Month: August 2017

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

“There’s things you think you know that you don’t.”
“Like what?”…
“Home ain’t always about a place. The house I grew up in is gone. Ain’t nothing but a field and some woods, but even if the house was still there, it ain’t about that.” Richie rubs his knuckles together. “I don’t know.”…
“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived…it’s a wall. It’s a hard floor, wood. Then concrete. No opening. No heartbeat. No air.”
“So what?” I whisper….
“This my way to find that.”
“Find what?”
“A song. The place is the song and I’m going to be part of the song.”

Thirteen year-old Jojo wants nothing more today than to be with Pop—for Pop to see him as a man and for his mother Leonie to leave him at home where Mam has only a few days left.  Instead, he’s being dragged north with his three year-old sister to retrieve his father from the state penitentiary, with a stop along the way for his mother and her friend to retrieve the drug that pulls her farther and farther from her family. When they finally reach their destination and return home, Jojo’s father Michael isn’t the only thing the family brings back from Parchman. On the way back, Jojo begins to see the form of a boy named Richie who served time in Parchman with Pop many years ago and whose story only Pop knows the end of.

Pacing and word choice
As the book opens, Jojo is at home with his Pop, Mam, and little sister Kayla—the pacing slow, but not quite languid, the stuff of long conversations. When his mother Leonie insists the children come on the trip across the state to pick up their father in Parchman, the language stretches—the words paving the way for the long drive. There is, in fact, very little in the way of action through the entire 3/4 of the book. Instead the long stretches of road serve as the backdrop for character studies of Jojo and Leonie. As the mother and child return home, the writing becomes almost frenetic—the language shorter and choppier as the action takes over, the river of words becoming foaming rapids, pulling the reader frantically to the conclusion. This pacing adds to the atmosphere of the climax scene, leaving the reader as breathless and wrung out as Leonie and Jojo themselves. It’s not surprising to hear that Ward is a professor of creative writing as her spot-on pacing in this book is masterful.

The word choice in Sing, Unburied, Sing is also perfect for the book. The grammar—dropping articles, “sleep” for “asleep,” making plural words singular—transports the reader immediately to somewhere in the rural South without making the book difficult to read or having to rely on gimmicky written Southern accents. The descriptions place the reader in the deltas of Mississippi with the sun blazing its curtain call as it drops below the horizon. It’s descriptive without being flowery, so while there were times I went back to re-read a paragraph just for the word choice, this is not a book that will annoy or trip up readers who care less about these things.

Character study
Sing, Unburied, Sing is character-driven rather than plot-driven. The book opens with Jojo, imitating his Pop, trying to show he can be a man, even as the killing of a goat turns his stomach. Over the following days, Jojo will become a man in the blink of an eye—a blink that Leonie misses.

Alternating with Jojo’s chapters are those of Leonie’s. Jojo’s perception of his mother is limited—as the child of a drug addict, he has been let down or left out so often it is hard for him to see any good left in his mother. Her chapters serve to humanize her, to bring the reader to empathize with her, to hope with her when she tries, to feel her disappointment when she fails. It is a testament to Ward’s writing that she can make the reader love even this flawed woman, dying by her own choices, particularly given that in interviews she expresses her own distaste for Leonie as a mother.

Less prominent initially as he is left behind on the journey, Pop is a character the reader comes to love. He is the solid, the constant, the care left in Jojo’s life. He is the reason that when Jojo becomes a man, he will become like Pop rather than his own father Michael. And yet, as the reader discovers, even this quiet, solid man is deeply flawed, haunted by choices and a mercy he chose to administer many years before.

Finally, there is death. Death literally lurks in Sing, Unburied, Sing, appearing as Leonie’s murdered brother Given who appears to her only when she is high; as Richie, a boy inmate when Pop was in Parchman himself; as a bird with scales; as Mam wasting as cancer snacks on what’s left of her.

Black death
In many ways, it is not merely death that lurks in the corner of each page, but specifically Black death. There are many ways throughout U.S. history that white people have not typically had to die—we have not been lynched, we have not been cut into tiny pieces while still alive, pulled from our beds to face false accusations, had our medical needs neglected until it is too late when our cancer is finally found. It is not just death, but Black deaths that creep silently closer in Sing, Unburied, Sing until they are the forefront, as heavy in the trees as grackles on a line. Like the cancer invading Mam’s body, you know death is lurking, you see it in the pages but you do not realize the magnitude. While you were looking at one particular manifestation, the others were coming up silently.

While many of the manifestations of death in the book are quite obvious—Mam’s cancer having nearly eaten through her, gone-too-soon Given, the ghost-bird-child Richie—Leonie’s character in many ways is a walking death. Leonie, child of Mam and Pop and mother-too-soon of Jojo and Kayla, was introduced to drugs by her longtime boyfriend Michael. She struggles, she fights, but by the time the reader meets her, her universe of available choices is hamstrung by her drug addiction. I am not suggesting that Leonie bears no responsibility for her own choices, but there is poignancy is seeing Leonie’s life becoming walking death after having been introduced to drugs by her white boyfriend. That it is black lives who are often disproportionately impacted by white choices.

What is Mercy?
With the rising specter of death comes the question of mercy. What does it mean to be merciful in the face of death? What is the difference between getting to choose the mercy of death versus having it thrust upon you? When mercy comes, does it comes differently for lives well lived versus those barely started?

And what of the mercy-bringer? If you were being merciful, is there still guilt? And how much? Are you more guilty if you weren’t asked to be merciful and less if you were? Does that actually matter?

None of these questions were answered, leaving an unsettled aftertaste when the reader finishes. Of a meal that filled, that mostly satisfied, but of a flavor you’re trying to grasp even as it fades.

In Sum
Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a book that sits lightly or that passes as you turn the page of your next book. Ward raises questions that remain unanswered, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions of death and mercy, life and guilt. For readers who prefer more plot-driven books, Sing, Unburied, Sing may not be the best book. This is also not a book for someone who dislikes ambiguity.

