The real story is tied to Wolfe's targeting of the richest of the rich, but he's no Robin Hood.

The drawback to Wolfe is that he is utterly without empathy. He has no concept that his actions will hurt others. Why should that be a problem for him? Even the disdain his actions cause to the person who is closest to him, an artist who is brilliant a copying any artwork, is nearly meaningless to him. Wolfe can't figure out why she won't go to bed with him after what he does. His reaction? Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

This aspect to the novel is both a strength in Lindsay's writing and a weakness in the concept of the lead character and further books in the series. The pain that Wolfe causes is well-written. It has an impact. That it has an impact on other characters who know what happened is even stronger storytelling.

But where to go next? Wolfe is incapable of feeling, so he isn't about to grow and change. Lindsay has a challenge similar to that of his creation. How to top himself? What to do next?

©2020 All Rights Reserved Reviews, and reprinted with permission

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: 'The Most Fun We Ever Had'

The Most Fun We Ever Had
By Claire Lombardo
Literary Fiction
June 2019
ISBN: 978-0385544252

A long, winding novel about two parents who deeply love other for decades, and four sisters who are not always perfect but who are fully human and relatable -- the perfect novel when wanting to disappear into a good book.

Claire Lombardo's debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is a balance of stories among all the members of the Sorenson family. David and Marilyn found each other at college, in a stairwell. They didn't know it then, but they each found their own person -- the one they were meant to be with, to be there for, to lean on.

Their four daughters think it's freakish how perfect their parents' lives are, how they still make out even. The reader's first introduction to each sister is how she  appears to be a highly functioning, successful person. Oh, but appearances are deceiving.

Caustic, wine-guzzling Wendy hits a bullseye on every member of her family whenever she says something to them. And even though she does something horrible to the sister closest to her, Wendy also immediately volunteers to try to help. That sister, Violet, is no longer a successful litigator but is instead a stay-at-home mom trying hard to be the very model of a modern homemaker. Liza discovers she has earned tenure, but neither that nor an unexpected pregnancy are anything her deeply depressed partner can deal with. And the youngest? Well, Grace is lying about what she's really doing hundreds of miles from home.

Even though their lives are not perfect, there is usually genuine harmony among the family. It's a remarkable portrait of each character. The slings, the hurts are not high-drama moments, but instead are shown as "oh, why did you say that?" or "oh, I wish that had not happened to you" moments. Each of them are learning how to look at the world not through just their own prism, but through that of their relatives.

The catalyst for any of the things that happen to the Sorensons is the return of Jonah Bendt to the family. Most of them don't even know he was family -- Violet gave him away to be adopted at birth. But Wendy found him, and now that his latest foster family is leaving the country, he needs a home. Jonah is a delight. He's a 15-year-old who would love to be nothing but goofy. He's not withdrawn or moody; he is watching to see what happens next. He's not very socially adept, however, and makes mistakes when trying to get along.

Going back and forth in time, the reader sees why the daughters act the way they do. Also seen is how Marilyn and David, regardless of what crises have hit them, may have drifted a bit apart from time to time but have never lost the anchor that is their love and esteem for each other.

One of the more remarkable things about this novel is that a recap like the one above makes the book sound so serious. Well, there are serious feelings and a few gut-wrenching things that do happen. One event in particular, about a stillbirth, was very, very difficult to read. And there was one other thing that happened where it's a good thing I don't have the author's phone number, because I would have immediately called and screamed: What did you just do?

But Lombardo has a light touch and tone in the story. And, with the underlying goodness of each character, even if sometimes cloaked, showing itself when most needed, the Sorensons are characters I loved spending time getting to know. It's not just that they are good people. It's that they find a way to forgive each other, to be with each other, to want to be together. Lombardo regards her characters the same way that David regards Marilyn:

He was governed primarily by the part of himself that contained the love for his wife, his love for her endless capacity for love, for her optimism, for the world that she saw in which no one was ugly or evil, just hurting.

