Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Review: If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss

Title: If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Genre: Literary Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

He’s gonna be sorry he ever messed with me and Loretta Lynn

Sadie Blue has been a wife for fifteen days. That’s long enough to know she should have never hitched herself to Roy Tupkin, even with the baby.

Sadie is desperate to make her own mark on the world, but in remote Appalachia, a ticket out of town is hard to come by, and hope often gets stomped out.  When a stranger sweeps into Baines Creek and knocks things off kilter, Sadie finds herself with an unexpected lifeline…if she can just figure out how to use it.

This intimate insight into a fiercely proud, tenacious community unfolds through the voices of the forgotten folks of Baines Creek. With a colorful cast of characters that each contribute a new perspective, IF THE CREEK DON’T RISE is a debut novel bursting with heart, honesty, and homegrown grit.

Review:

If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss is a gritty yet incredibly poignant character study of Appalachian life. With most of chapters written from different characters’ points of view,  this debut novel offers an in-depth peek into the various people living in the fictional town of Baines Creek, NC.

The starting point of the story is pregnant Sadie Blue and her brand-new marriage to Roy Tupkin. Taken in by the charm that belies his true nature, Sadie discovers the violent truth about her husband right away as he takes his frustrations out on her with shocking brutality. Her Granny Gladys Hicks offers no help other than a temporary place to stay but Sadie does find warmth and compassion with her Granny’s neighbor and friend Marris Jones.  Hope for her future arrives with outsider Kate Shaw, the town’s new teacher and Sadie eagerly accepts the newcomer’s offer to teach her to read.

The fictional town of Baines Creek serves as a character in the story as well as the novel’s setting. These small, rural towns tend to be extremely insular where everyone knows each other’s business and gossip abounds. Despite this knowledge about both the good and bad things that are occuring in their neighbor’s lives, the prevailing attitude tends to be more of a live and let live as friends and family turn a blind eye to abuse and criminal activity. The perfect example of this is Sadie’s situation with Roy.  There is not a single person in Baines Creek who is unaware he is beating her but, with very few exceptions, no one steps in to help her. Yet if an outsider tries to intervene, the townspeople immediately close ranks in order to protect the person under threat. They are also quick to rally around one another when disaster strikes.

There is also an underlying sense of inevitability and hopelessness within families. This is certainly the case with Sadie’s Granny Gladys.  She has firsthand experience with her granddaughter’s situation, yet she never extends her a helping hand. When Gladys is confronted with Sadie’s bruises and beaten down countenance, there is a pervasive sense of “you’ve made your bed and now you must lie in it”. Gladys remains passive and without empathy for Sadie’s plight as she fails to even bring up Roy’s abusive treatment of her pregnant granddaughter.

For much of the novel, readers have no idea when the story is taking place. This omission feels deliberate since an exact time period is somewhat irrelevant due to the fact time tends to stand still in rural or isolated areas such as Baines Creek. A few clues are dropped as the story unfolds that are helpful in narrowing down an approximate year but this sense of timelessness remains even after the specific time frame is eventually revealed.

If the Creek Don’t Rise is a heartbreaking yet occasionally uplifting debut from Leah Weiss . This deeply affecting novel is a compelling and sometimes stark portrayal of Appalachian life. The story comes a somewhat abrupt but immensely satisfying conclusion and readers will revel in the healthy dose of poetic justice that is served to those who so richly deserve it.

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Filed under If the Creek Don't Rise, Leah Weiss, Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review, Sourcebooks Landmark

Review: In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer

Title: In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (40s), Literary Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

Judy Reene Singer’s newest novel is a masterful story of the American experience. Between the past and present, between love and war, between the burdens of race and hope, a woman returns home to discover her father and a history she had never known

Rachel Fleischer has good reasons not to be at her father’s deathbed. Foaling season is at hand and her horses are becoming restless and difficult. Her critical mother and grasping sister could certainly handle Marty Fleisher’s resistance better without her. But Malachi, her eighty-something horse manager—more father to her than Marty has ever been—convinces Rachel she will regret it if she doesn’t go.