For readers of literary fiction who love a character study, who are looking to read more from authors of color, who are willing to be unsettled and still love a book, I highly recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing. I know I’ll be pushing Salvage the Bones up my reading list after having read this offering of Ward’s.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster) Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Date read: August 29, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

Every day of every week, Eleanor Oliphant lives by the same schedule, eating the same foods, wearing the same clothes. She is, of course, completely fine with this until, one day, her uncomplicated, regimented life is disrupted by people she doesn’t seem to be able to shake. What the reader comes to quickly see, however, is that Eleanor’s regimented loneliness kept more than just other people at bay.

I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine thinking it was going to be a light-hearted story about a socially awkward woman, charmed and brought of out her shell. Like an Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, but with an even more awkward protagonist. The flap-copy did nothing to disabuse me of my belief—the only hint of there being something darker being the reference to her heart being “profoundly damaged.” But sure—flap-copy hyperbole and this is going to be a charming story to read after a few heavier novels.

Eleanor Oliphant was altogether not what I expected. While it was cheeky in the writing, there was ultimately very little light about it. The reader quickly discovers that Eleanor has survived a catastrophic event and most of her idiosyncrasies are a result of that event. As a result, this book was heavy in a way I did not expect. As such, I’ll admit that the shock of the book being unexpectedly dark colored my rating of it—even in hindsight I do not think the flap-copy summary does justice to the book and I can see other readers being similarly turned off after thinking they were getting a different bill of goods in this book.

Trying too hard
This might be one of the first times I’ve ever said this, but the writing in Eleanor Oliphant was SO cheeky, it felt like the author tipped too far to the extreme of quirk and was just trying too hard. I loved it at first—Eleanor’s inner monologue and tongue in cheek jabs made me hoot out loud until it quickly—like chapter two quickly—became too much. It felt like every interaction Eleanor had with anyone, either something she said or thought became an opportunity to show how other and smart she is, how proper and different. We get it. She’s weird. She abides by old social conventions and doesn’t understand new ones.

Likable-enough Characters
The best parts of Eleanor Oliphant are the characters themselves and the balance Honeyman strikes with the likeability of both Eleanor and Raymond, Eleanor’s coworker/new friend. Neither is particularly likeable on the whole, but she doesn’t push as hard on them as characters as she did with her writing so the balance here is better. Eleanor is not an entirely or, even mostly, sympathetic character for much of the book. Yes, she is at times unfairly disliked and made fun of by her coworkers (which, should never be ok) but you also very clearly see how she brings some of the disdain upon herself. There are social mores she doesn’t know to abide by, leading her to be the butt of awkward jokes but there are also some that she just doesn’t give a damn about. In other words, she was a real person. More flawed than most but not altogether either good or bad. There were times I initially questioned whether I really wanted to keep reading and it was only Eleanor herself (despite her overdone inner monologue) that made me keep going.

Similarly, Raymond is not the perfect novel leading man. He smokes, dresses somewhat slovenly, and is not in terribly good shape. Yet he’s undeniably loyal to Eleanor, for reasons I wasn’t entirely clear on—but you want this for her so you’re willing to go with it. Every so often it’s nice to have a romantic interest that isn’t dark and dashing but simply feels like someone you’d run into on the street. That’s Raymond.

It would have been easy to make Eleanor entirely unlikeable, a la Girl on the Train, or Raymond too likeable, yet Honeyman managed to avoid both of these pitfalls.

Resolution done well
The one other aspect of the book that I thought was particularly well-handled was Eleanor’s underlying trauma and how she reacts to it throughout the book. I am not going to give spoilers so there is not much more I can say; except that I thought the handling of it was well done and accurate as far as my experience and exposure to these sorts of things goes. I hate few things more than mental health poorly handled but felt Honeyman did an admirable job making Eleanor’s struggles believable.

Little things
Finally, Honeyman does have several paragraphs or small runs where I wanted to take note. There’s one particular section in chapter 8 where Eleanor muses on whether men feel the same pressure to look good than women do that made me want to cheer and read it twice. There’s also a section toward the end where the reader is invited into Eleanor’s musing on what it means to care for and love a pet that made my dog-collecting heart flutter. There were not as many of these as I found in something like Almost Sisters, where the point of the book seemed to be to make these kind of points, but they were refreshing to find in a general fiction book and brought the story and Eleanor a little more to life for me.

In Sum…
Ultimately, if I read this book under different circumstances, with different expectations, and without a looming library deadline, I probably would have liked this book more. Other readers may find the balance of cheek delicious instead of irritating. It ultimately wasn’t the right book at the right time for me, but I can still see myself recommending this to other readers, depending on their tastes and book needs at the time.

Published May 9, 2017 by Pamela Dorman Books (@pameladormanbooks) / Viking (@vikingbooks)
Author: Gail Honeyman
Date read: August 23, 2017
Rating: 3 ¼ stars

Hindsight // Foresight August 27, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this Week

Quiet reading week this week and now we’re midst Hurricane Harvey so it’s going to be good stay-inside-and-do-nothing-but-read weather for about the next week.  Boyfriend and I were originally supposed to go to Corpus Christi to celebrate our birthdays and boy am I glad we flaked on making those plans.  I managed to finish Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (…meh) and Woman No. 17 this week (better than expected) so I’m on to Sing, Unburied, Sing as of a few minutes ago.

I got Sherman Alexie’s memoir on audiobook (You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me) from the library and it’s on deck as soon as I finish The Color Purple.  I’ve got a few books waiting for me that I’ll pick up this week.

Thanks to some birthday giftcards and Amazon sales, I got physical copies of Arcadia and The New Jim Crow as well as ebooks of The Girls of Atomic City and some of the books in the Steampunk Chronicles.  Last week I also discovered a Goodwill bookstore around the corner (dangerous!) and got two of Frederik Backman’s backlist–Britt-Marie Was Here and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  I clearly acquire books at a faster rate than I can possibly finish them.

Foresight for the coming week

The ARC of Sing, Unburied, Sing is on tap to read next and I’ve also got the ARC of Trell to read and review before it’s publication date on September 12.  Because I read it so recently, I didn’t plan to reread The Hate U Give for Diverse Books Club, but I do need to read Underground Railroad as well as Stella By Starlight (our middle-grade book).  I’ve also got Crossing to Safety up for Modern Mrs. Darcy bookclub and then Fraulein M. and American Street with rapidly approaching due dates.  It’s an embarrassment of riches and becoming overwhelming!