Like the ginkgo tree that plays a significant role in the climax of the story, The Most Fun We Ever Had is about how to endure, how to branch out and how to provide for others.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 23, 2019

Review: 'The Water Dancer'

The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Literary Fiction
September 2019
One World
ISBN: 978-0399590597

A child born in slavery, tasked with watching over his white half-brother, who has inherited gifts from his mother's side that draw the attention of both the slave owners and those in the Underground, is the teller of his own tale in Ta-Nehisi Coates's first novel, The Water Dancer.

The novel begins with a carriage ride over a bridge at night in which his brother and owner-to-be Maynard, drowns and Hiram Walker sees a vision of his ancestress, a fabled water dancer. Hiram lives after seeing a blue light and the lives of everyone changes:

There was peace in that blue light, more peace than sleep itself, and more than that; there was freedom and I knew that the elders had not lied, that there really was a home-place of our own, a life beyond the Task, where every moment is as daybreak over mountains. And so great was this freedom that I became aware of a nagging weight that I had always taken as unchangeable, a weight that now proposed to follow me into the forever. I turned, and in my wake, I saw the weight, and the weight was my brother, howling, thrashing, screaming, pleading for his life.

After losing his own mother, Hiram decides to adopt Thena as his new, well, if not quite mother, a close resemblance. Thena is wise, doesn't coddle and is someone Hiram should have listened to when he dared to dream of a different life. Hiram's gifts for memory and mimicry draw the attention of his father, who tasks his young son with looking over the scion of the house. Maynard is a classic rich child, not respected by the rest of the Quality and determined to stand out. His fiance, a wealthy young woman, will continue to play a role in Hiram's life.

After Maynard's death, his fiance still wants to buy Hiram as part of the now-defunct marriage settlement. Hiram, nearly 20 years old, begins to dream of freedom when a young woman captures his attention and appears to have feelings for him.

Things don't go as Hiram plans. He thought his life was hard before, but it's nothing compared to what he will face. And the differences he will make in the lives of others.

Hiram's journey wends it way through the myriad ways in which enslaved folk lived their lives, whether in the South or North, in places like Virginia, where even "freed" people knew their place and Philadelphia, where freedom only lasted as long as a body was not grabbed and placed in chains.

Trust is not given easily and for good reason. People have to prove themselves time and again, and they are tested time and again. There were times it was infuriating to read about Hiram being tested by those who were supposed to be against slavery. Hiram's journey is literally the hero's journey, in which he must prove himself again and again.

Although Coates has been a strong voice in reporting and commentary, this is his first foray into fiction that is not a comic book. Even using the voice of a character, the voice of Coates is easily recognizable from such works as his articles for The Atlantic and his masterwork, Between the World and Me. When Hiram waxes eloquently about his station in life, or the system under which he and his people strive, it is easy to hear Coates saying the words. With the use of magic realism in the story, to fully realize the dreams and desires of a Tasked people, The Water Dancer could only be his work.

The way Hiram sees the "Quality" folk, the slave owners, is searing commentary that lasts today about the elites:

The masters could not bring water to boil, harness a horse, nor strap their own drawers without us. We were better than them -- we had to be. ... even my own intelligence was unexceptional, for you could not set eyes anywhere on Lockless and not see the genius of its makers -- genius in the hands that carved out the columns of the portico, genius in the songs that evoked, even in the whites, the deepest of joys and sorrows, genius in the men who made the fiddle strings whine and trill at their dances, genius in the bouquet of flavors served up from the kitchen, genius in all our lost ...

It is not a novel to rush through, although there are page-turning sections as if this was a thriller. Instead, let Hiram's experiences flow over and be willing to dip into the enormity of what lives were like nearly 200 years ago. It helps those of us whose people did not suffer the enslavement of their bodies and the attempts to kill their souls understand how the legacy lives on today.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, September 2, 2019

Review: 'Dominicana'

By Angie Cruz
Literary Fiction
September 2019
Flatiron Books
ISBN: 978-1250205933

A teenager forced into an arranged marriage and motherhood, taken away from her country home in the Dominican Republic and abandoned in a New York City apartment by a brute who leaves her for months at a time, and a family back home who want money and for her to bring them to America, this is the novel Dominicana. Even in hard conditions, Ana and her creator, Angie Cruz, see the world as a place in which to work hard and make dreams come true.