When a stranger at her father’s funeral delivers an odd gift and an apology, Rachel finds herself drawn into the epic story of her father’s World War II experience, and the friendships, trauma, scandal, and betrayals that would scar the rest of his life—and cast a shadow across the entire family. As she struggles to make sense of his time as a Jewish sergeant in charge of a platoon of black soldiers in 1940s Alabama, she learns more than just his history. She begins to see how his hopes and disappointments mirror her own—and might finally give her the means to free herself of the past and choose a life waiting in the wings.

Review:

Alternating back and forth between the present and the early ’40s, In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer is a heartrending novel of complex and difficult relationships, race relations in the South and the lingering effects of wartime.

Rachel Fleischer’s relationships with her family are fraught with tension and the last place she wants to be is her father’s bedside as he refuses medical treatment for his failing heart.  Marty Fleischer has always been a hypercritical, bitter, angry and deeply dissatisfied man whose hateful words continue to haunt her.  At the urging of her farm manager and friend Malachi Charge, Rachel reluctantly goes to see her father one last time before his death. At his funeral, stranger Rowena Jackson presents them with a puzzling package from her father, Willie Jackson. Intrigued and wanting to understand a shocking allegation against her father, Rachel later goes to Boston to meet Willie where he recounts his tangled history with Marty.

Rachel’s dysfunctional childhood left an indelible mark on her and even as an adult, she cannot escape the legacy of her father’s painful words and lack of love. The owner of a horse farm, she lives with her longtime partner, David, and Malachi. Emotionally closed off and protective of her heart, Rachel is unable to fully commit to David and she soon becomes aware there are deep fractures in their relationship. Reluctant to discuss her fears and concerns with him, she ignores the growing distance between them and instead makes the decision to go to Boston to meet Willie.

Rachel knows absolutely nothing of Marty’s experiences in World War II and she is quite shocked to learn that he was in charge of a colored squadron in Alabama.  Neither man lived in the South prior to their assignment at Gunter Field so they are ill prepared for the reality of segregation and the animosity directed towards Jews.   Although both men are college educated, they are assigned to a squadron that cleans aircraft engines.  Marty is a benevolent leader who looks out for the men serving under him although his efforts are not at all appreciated by the white soldiers on the base. Despite Willie’s best efforts to remain under the radar, he and Marty form a friendship of sorts that comes to an abrupt end following Marty’s well intentioned but misguided efforts to treat his men as equals. The two men eventually go back to their regular lives but neither of them are able to escape the tragedies of their shared history.

Based on the real life experiences of Judy Reene Singer and her father, In the Shadow of Alabama is a deeply affecting and rather poignant novel of reconciliation and healing.  After learning of the events that shaped her father into the haunted man who raised her, Rachel has a better understanding of herself, her mother and her sister. With newfound awareness of the negative effects of her behavior, Rachel tries to repair her tattered relationships, but is it too late to salvage the one that means the most to her?

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Historical (40s), In the Shadow of Alabama, Judy Reene Singer, Kensington, Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review

Review: One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Title: One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 176 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss

Summary:

A riveting and emotionally harrowing debut about two young brothers and their physically and psychologically abusive father—One of the Boys is 176 perfect, stunning pages by a major new talent.

The three of them—a twelve-year-old boy, his older brother, their father—have won the war: the father’s term for his bitter divorce and custody battle. They leave their Kansas home and drive through the night to Albuquerque, eager to begin again, united by the thrilling possibility of carving out a new life together. The boys go to school, join basketball teams, make friends. Meanwhile their father works from home, smoking cheap cigars to hide another smell. But soon the little missteps—the dead-eyed absentmindedness, the late night noises, the comings and goings of increasingly odd characters—become sinister, and the boys find themselves watching their father change, grow erratic, then violent.