Have suggestions for what I should read next? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Flatiron Books and Top Shelf Text for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Scared? She had never wanted to admit when she was scared. Mina was never scared, or so she had believed. “I’m only scared it won’t work,” Lynet said, her throat dry from having been silent for so long. She stared straight ahead at the outlines of the dangling willow leaves. I’m scared I won’t be enough. “I’m scared that some wounds can’t be healed.”

“Some wounds never heal,” Nadia said. She shyly reached for Lynet’s right hand, turning it over so her palm was facing up. “But many do.”

In this feminist re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale, the kingdom is ruled by King Nicholas, still grieving his lost wife, and clinging to Lynet, the daughter who looks just like her. In the background stands Mina, the stepmother with the heart of glass crafted by her father, unable to love or to be loved. Just as Lynet is starting to discover who she is and who she wants to be, her father is gravely injured during a hunting accident. When Nicholas dies, Mina and Lynet are pitted against one another—after all, only one can be queen. Told in alternating views between Mina and Lynet, Melissa Bashardoust upends the tropes of the evil stepmother and the shrinking violet princess to bring a story of what it means to be true to oneself and to love and be loved.

Reading Level—Writing and Themes
The writing in Girls Made of Snow and Glass is simple—the reading level is 7th grade and up, yet the story is crafted well enough to hold the interest of an adult reader, even with the somewhat low reading level. The tone and pitch of the writing match classic fairy tales without erring to the side of being sing-songy in wording. The simple writing never distracts from the overall story and the pace is perfect—not too fast or too slow.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is not a Grimm fairytale by any stretch. There is limited violence (there is one particularly violent scene almost at the end when the battle between good and evil comes to a climax, but it is not terribly graphic) and no romantic overtures beyond kissing. Thematically, Bashardoust manages to convey more complicated concepts than you would typically find in a novel written at a middle school reading level, yet she handles them in ways that feel accessible to parents and children exploring and talking about these themes.

Being at home in your own skin
Lynet, born as her mother was dying and eerily similar to the departed queen, chafes against the expectations placed on her—the requests that make her feel as if she is being forced into the mold of her mother. There are several instances where Bashardoust raises Lynet feeling this way—

Lynet was overlooking the courtyard now, but she still felt like she was running from something, and that if she stopped, it would catch her. It was a restless feeling, an itch that made her feel like her skin didn’t fit over her bones correctly. She thought that she might leap out of herself and become someone new, and then she’d be at peace.

The feelings Lynet has—of not feeling like she is herself in her own body, feeling that her forced outsides don’t match her insides—seem like they would have resonance with a teen who identifies as LGBTQ or has friends who do. Lynet feels that to embrace these feelings would be to disappoint her father, whom she loves dearly.

In other scenes, Lynet grows closer to Nadia (the newly arrived surgeon for the castle, slightly older than she), she marvels that Nadia can be a stoic surgeon in the castle and also her caring, radiant friend. Later, Lynet is put in the position of forgiving Nadia and having to decide if she trusts her. Lynet’s experiences with Nadia speak volumes about female friendship. Bashardoust avoids the trope of the Mean Girl altogether—she presents Nadia making a significant mistake, one that she had reasons to make but was still altogether an error, but owning her mistakes. The error-apology-acceptance storyline is one that isn’t often done well in literature aimed at teen girls but shines here. Bashardoust handles these revelations and lessons gently, hitting the balance between being subtle and still being clear enough that the message hits home. Ultimately, the relationship between Lynet and Nadia looks like it will become something more than just friendship—Bashardoust writes this beautifully and tenderly without unnecessary handwringing about what this might mean. Lynet and Nadia just are and the book is better for it.

Loving and being loved
While Lynet is, in many ways driven and initially defined by her relationship with her father, the main relationship in the book is between Lynet and her stepmother, Mina. Mina feels incapable of loving anyone or being loved in return. Mina’s limitations here harm and confuse them both, with Mina discounting her feelings for Lynet and Lynet feeling that her stepmother has only ill will towards her.

I never had stepparents so I give my opinions here with that caveat. Amazon classifies the book, among other options, within the subcategory of “Blended Families”—while this isn’t a category that immediately occurred to me, it’s absolutely appropriate. Mina and Lynet make mistakes—both in their expectations and desires of what they want the other to be. I don’t want to give anything away, but here too, there is so much fodder for good discussion of what it means to be family and love a family member who might not be blood-related to you.

Free will
With everything going on when you’re a teenager, it is easy to feel that you don’t have agency over your own life. Everyone from your parents and friends to society generally have expectations and labels. It sometimes feels easier to go with the flow and forget that you have choices. One of the strengths of Bashardoust’s tale is that her characters are ultimately the masters of their own destinies. This is not Snow White saved by seven (little) men. While the women in the story—Lynet and Mina in particular but Nadia as well—have to grapple with the impact caused by the actions of the men in their lives, how those choices impact them and what they do next is entirely within their control. I wanted to stand up and cheer. Bashardoust’s characters are believable—they absolutely have flaws—but they have power (figuratively and literally), they make choices, and they live with the consequences. Mothers, here are some good role models for your daughters.

Accessible Feminism
(I’m going to start by saying that I generally identify as feminist. That’s a loaded word and I’m not going to unpack it here, but I do feel it’s worth saying so that the next part doesn’t come across as possibly sarcastic.)

I knew going into this book that it was a feminist re-telling of Snow White. I wasn’t sure how that would fit in with the dwarves (spoiler….there are no dwarves) or what it would mean for the evil stepmother character. I was expecting, frankly, to be a little hit over the head with the moral lessons (otherwise, why emphasize that it’s so feminist).

I was pleasantly surprised with how beautiful the story of Girls Made of Snow and Glass ultimately was. The “F” word appears nowhere in the book—there are no asides or speeches about feminism or girl power. Instead, Bashardoust simply depicts women and girls who have agency, have self-respect, and make choices that affect themselves and others. There is no fanfare over the feminism here, it just is. The book is better for not having made a fuss, but rather presented the themes and the powerful female characters as just the way things are. Because frankly, women having agency and power is/should be just the way things are.