Ana is 15, younger sister to a girl who loves to fall in love and older sister to brothers who are, well, brothers. In a big family, Ana dreams of discovering what else is out there beyond the hubbub of her boisterous relatives. Juan Ruiz, who is twice her age, proposes to her the first time when she is 11. He is one of their community's famous Ruiz brothers, the hard-working clan who has prosperity on the brain.

What's even more important to the Ruiz men than a wife for Juan is land Ana's family has squatted on for years. The men have ideas for its use. On New Year's Day, 1965, Juan takes Ana to New York, where he has been hustling work for a few years. Practically alone, speaking little of the language and tethered to a frustrated husband who loves another woman and has not yet hit it big as he thought his hard work and charisma would do, Ana still dreams of better times. Learning English, taking other classes, bringing her family to the States so she is not alone, being able to do things.

After she discovers she is pregnant, Juan leaves her to go back home to try to secure that property and the restaurant the brothers have been trying to build while domestic unrest upends the country. Back in New York, Ana and Juan's brother, Cesar, try to sell the food she makes at the World's Fair. They both dream of making it without losing themselves or their essential goodness in the process.

By the time the reader leaves Ana, she has weathered all the storms that life has thrown at her. Even when hurt, Ana does not lose her determination to keep on going and try to find a better way.

This essential resoluteness and resilience is the core of Ana and the novel. Dominicana is a clear-eyed view of a young woman who comes of age during tumultuous times and a chaotic family situation. Her mother's cynical philosophy resonates, but Cruz makes it clear that while Ana considers what her mother has taught her, Ana also is determined to make her dreams real.

While still at home, after one brother is stung by a bee, their mother tells Ana:

All girls have to make sacrifices for the good of the colony. They sting to protect their sisters and brothers. And they will do anything to protect the queen. Every colony needs a queen. That's why they feed her all that jelly, so she gets big and fat and lays all the eggs.

Mama rocks on her chair rubbing her stomach while we all sat on the grass by her feet.

Will Ana become a queen or remain a worker bee? And if she is royalty, what will her reign be like?

This is why Dominicana is a fascinating novel of a woman coming of age and a clear-eyed immigrant's story that combines dreams with hard reality. Its publication is Tuesday. It is easy to see why early readers such as Sandra Cisneros have praised Ana's story.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review: 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous'

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Literary fiction
June 2019
Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-0525562023

A story of identity, of family, of wanting to belong and wondering how that happens, it's all in the brilliant debut novel of Ocean Vuong.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is Little Dog's story. He is the son and grandson of Vietnamese immigrants. His grandfather was an American soldier in Vietnam. We see and hear him as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man coming into his own. His life is not easy. His mother is abusive. She also is trying hard not to be broken. His grandmother was broken, but she survived and they are all in America together. Little Dog, his mother and grandmother do a lot of things together. It's fascinating to read about a family that spends that much time together, sometimes in harmony and sometimes not, and still they don't know everything about each other. And even when they have done something hurtful to one of them, they still love each other and do not abandon each other.

But before the reader gets into the specifics of the story, what is shown is the author's skill as a poet. Ocean Vuong has published poetry before writing this novel, and he uses his art to draw the reader into the world of his characters. Here, Little Dog is writing to his mother, who never learned to read:

I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn't trying to make a sentence -- I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.

Oh! Who is the hunter? Is the prey running toward anything? Are we all hunter and all prey, depending on where others are in relation to us? Little Dog's life shows that the answers vary as different people come into our lives and by the way we respond to them, and they respond to us.