Set in the sublimely stark landscape of suburban New Mexico and a cramped apartment shut tight to the world, One of the Boys conveys with stunning prose and chilling clarity a young boy’s struggle to hold onto the dangerous pieces of his shattered family. Harrowing and beautiful, Daniel Magariel’s masterful debut is a story of survival: two foxhole-weary brothers banding together to protect each other from the father they once trusted, but no longer recognize. With the emotional core of A Little Life and the compact power of We the Animals, One of the Boys is among the most moving and remarkable debut novels you’ll ever read.

Review:

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel is a dark and disturbing portrayal of child abuse, addiction and dysfunction.

During his parents’  acrimonious divorce,  their twelve year old son will do anything to ensure his father gains custody of him.  After successfully winning “the war” as his father calls the divorce, the boy, his older brother and father leave their home in Kansas for a new beginning in Albuquerque, NM.  At first hopeful about their life without mom, whom they all believe provoked their father’s abusive treatment of her, the brothers quickly discover nothing has changed except their dad now takes out his anger on them. While their new life seems to be going well initially, it does not take long for the boys’ father’s behavior to become more erratic and the brothers then try to remain united as he tries to drive a wedge between them.

Their new beginning in Albuquerque feels a bit like an adventure initially but the cracks in the foundation are soon showing. The brothers find it difficult to make friends but the oldest son finds his niche on the basketball team, but his father soon makes trouble with the boy’s coach.  Supposedly working from home, their father retreats to his bedroom for days on end only to emerge suffering from severe paranoia from his drug use.  The boys are often left with the responsibility of paying the bills and eventually, their father forgets to leave money to buy groceries.  Over the course of two years, the brothers are soon holding down jobs in an effort to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads while their father becomes a full blown drug addict.

While at times, their “old” father emerges, more often than not, he lashes out at his sons and often pits them against one another.  The boys try to remain united as their situation worsens to the point the oldest son reconnects with their mother.  Just when escape is within their grasp, the rug is yanked out from under them and they are left with nowhere to turn.  Quickly reaching the point of desperation, the boys are biding their time and planning their escape when their situation turns even more hopeless.  Following a particularly violent beating, the youngest brother has a choice to make when salvation arrives but will he take the necessary steps to save himself and his brother?

One of the Boys is a raw and gritty debut novel from Daniel Magariel.  A heartbreaking story of parental abuse and addiction, this deeply affecting story is not for the faint of heart.  The epilogue is particularly poignant since the brothers’ hopeful beginning takes such a horrific turn. This short novel tackles very bleak subject matter and comes to a rather abrupt conclusion that feels vaguely hopeful.  A well-written, hard-hitting story I highly recommend.

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Filed under Contemporary, Daniel Magariel, Literary Fiction, One of the Boys, Rated B, Review, Scribner

Review: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Title: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Penguin’s First to Read Program

Summary:

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Review:

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is an engrossing novel that explores the deep bond of friendship between two women who are also business partners.

Throughout her childhood, Sharon Kisses lost herself in cartoons in an effort to keep loneliness at bay while dreaming of escaping her small Kentucky town.  Winning a scholarship to a prestigious college in Upper New York is her ticket to freedom and while she still feels like an outsider, she is enjoying the opportunity to hone her artistic skills.  Striking up an unlikely friendship with vibrant and gregarious Mel Vaught is a huge turning point in her life and following college, the two women become business partners.  It takes ten years of hard work, but they are finally attaining professional success after their first full-length animated  project, based on Mel’s childhood, garners them a prestigious grant for their next as yet undetermined project.  As Mel begins to self-destruct during a publicity tour, Sharon experiences self-doubt about her role in their partnership.  Dual tragedies strike and the women’s friendship is tested as they begin working on their next project.

Both Mel and Sharon carry the scars from their dysfunctional childhoods but the two women cannot be more different.  Mel is the outgoing, brash life of the party while Sharon is quiet and rather introspective.  Neither have quite come to terms with the damage wrought by their respective pasts but they deal with their emotional pain in very different ways.  Mel drinks heavily and self-medicates with a number of legal and illegal substances.  Sharon is the responsible one who tries to reel in her out of control friend with varying degrees of success. She is also a bit of a follower who often finds herself swept up into Mel’s craziness.