Throughout Girls Made of Snow and Glass there are little gems that can spark great discussion between parents and children about being comfortable in your own skin, the expectations people (often unfairly) have of you, and what it means to be a friend (even when you’ve been betrayed or been the betrayer). The moral lessons never feel overbearing but are cleverly and clearly conveyed so that there is no missing the message.

Even though I am not a parent (or even close to becoming one), I adored this book. It was an empowering and fun read, well worthy of my time investment.

Published: September 5, 2017 by Flatiron Books (@flatiron_books)
Author: Melissa Bashardoust
Date read: August 19, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars

Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

…I’ve always known on a purely intellectual level, that our separateness and isolation are an illusion. We’re all made of the same thing—the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars. I’ve just never felt that knowledge in my bones until that moment, there, with you. And it’s because of you.

Jason Dessen has a perfectly ordinary life as a physics professor of a middling college and comfortable relationships with his art-teacher wife and teenage son Charlie until he’s kidnapped on his way home from meeting a colleague for drinks. Plunged into an alternate reality of his life where he never married his wife and instead chose the path of professional success, Jason has to decide what he really wants—does he want the impressive but lonely life of professional acclaim or does he want his ordinary, imperfect life back? Once he chooses, can he find the world where he belongs?

Universal appeal, despite the Amazon category
I’m late to the party on this one as Dark Matter has been out for quite some time but after everyone in the MMD Book Club raved about it, I had to get my hands on a copy. Amazon classifies this book as a “Technothriller” and “Science Fiction;” however, this is one of those don’t-judge-a-book-by-it’s-Amazon-category instances. This is one of the few books that seemed universally enjoyed and is a frequent recommendation within the MMD Book Club. I think, in fact, it might be the only book that I’ve never seen anyone say they disliked. The group has a wide variety of members, including readers who steer clear of science fiction altogether who still enjoyed this book. Several of the women in the group commented that it was a book even their non-reader husbands really enjoyed.

In order to understand the plot in Dark Matter, you need to understand the idea of the multiverse—essentially, that the universe you are conscious of living within is but one of many universes. For each choice you make, in another universe you made a different choice. You had Life cereal this morning? In another universe you had Cheerios. In another you never ate breakfast because you actually died in a car accident last week. Dark Matter is set within this infinitely unfolding multiverse. Currently only a theory (since consciousness itself destroys the ability to prove the multiverse—you can only be aware of the universe in which you find yourself), Dark Matter places Jason squarely within a world in which the multiverse has become his reality.

Sound overly complicated? For a book about quantum physics, Dark Matter remains a remarkably accessible book. Crouch explains the concepts necessary for the reader to understand what, exactly it is that’s happening without becoming bogged down in technospeak or losing the reader. I sped through this book, gobbling it up—I even woke up an hour early one morning just to go to Starbucks so I could read it for an hour before I went to work. Despite the speed with which I was reading, I had no trouble understanding the scientific concepts—I never had to go back and re-read to understand the science (despite the degrees on my wall showing I was a humanities major in college). The physics sets the stage but the relationships between Jason and his wife, Daniela, and Jason and himself are what drive the book.

While the story revolves around Jason and his journey through the various realities in which he could have lived, seeing Daniela through Jason’s eyes in each of her iterations was a joy (well, except for one…you’ll know which one when you read the book). Crouch manages to strike a balance with her where you see and feel how deeply she is loved, yet, she remains beautifully real. She is Jason’s ideal, yet not unfairly idealized—my favorite description of her was her tendency towards being “belligerently kind” when she’s been drinking. I want to know her, to sit on her couch and drink wine, to hang her art on my walls.

The choices people make and whether those choices were objectively “good” or “bad” is a pretty common theme within literature and fiction. In placing that plot point within the multiverse, Crouch flips this concept entirely on its head. Want to know how your life would have turned out if you had made a different choice—chosen the job, chosen the spouse, said something different? Within the multiverse you can. The path not taken is a doorway away within an infinite hallway of choices. Crouch reveals that choice is going to be a central part of his book from his dedication of the book “[f]or anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.”

I’m not going to say more as doing so would spoil the book; however, this is the first time I’ve seen this kind of time-bending work so well to establish a universe where a character can see how his choices affected different parts of his life and where the reader quickly understands how that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’ve been lucky so far this year in curating books that hit the mark for me in writing. Dark Matter is another one of those books that is tightly written, with perfect turns of phrase here and there that really shine, though the book never becomes flowery. The writing is simple enough to convey complicated scientific concepts, descriptive enough to place you with Jason in each of the worlds he trips across in the multiverse, yet spare enough that the book moves forward at a quick pace without unnecessary words cluttering your path. In some ways, the prose is more impressive in a book like Dark Matter than The Heart where the focus isn’t the writing itself for the sake of writing. For the prose to be so well crafted feels like an extra gift, the cherry on top (if you like cherries…otherwise this metaphor doesn’t really work).

And if the quote at the top of this review isn’t one of the most romantic things you’ve ever read, then do you even have a heart?

Dark Matter is one of three books so far this year that upon finishing, I had to go buy my own copy because I knew I would need to re-read it and recommend it widely. (I actually took pictures of the pages where I had book darts so I could transfer them into the new book….it was a lot of pictures). Luckily for you, the book is available in paperback; alternatively, it’s still in stock as a book you can add to your monthly box on Book of the Month.

As I noted above, this is a book that people from every walk of life have enjoyed within my book club and it’s got an impressive rating on both Goodreads and Amazon. If you enjoy solidly written fiction and have even a mild tolerance of science-fiction, this is the book for you. But when you stay up all night reading, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Published: July 26, 2016 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Blake Crouch (@blakecrouch1)
Date read: June 14, 2017
Rating: 4 3/4 Stars

Hindsight / Foresight August 20, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this Week

This week was a pretty good reading week.  I finished Girl in Snow (which wasn’t what I expected) and am almost done with Girls Made of Snow and GlassGirls Made of Snow and Glass is a feminist retelling of Snow White–I’m loving it and looking forward to reviewing it on the blog this week.  I finished Born a Crime in audio and started The Color PurplePurple is read by the author and while I think the voice and pitch are spot-on, it’s not an easy book to follow on audiobook.  It’s short and I need the book for one of my challenges this year, so I’m continuing with it.  Reading a plot synopsis made what’s going on make more sense, so that will hopefully minimize my confusion going forward.