Even though his mother hits him, Little Dog goes to work at the nail salon with her, spending hours watching her, the other women working and their customers. These hours show him how demeaning people can be to each other:

In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I'm here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. ... Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.

Being closer, having both he and his mother healed, is a big part of what drives Little Dog. There was a time when she bought coloring book after coloring book, spending hours filling in the pages. She asks her son:

"Have you ever made a scene," you said, filling in a Thomas Kinkade house, "and then put yourself inside it? Have you ever watched yourself from behind, going further and deeper into that landscape, away from you?"
How could I tell you that what you were describing was writing? How could I say that we, after all, are so close, the shadows of our hands, on two different pages, merging?

What a deep recognition of how we are tied to our parents, regardless of anything else about them, about us, about our circumstances. We are tied together. We are each other's shadows.

How close people can be to each other, and not see each other clearly, was brought home to this reader by this passage:

You once told me that the human eye is god's loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn't even know there's another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.

That passage also describes the way Little Dog feels about the first person he chose to be with outside of his family.

Although his family core is essential to his identity, it is not sustaining. As a teenager, working a physically demanding summer job harvesting tobacco with migrant workers, Little Dog meets his first love.

Trevor is the grandson of the landowner where Little Dog has become one of the harvesting crew. He enjoys being one among the other men, whether they can communicate well in words or not. He is growing up and becoming his own person. The friendship, then love, with Trevor makes Little Dog more himself. The way Vuong describes the incredible changes to Little Dog as he sees those changes, as the sun of a new time in his life dawns, is riveting and delightful:

Who are you, I thought to myself as I worked the brakes.
When I felt then, however, was not desire, but the coiled charge of its possibility, a feeling that emitted, it seemed, its own gravity, holding me in place. ... I was seen -- I who had seldom been seen by anyone. I who was taught, by you, to be invisible in order to be safe ...

In one conversation, Trevor notes that Cleopatra looked at the same sun that we do today. And it is noted that if you are the sun, you don't see your own beauty. But beauty matters:

Maybe we look into mirrors not merely to seek beauty, regardless how illusive, but to make sure, despite the facts, that we are still here.

Little Dog leaves their small Connecticut town to go to school, becoming a poet. He and Trevor maybe never were a couple, and their relationship does not last. But they did spend time together, time that mattered a great deal to Little Dog then and, he knows, will always matter to him. That time will always be precious, perhaps in part because it could not last:

If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you're born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly. ...
Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.

Oh, that early passage about the distance between the hunter and its prey. Again, the prey has more than one function. Little Dog believes he is the prey. But there is also the hunting for love, of belonging, of knowing who you are. In that, Little Dog is the hunter. He was briefly gorgeous in his love for Trevor. Whatever else happens in his life, that happened.

Throughout the novel is the trope of monarch butterflies migrating. They bring beauty, their descendants know where to return, and they die. But oh, that beauty is stunning:

They perch among us, on windowsills and chain-link fences, clotheslines still blurred from the just-hung weight of clothes, the hood of a faded-blue Chevy, their wings folding slowly, as if being put away, before snapping once, into flight.
It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.

The war certainly stayed with Little Dog's mother. He scared her once as a child, jumping out from behind a door to yell "Boo!" at her with a toy helmet on his head. Having been in a real war, she screams and goes into panic mode. He is shocked, and later figures out:

I didn't know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves -- but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.

One of the most intense reflections from reading On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is to live with the reminder that, even though it was generations ago, what America did in Vietnam involved cruelty and an arrogance about using power. To someone who was a child during that era, to see Westerners go to Vietnam to enjoy vacations and for so many of its people to be thriving, is a shock and a delightful surprise that good times followed horrific ones. Perhaps that's a good take-away from this novel. Good times follow horrific ones. May those times follow ours now.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, July 22, 2019

Review: 'Lady in the Lake'

Lady in the Lake
By Laura Lippman
July 2019
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062390011

A white woman on the brink of middle age realizes she is settled into her staid, perfect-on-the-outside life, her son nearly grown and nothing else to show for all those years. So she moves out, wants a divorce and decides her life needs to count for something. What she decides on, after helping find the body of a murdered child, is that she needs to be a newspaper writer.