In the aftermath of a health crisis, Mel prods Sharon into confronting the demons of her past.  During their visit to Kentucky, Mel persuades her friend to renew her acquaintance with her childhood friend, Teddy Caudill. Teddy abruptly moved away when they were still children, but a traumatic incident involving him still haunts Sharon. After their reunion, Sharon and Teddy unexpectedly fall in love but will their relationship survive after he uncovers the truth about Sharon and Mel’s current project?

Written in first person from Sharon’s perspective, The Animators is a spellbinding exploration of friendship and professional collaboration between two damaged but very appealing characters. Although portions of the story are easy to predict, the overall storyline is refreshingly unique and quite engaging. This outstanding debut by Kayla Rae Whitaker  is an emotional story of friendship that will linger in readers’ hearts long after the last page is turned.

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Filed under Contemporary, Kayla Rae Whitaker, Literary Fiction, Random House, Rated B+, Review, The Animators

Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

Title: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 288 pages
Book Rating: C

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

An unforgettable cast of characters is unleashed into a realm known for its cruelty—the American high school—in this captivating debut novel.

The wealthy enclaves north of San Francisco are not the paradise they appear to be, and nobody knows this better than the students of a local high school. Despite being raised with all the opportunities money can buy, these vulnerable kids are navigating a treacherous adolescence in which every action, every rumor, every feeling, is potentially postable, shareable, viral.

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s kaleidoscopic narrative exposes at every turn the real human beings beneath the high school stereotypes. Abigail Cress is ticking off the boxes toward the Ivy League when she makes the first impulsive decision of her life: entering into an inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Dave Chu, who knows himself at heart to be a typical B student, takes desperate measures to live up to his parents’ crushing expectations. Emma Fleed, a gifted dancer, balances rigorous rehearsals with wild weekends. Damon Flintov returns from a stint at rehab looking to prove that he’s not an irredeemable screwup. And Calista Broderick, once part of the popular crowd, chooses, for reasons of her own, to become a hippie outcast.

Into this complicated web, an idealistic young English teacher arrives from a poorer, scruffier part of California. Molly Nicoll strives to connect with her students—without understanding the middle school tragedy that played out online and has continued to reverberate in different ways for all of them.

Written with the rare talent capable of turning teenage drama into urgent, adult fiction, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with sorrow, passion, and humanity.

Review:

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson is a bleak portrait of a privileged group of teens and a first year teacher.

Mill Valley is an upscale small town that appears to be quite tranquil.  Yet under the idyllic veneer simmers a seething cauldron of dysfunction for the children of wealthy parents.  Beginning with an eighth grade bullying incident that ends in tragedy, the story follows a group of teens who seemingly have everything going for them.  Yet, after their participation in the on line bullying of their classmate, their lives go down very dark and depressing paths.

Fast forward to the eleventh grade and several of the friends have gone their separate ways. Yet there is a commonality in their behavior as they continue to make one bad decision after another. The teenagers’ parents seem to make guest appearances in their children’s lives and none of them are aware of what their kids are up to on line or in real life. The few parents who do take an interest in their children’s futures are overbearing with unrealistically high expectations that their kids have no chance of fulfilling.

The overall feel of the novel is that of a collection of short stories since readers only get one chapter from each participants point of view.  These chapters are long and somewhat rambling peeks inside their troubled lives.  New teacher Molly Nicholl is the only character who narrates more than one chapter and it is quite obvious from the outset she is a little too naive and idealistic to handle her self-destructive students. Like the teenagers she is teaching, Molly does not make the wisest choices as she becomes overly involved in her students’ lives.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a well-written debut novel with a somewhat dark storyline. Lindsey Lee Johnson offers a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of the decisions made by both teenagers and adults.

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Filed under Contemporary, Lindsey Lee Johnson, Literary Fiction, Random House, Rated C, Review, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Review: The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson

Title: The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Historical (’50s, ’60s & ’70s), Literary Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: A+ & A Recommended Read

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley

Summary:

From Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson comes a powerful, lyrical debut novel that explores race relations, first love, and coming-of-age in North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s.