I did not visit the library except to return books this week!  I know.  It makes me sad too…but my TBR breathed a sigh of relief.

One of my favorite bloggers is co-facilitating a new book club that absolutely everyone should check out.  Diverse Books Club is reading three books for our inaugural month in September–I’ve been meaning to read one, have already read another, and hadn’t heard of the third.  I’m super excited to see how this group works out.  You can check out more info about why this group is necessary and our books for September at Top Shelf Text’s post on the club here.  (Photo Credit Top Shelf Text).

Foresight for the coming week

Since I should finish Girls Made of Snow and Glass today, I’ll likely start either Savage the Bones or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  As I mentioned last week, I got an ARC of Jessamyn Ward’s soon-to-be-published Sing, Unburied, Sing, so I’m thinking I’ll go back and read her first novel and then review the two of them in the same week before Sing comes out.

Have suggestions for what I should read next? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Review: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Nostalgia is my favorite emotion. It’s like, you think you know how to deal with the passage of time, but nostalgia will prove you wrong. You’ll press your face into an old sweatshirt, or you’ll look at a familiar shade of paint on a front door, and you’ll be reminded of all the time that got away from you. If you could live it all again, you’d take a long moment to look around, to examine knees against knees. Nostalgia puts you in this dangerous re-creation something you can never have again. It’s ruthless, and for the most part, inaccurate.


On February 15, the town of Broomsville, Colorado awakes to find that fifteen year-old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered. As the small town swirls with grief and gossip, we follow three characters—Cameron, a neighbor who loved her and may have also stalked her; Jade, a classmate who hated her for being everything she couldn’t be; and Russ, a police officer torn between his duty to serve and his duty to protect, especially to protect Cameron. As more is slowly revealed, the book begs the questions—Who are you when no one’s watching? And can you ever really know someone if you’re only ever watching from the outside?

At first, I assumed, based on the title, that Girl in Snow was a YA book. A few chapters in, I realized that wasn’t the case. Instead, the title is a nod to the way works of art are named, as we see Lucinda, left for dead on a snowy playground, through the eyes of two classmates/neighbors and a police officer involved in the investigation.

From the first sentences on, the readers knows the central point around which the rest of the book turns is the murder of a fifteen year-old girl, but no one knows who murdered her. Ok, so this book must be a thriller/murder-mystery—indeed, a quick check of Amazon has the book categorized as “women’s fiction” and “literary fiction” and then in the sub-genres of “mystery, thriller, and suspense” within each.

Except, even this genre didn’t fit neatly, or at least, does not follow the typical structure of a mystery/thriller/suspense novel in my book. The bulk of the book follows three characters and the choices they (and others) make when they think no one is watching. Far more time is spent on character development than dropping clues, such that when the killer is identified, the resolution is swift, almost an afterthought to the other sub-stories being told about Cameron, Jade, and Russ. (Which, in the interest of #nospoilers is not say that it isn’t one of them, but simply that the focus of the book isn’t on who did it as much as how these three characters are coping with the murder and the role they have in the event and the resulting investigation).

The highlight of Kukafka’s first novel is Cameron. It’s never directly stated, but his mannerisms seemed to indicate pretty strongly to me that he is on the spectrum—making collections, storing images, intensely focused, but socially withdrawn. Cameron is obsessed with watching—he prowls the neighborhood at night, watching the inhabitants, especially watching Lucinda. Though they have had almost no actual interaction, Cameron loves the Lucinda he watches. When Lucinda’s body is found, he is immediately a suspect—though he has been careful, he’s less clever than he thinks and people know he’s been watching Lucinda. Even Cameron wonders if it might be him, as the night of her death is missing from Cameron’s memory.

Protecting Cameron the best he can is Russ, a police officer who was Cameron’s father’s partner for years on the force before Cameron’s father was forced to leave in shame. Russ, more than the other main characters, has let what others see of him define who he actually is—with the result that he’s walking around half-alive, still consumed with his missing partner and his promise to keep his son safe.

Finally, we have Jade. I loved Kukafka’s little details with Jade—I may have cheered out loud at the reference to her listening to Box Car Racer and Dashboard Confessional (the book is set so that they are teenagers in the late 90s’/early 2000s’ when I was). Jade is that kid in school who doesn’t seem to have friends but also don’t seem to want them. It’s easier to reject someone before they reject you. She’s prickly and unattractive. And yet, like Cameron, she steals her way into your heart.

The last thing you want is for any of these three to have been involved in Lucinda’s death. Yet Jade hated her, Cameron stalked her, and Russ has hidden evidence to protect someone in Cameron’s family before.

These characters are what made Girl in Snow stand out from the typical murder mystery from me. I usually spend my entire time reading, trying to pick up clues. I can usually figure out the murderer and, often, the motive at least a few chapters before the big reveal. I didn’t find myself doing that with Girl in Snow. Kukafka made me care, desperately, more about who I hoped didn’t commit the murder than about who did. I didn’t spend my time looking for lots of clues, rather I waited for Cameron to work his way through his memory, hoping that when it came back it wouldn’t be him. I won’t say more and spoil the book, but turning this typical view of the mystery on its head was one of Kukafka’s better choices, as the book was richer than your typical mass market paperback murder mystery, though diehard mystery/thriller fans may find the ending rather abrupt with very few clues leading you as to both who the murderer was and why.

In some ways, by choosing the three characters she did, Kukafka chose the three anti-heroes. None of the three of them are likeable. Even the other significant minor characters—Ivan, Ines, and Cynthia—wouldn’t have been terribly likeable had their narrative been added. But then again, the more you find out about someone you’ve been watching, in many ways, the more unlikeable they become. Just as Cameron never got a full glimpse of Lucinda in his hours of watching her, perhaps love is coming to know someone, to find them unlikeable, and choosing them anyway.

I struggled more with rating this book than with others. As I noted, since it didn’t read like a typical mystery/thriller to me, it didn’t seem fair to judge it against others in that category I’ve enjoyed or think are well done. It was almost more of a straight literary fiction novel that happened to be set around a murder. With that in mind, I gave this book 3 ¾ stars—it’s well-written, tightly-edited, and Kukafka can turn a beautiful phrase, though it didn’t have the pop of something like This is How It Always Is or even Almost Sisters. It wasn’t as stand out as other lit-fics I’ve recently read, so that knocked it down a bit.