Maddie Schwartz is not the only voice from Baltimore in 1966 in Laura Lippman's latest, remarkable novel. The first voice we see is that of the woman who becomes known as the Lady in the Lake, a younger black woman whose body is found in a city lake. Apparently the ghost of the young woman, Cleo Sherwood, doesn't want justice or revenge. She tells Maddie her snooping will only bring trouble.

Even as Maddie searches for a scoop as her way into a regular newspaper job, she misses stories all around her. Lippman shows the reader this over and over again, as each person whose path Maddie crosses gets at least one chapter to tell his or her story. Sometimes it's their view of what just happened, sometimes that's just the starting point of a snapshot version of their lives or to fill in something the reader will want to know.

Every single voice adds to the reader's knowledge of the Baltimore Maddie inhabits and the other Baltimores she doesn't know. Each one tells the reader about lives well lived and lives wasted.

Lippman's experience as a newspaper reporter, the daughter of a Baltimore Sun writer who worked at the paper during the era of her novel, and as a writer of mysteries and thrillers, brings expertise in the storytelling. This is true whether it's the telling detail or the connection of one character to another.

What Lippman knows and shows, however, Maddie does not. She misses every other story that is basically not about her. Even in trying to find out about the woman whose body was in the lake, even when she discovers the victim's name was Cleo to some and Eunetta to her family, Maddie is writing about herself.

And that trouble the ghost tried to warn Maddie about? It's coming. And when it does, others around Maddie could be the ones most affected.

As both a thriller and a look at writers and at the past of a city she loves, Lady in the Lake is an ode by Lippman to Baltimore and to journalism. It's an engrossing novel of many stories.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Review: 'The Nickel Boys'

The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
Literary fiction
July 2019
ISBN: 978-0385537070

A child ready to become a man, inspired by the words of justice and equality by Dr. King; children cut off from their families, kind boys, lost boys, cruel boys and men thrown together; and a reform school where food and materials meant for black inmates are sold and some boys disappear. They are the Nickel Boys. Some of them survived.

In Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Nickel Boys, revives the hopes, the loss of dreams, the cruelty and evil of Jim Crow segregated "reform schools". The Nickel School in this novel is based on such a Floridian institution. 

Elwood is on the cusp of manhood, being raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. He wants to learn about everything and is careful in matters great and small. A record album his grandmother purchased of Dr. King's speeches is his lodestone. The hard-working teen, trusted by his white employer and ready to start early college classes, makes one error in judgment.  

Elwood's views of individual and systemic justice don't stand a chance at a place like Nickel, the reform school where he is sent. Elwood is not corrupted by the system he encounters at Nickel. He suffers through learning how to navigate that system, and refuses to give up on Dr. King's ideals. He wants to emulate his hero.

His friend, Turner, does not look at the world in the same way. He already knows there is no such thing as justice and that what you do will never be as important to those in power as what you are. If Turner can game the situation, he will. It's what he has learned to do to survive. It's how he gets by.

Both boys do what they can to cope as best they know how, whether it's the random but expected little acts of cruelty or beatings so severe a boy ends up in a hospital bed on campus. Whether it's working on campus or even off the grounds, it doesn't matter. Working hard doesn't pay off if someone in power has it in for you. And if someone in power can use you, don't mistake what they do as acts of kindness or understanding. After all, there is an unmarked graveyard.

Even in these dire conditions, with characters mired in can't-win situations, Whitehead writes about dignity and caring. The stories of the boys remain stories of boys and how they try to figure out how to become men. They observe, they work, they have a code of honor that serves them as can be best expected. Some endure. Some never quit being free in their souls. Others will remain imprisoned regardless of whether they left the place or not.

This is an important work. It is not fanciful. It is moored to reality, but with its spirit of humanity, it is not weighed down.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted by permission