At eight years old, Raeford “Junebug” Hurley has known more than his share of hard lessons. After the sudden death of his parents, he goes to live with his grandparents on a farm surrounded by tobacco fields and lonesome woods. There he meets Fancy Stroud and her twin brother, Lightning, the children of black sharecroppers on a neighboring farm. As years pass, the friendship between Junebug and bright, compassionate Fancy takes on a deeper intensity. Junebug, aware of all the ways in which he and Fancy are more alike than different, habitually bucks against the casual bigotry that surrounds them–dangerous in a community ruled by the Klan.

On the brink of adulthood, Junebug is drawn into a moneymaking scheme that goes awry–and leaves him with a dark secret he must keep from those he loves. And as Fancy, tired of saying yes’um and living scared, tries to find her place in the world, Junebug embarks on a journey that will take him through loss and war toward a hard-won understanding.

At once tender and unflinching, The Last Road Home delves deep into the gritty, violent realities of the South’s turbulent past, yet evokes the universal hunger for belonging.

Review:

The Last Road Home is a heartbreakingly poignant coming of age novel that takes place in rural North Carolina in the years leading up the Civil Rights Movement. This powerful debut by Danny Johnson is a realistic portrayal of race relations and farm life that is incredibly relevant in today’s volatile climate where racism, bigotry and hatred are sadly once again on the rise.

After eight year old Raeford “Junebug” Hurley’s parents are killed in a car accident, he goes to live full-time with his grandparents on their tobacco farm. Junebug is deeply influenced by his surprisingly forward thinking grandparents who do not share their fellow Southerners prejudices and he forms a close friendship with Lightning and Fancy, the children of sharecroppers from a nearby farm.  Unlike his grandparents whose faith is unshakeable, he does not view his religious teachings as absolute truth and as he endures loss after loss, he is pretty much done with religion. Although his relationship with Lightning becomes tense off and on throughout the years, Junebug and Fancy always remain close therefore it is no surprise to those closest to them when their friendship deepens into forbidden love. With the ugly specter of the Ku Klux Klan looming over them and the harsh reality of the hatred that surrounds them, is Junebug and Fancy’s relationship doomed to fail?

Despite the losses he has endured and the sometimes cruel nature of farm living, Junebug is a sensitive, kindhearted and thoughtful young man. He thinks for himself and he is lucky to have grandparents who allow him the freedom to question the injustices that occur around them. Although he is accustomed to the racial slurs and epitaphs of his neighbors, Junebug never allows other people’s prejudices to sway him and he is angered by the bigotry that is so deeply ingrained in Southern culture. Even with his grandmother’s thoughtful explanation of why people are unable to let the past go, Junebug refuses to accept racism as the status quo and he will not give up his friendship with Fancy, Lightning and their parents.

Junebug’s innocence is endearing but it is inevitable that his life and friendship will eventually be touched by the ugliness of his neighbors and the Klan. Through his friendship with Fancy, he experiences firsthand the harsh reality of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Junebug naively believes his relationship with Fancy will go unnoticed by those around him and while they do not flaunt their liaison, it is only a matter of time before someone uncovers the truth about them. Fancy is much more realistic about their future than Junebug and she makes a decision that irrevocably changes Junebug’s life.

Written in first person from Junebug’s point of view, The Last Road Home is a realistic depiction of life in the South and while some of the content is difficult to read, it is a heartwrenchingly honest representation of the time period. While it would be nice to believe these dark days are behind us, recent events indicate that racism, prejudice and hatred are alive and well and now extend well beyond Southern borders. This debut novel by Danny Johnson highlights a horrifying and shameful period in American history that should never be forgotten or repeated.

An absolutely outstanding piece of literary fiction that should be on EVERYONE’S reading list.

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Filed under 1950s-1970s, Danny Johnson, Historical, Kensington, Literary Fiction, Rated A+, Recommended Read, Review, The Last Road Home