However, this was by no means a book that’s finding itself on my running list of “Books I should have abandoned” (looking at you Hillbilly Elegy). I was engaged, I enjoyed the story, and I thought Kukafka did well by her characters. I loved her gentleness with Cameron in particular. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I can get a little heart-eyes over flowery prose—this book isn’t flowery. The prose is well done without being over the top. So while I didn’t love the prose as much as I did in something like The Heart or Exit West, I know those books also drive some readers a little nuts. If that’s you, you’ll do fine with Girl in Snow—it’s beautiful but not showy. If you generally enjoy non-standard murder mysteries and highly character-driven books, I suspect you’ll find Girl in Snow worth your time.

Published: August 1, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Danya Kukafka (@danyakukafka)
Date read: August 15, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars

Review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, “This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me.”

She would say these things to herself because she liked the moment when she suddenly became uncertain that those things she was saying were in fact true, liked the way it made her feel unmoored, the hole of doubt that opened inside her, and the wind the blew through that hole….And she liked equally—not more and not less, because it was just the same sensation backward—the moment she became re-certain that those things were true—this is me, this is really me—when the hole closed, and the anchor caught, and she could smell the eggs her father was scrambling downstairs.

On a September day punctuated only by an Algebra test, a broken pencil, and not enough time to finish graphing the asymptotes, eighth-grader Meredith suddenly finds herself on the floor of a local restaurant as a robbery becomes a kidnapping and Meredith is the one left behind.  The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of what happens next for Meredith and her family as they come to terms with Meredith’s being left behind while still having to move forward.

I remember the first time I watched Gilmore Girls, I identified, unquestioningly, with Rory. Many years later, re-watching it before the recent revival, I realized at some point I was far closer in age to Lorelai in the series, and, while I remembered feeling the way Rory did at times, Lorelai’s story lines were suddenly more relevant.

In some ways, my experience with The Fall of Lisa Bellow was similar—I felt the ache of middle school injustice and cliques and could remember how it felt to be where Meredith is (awful…it mostly felt awful), but I identified as strongly with her mother Claire as I did Meredith. I’m in the sweet spot of being able to see myself in both major characters.

In Meredith, I remember the feeling of not fitting in—not entirely sure what it was about me that made me different, just knowing that I wasn’t popular or, frankly, well-liked. Like Meredith, I missed the memo about the Titanic iceberg that is middle school and spent the rest of the time feeling like I was catching up. And yet, there is a point where we see Meredith from her mother’s eyes, talking about the mean girls with her friends. And in that moment, Meredith is one the nice-girls-become-mean in the tearing down of other girls. I see this so much in myself in hindsight. I was one of the nice girls but I was not nice. I was not kind. In seeing this in Meredith, I see this in eighth grade me. It made me feel gentler toward Meredith, knowing we shared this flaw that neither of us could or would see until we were adults, removed from thirteen by enough distance to see the landscape behind.

In the alternating chapters with Meredith’s mother, I could see parts of Claire’s parenting that felt true to me. I’m not a parent but I could see where many of the mistakes she made could easily be my mistakes in the future. The earliest glimpse of Claire’s parenting comes as she examines a patient who made fun of her first-grade son, calling him a “porker.” As an adult, Claire has power, but as a dentist, Claire welds more power than she should—and in a moment of decision deliberately inflicts just a bit of pain on her son’s bully. There’s something shockingly human in the description of this incident. Though the book is written in third person it reads like a confession, but a confession from someone who isn’t sure she’s sorry. She knows she should be, but that’s as close to remorse as she’s been able to come in the ten years since.

For Claire, the problems are now too big for dental retribution. Six months before the book opens, her son Evan catches a line drive foul ball in the eye, destroying his sight and his dreams for a baseball career. Now, with Meredith, not taken but gone somewhere Claire can’t understand, Claire has to fully accept that can’t protect her children and there isn’t always a physical monster she can bring to tears with her sterile tools.

Though there is nothing on paper that should make me identify particularly well with either of these characters, the highlight of The Fall of Lisa Bellow for me was Meredith and Claire, as well as the minor characters of the father Mark and son Evan—in their struggle through grief and loss and almost-loss and guilt for the grief—they make choices that can’t make sense because none of those emotions set the foundation for rational thinking. And yet, I can see the nonsensical choices they each made and see, exactly, how I too would wind up in a stranger’s bathtub, drunk on my own front lawn, unexpectedly in a seat at the popular kid’s table for a fleeting moment.  It is a strength of Perabo’s that though I had little to nothing outwardly in common with her characters, I identified with them so deeply as I read.

I read a book several years ago about “ambiguous loss,” a phrase made mainstream by Pauline Boss. Ambiguous losses aren’t solid, they’re like a family whose loved one has Alzheimer’s—there’s a death with a living body still walking around, so how do they mourn this non-loss? It’s a loss of expectation in some ways, but deeper than that.  It’s not a loss you can see; it’s not something that prompt the neighbors to pull out the casserole dishes and fill your freezer. Though what Meredith experienced isn’t truly an ambiguous loss—Lisa is gone and Meredith is not—the way Meredith processed what happened—that she is still here reminded me in some ways of ambiguous loss. We all grieve experiences differently, even if what would seem to be the expected emotion isn’t grief. It is in the processing of her experience and the loss of Lisa that Meredith begins to literally see Lisa, to imagine what is happening to her. How Meredith comes to terms with her own trauma, the “lesser” trauma of that day, is simultaneously completely irrational and completely identifiable. Through the ordeal and later, she fixates on a problem she ran out of time to solve in math class—she latches onto the rational problem with a finite solution that she can still solve.

For Claire, the immediate thought is that Meredith is still here—what does she or her family have to grieve? And yet, there is the almost-grief, the difference of eeny-meeny-miney-mo landing on your daughter rather than the other one in the restaurant.

After Lisa is taken within the first few chapters of the book, the rest is how Meredith comes to term with Lisa—a classmate who wasn’t a friend but, in that short moment, was as they both lay on the floor of the Deli Barn. How Claire mourns the loss of her daughter’s innocence while simultaneously struggling with the idea that she, as the parent who didn’t lose a child, shouldn’t be mourning at all.

Because I can’t not-comment on the writing
The Fall of Lisa Bellow stuck with me more than most books I’ve read recently—the larger themes had more poignancy than the other books I’ve read this summer. In this way, while the little details were the high point of the other books, here they were the matting surrounding the larger work—the work was better for the professional matting and framing job, but the work stood on its own.

The themes carried you, swimming in almost-grief and almost-guilt masquerading down the halls of eighth grade, while the word choice and details were the individual steps that got you from one end of the hall to the other. The writing didn’t smother the theme, it wasn’t over the top but it wasn’t so simplistic that it detracted. There were paragraphs to re-read for the way the characters made you feel and others to re-read for the word choice. The Fall of Lisa Bellow was balanced in a way most books rarely are.

Recommended for….
This is a book that drew some strong reactions in the MMD book club—some of us loved it, but I think we may have been in the slight minority. The action happens in the left over parts with the left behind people. It doesn’t move quickly and some of the choices the characters make just aren’t rational—if you’re not in a place where you’re also inhabiting those characters with Perabo, then I can see how those choices, those words, that character’s tone would drive you to pull out your eyelashes waiting for something to happen. Despite the kidnapping plot, this is not a mystery/thriller. The focus is never on the girl who was taken but the girl who was left.

With that said, I loved this book and devoured it in days. If you enjoy well written, traditional literary fiction and character-driven books, The Fall of Lisa Bellow was a highlight of my summer reading and I highly recommend it. This is another book I’ll be acquiring my own copy of for my shelves to lend and re-read in the future.

Published: March 14, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Perabo
Date read: June 12, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars

Hindsight / Foresight August 13, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this Week

Yesterday was the first day I had off in literally thirteen days–I had a brief due at work and worked a usual workday’s worth of hours last Saturday and Sunday.  Yesterday I didn’t set an alarm (slept in til 8:30!), went to Half Price Books, watched baseball, and got about halfway into my ARC of Girl in Snow.  I would have gotten farther but I found myself glued to my phone, watching the atrocities go down in Charlottesville.  UVA was the other prestigious university in Virginia (I went to William & Mary), so it was surreal to watch the rioting, the initial lack of adequate police response to protect the Black Lives Matter and other counter-protestors, escalating to the death, and then the president’s weak-sauce, half-assed condemnation of both sides.  Girl in Snow is SO very good and I probably could have flown through it yesterday but for being glued to my phone and angry Facebooking.

Speaking of ARCs, it’s an embarrassment of riches over at my house.  I mentioned last week that I got Girls Made of Snow and Glass and Trell.  I also got approved on NetGalley for ARCs of Jessamyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and Girl In Snow.   And, of course, I already had the ARC of Reading People for Anne Bogel’s Launch Team.  Because those all come out soon (or just came out), the blog will be heavily skewed towards ARCs for a few weeks starting soon.

With work being nuts, the only book I finished last week was The Alice Network.  It started a little slow and I was afraid at first I’d gotten another Lilac Girls, but it quickly picked up.  It wasn’t quite on the level of The Nightingale, but similar to that, it made me want to read some nonfiction on Louise de Bettignies, aka Alice Duval.  I did start and read a few chapters of Priestdaddy but it was so good, I decided to go ahead and return the library copy and just buy my own copy so I wasn’t rushed in reading it.

I picked up Since We Fell and Eleanor Oliphant is Complete Fine from the library to add to the towering TBR pile.  Boyfriend and I are almost done with Waking Gods and I’ve only got a few hours left in Born a Crime.

I’d be remiss not to remind you about the amazing bonuses that are still available if you preorder Anne Bogel’s Reading People.  The subtitle is “How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything” and is Anne’s story of how digging into the 7 personality frameworks changed her for the better. The book explains how you can put those personality frameworks to work to change your life, work and relationships. You can go to to take a free quiz to see what 9 reading personality best describes you–I got the Insider and it pegged me to a “T.”  And, because its all Anne Bogel, came with reading recommendations for my reading type.

If you want to dive deeper, Anne made a class that you can dive deeper into all 9 types and she gives book recommendations for each type. You can get this class free with a pre-order of the book. You can also get a free download of the audiobook (Anne recorded it!).

Foresight for the coming week

I should finish Girl in Snow Tuesday if not today then its on to Girls Made of Snow and Glass.  Despite their similar titles, they’ve got NOTHING in common so it will be a nice change of pace.  Girl in Snow is a murder mystery where Girls Made of Snow and Glass is YA fantasy.  I will have to pick a new audiobook this week.  I started listening to Hum If You Don’t Know the Words because I love books Bahni Turpin reads, but couldn’t get into it.  A bunch of other folks in the MMD book club raved about it after I set it aside, so I may go back.  I’ve also go an Audible credit burning a hole in my pocket that I need to decide what to use it on.  I’ve heard good things about The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie but I also just learned Bahni does Underground Railroad so I may return the physical copy I have of that one and read the audiobook instead.

Have suggestions for what I should read next? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Review: The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

“You and me, we have to get on the same page now,” I told her.
“I’ve been on your page since the day that you were born, sugar,” Wattie said, but then she added tartly, “Though all this week I wondered if you might be illiterate.”

Thirty-eight and pregnant from a one-night stand with a black Batman at a ComicCon, graphic novel illustrator and author Leia Birch Briggs finds herself the eye around which a maelstrom of family chaos rages. Before she can break her news to her family, her sister Rachel’s family life implodes, leaving Leia caring for her teenage niece, even as she has to travel to Birchville, Alabama to care for her ailing grandmother. Shortly after her arrival in Birchville, all holy hell breaks loose around Leia’s beloved grandmother Birchie and her devoted friend Wattie, an African-American woman Birchie’s known and cherished as her best friend almost her entire life. As Leia struggles to keep everything together in her new-found caretaker role, she begins to discover things about herself, her characters, and her family that will profoundly change how she moves forward in her own life.

Don’t judge a book by its flap-copy
If you asked me before I read The Almost Sisters if I had any interest in reading a book about a woman who writes comic books and gets knocked up from a one-night stand at a ComicCon, I would resoundingly have answered, “no.” I don’t read comics, I don’t religiously follow The Avengers movies, and I’m not sure I can correctly sift Marvel characters from DC outside of the major characters in each.

But I am so very glad I picked up this book. I love this book for its believably flawed central character Leia, for the dignity Joshilyn Jackson gave the aging Birchie, and the gentleness she showed with Wattie, Birchie’s closest friend and an African American woman living in a small town in Alabama. If you love women, if you cheer for books that highlight and champion women and their relationships, this is a book for you. The comic stuff is the background around which the main story is built and is still delightful even if you’re a comic outsider—you do not need any existing background knowledge to love this story. (Ok, it might help if you know who Batman and Wonder Woman are, but that’s it.)

Relationships among women
During the recent author chat with the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club, Jackson mentioned that she was inspired with this book to flip the biblical story of Rachel and Leah around—what if Leah/Leia is the interesting sister and the focal point of the story of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob? As Jackson said, “What if you were the one who didn’t get picked, but you’re valuable and good at what you do?—this is what Leia/Leah would look like.”

Though in almost every possible way, I’ve since left that culture, I did grow up heavily immersed in a Southern Baptist church. I had never, in thirty-something years of churching, stopped to think about Leah. The narrative is always about Rachel as the pretty, desirable one; but Jackson is right. Leah is resourceful, successful, and does everything she should do for that time and yet, the focus is Rachel. Though I didn’t see this theme as clearly as I did before the chat with Jackson, I appreciated her eye for the forgotten sister. For giving the woman who is usually left out of the story her own voice and book. Of course, the biblical starting point was just that—a starting point. Unless I am misremembering significant portions of Genesis, Leah never slept with an African American dressed as Batman at a ComicCon and got knocked up out of wedlock so…the analogy is loose and not triggering if you’re in a place where the Bible is not a safe book for you—it’s reqlly quite easy to miss or ignore outside of the characters’ names. Additionally, if you’re completely unfamiliar with this particular biblical story, The Almost Sisters still holds up. You do not need to know the story of Rachel and Leah in the slightest to love this story.

Jackson starts with the relationship between Rachel and Leah and expands from there, exploring the multitude of sister-like relationships between women from the formal step-sister bond between Rachel and Leia to the best friend/companion relationship between white Birchie and black Wattie. Though difficult to describe without giving spoilers away (and I won’t!), Leia’s comic characters Violet and Violence are also intertwined in a way that brings another fun dimension to the idea of female identity relative to another woman. The relationships here are so rich, I feel like this is a book that will hold up to multiple readings, with new little discoveries with each reading.

Gems and Easter Eggs
I loved that though this wasn’t a hoity-toity book—the Library of Congress information in the front of the book tells me this is a “Domestic fiction” and “Contemporary Women’s Fiction” book—pardon me while I pause for an eye-roll at whomever named those categories—but the writing still sparkled. Rather than describing Birchie as simply “having dementia,” Jackson describes her as “deep in the badlands of the brain.” Leia describes sleeping with Ambien-zonked Rachel as “sleeping with a bag of upset cats.” She describes Rachel’s brand of love and help as “so relentless[ ] that I wished I had a safe word.”

I adore a book that defies the (unfairly low in this case) expectations of its genre. Beautiful writing doesn’t have to be dripping poetry and limited to literary fiction. Truly fantastic writing draws you in without making you feel like an outsider. It introduces you to new words, new ways of seeing, and new metaphors. In the ways she writes about these little mundanities of life, Jackson’s writing brings The Almost Sisters to life. I cannot remember a time I so thoroughly enjoyed reading a “Women’s Fiction” book.

I should add here, when speaking of the little gems scattered across Jackson’s writing, that there are also apparently numerous hidden “easter eggs” for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Who. The references to those fandoms certainly fit with the context of ComicCon and who Leia is. While I picked up none of them (not being a card-carrying member of either of those groups), apparently they are there and readers who see them are loving them. As someone who didn’t pick up on them, I appreciated that they were so subtle that I wasn’t left feeling like I was missing something—there was nothing that hit me over the head with the inside reference and made me feel like an outsider. If you didn’t get it, you didn’t even see it and it didn’t detract from the story.

The Second South
I don’t normally go out of my way to describe characters by their race, yet its important for The Almost Sisters that both Leia’s Batman and Wattie are African-American. Layered with the story about the friendships of women is the darker, secondary theme of there being a Second South. The Second South is why the pastor reflexively tries to take Birchie’s hand out of Wattie’s arm, why people see Wattie as the help. Why Leia slowly starts to realize that her child, currently protected by the whiteness of her skin, will face entirely different challenges once out in the world as a mixed-race black boy. I do not want to detract from Jackson’s story by hammering the details here; however, I deeply appreciated that the reality of the racist Second South was a significant theme and was very much acknowledged.

As you may know from earlier reviews on this site for Dreamland Burning and Killers of the Flower Moon, I am often wary of white authors writing black characters or telling stories with moral lessons about racism. It can absolutely be done well but the dangers of it being done poorly (and then everyone patting themselves on the back, thinking their job well done) are high. Again, my perspective is similar if not the same as Jackson’s—I speak from a place of cis, white, able privilege—but I thought Jackson handled the racial overtones at play in The Almost Sisters well. She writes without making any apologies for the Second South. You can tell she loves the South as her own but her brand of love means you don’t sit there and let the cancer grow without calling it out and trying to excise it.

Reading Environment
When I read I try to think of where the reader would ideally be reading a given book. Some books lend themselves to the beach. Some to a cozy armchair with a cup of tea. Some are perfect for my favorite corner table at my local Starbucks. When I try to think of that same thing with The Almost Sisters, I come up with no single option. At the risk of sounding like Sam I Am, this is a book that can be read anywhere (in a box…with a fox…while eating lox….).

The Almost Sisters strikes a unique balance—the writing fizzes like a glass of happy champagne—yet Jackson is making serious points that ring true about racism in the South. The book is simultaneously airy and heavy. The writing makes it a book for the beach, the themes a book to spark discussion in many a book club.

Published July 11, 2017 by William Morrow (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Joshilyn Jackson (@joshilyn_jackson)
Date read: August 3, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars