Music and history entwine in Bernice McFadden’s newest novel, The Book of Harlan, a story of one African American family spanning generations. McFadden found her inspiration for the title character of Harlan from her paternal grandfather, about whom the author says:
I never personally knew the man and neither did my father. All I had to recreate his life were a birth certificate, census schedules, a few newspaper articles and my imagination.
Emma is the cherished and respectable daughter of a Baptist minister in Macon, Georgia, until carpenter Sam Elliot sweeps her off her feet and, in the oldest story ever, Emma is pregnant. Newly married, Sam and Emma join the Great Migration of African Americans escaping the south and Jim Crow to find a better life, but leave baby Harlan behind with Emma’s parents. Landing in New York City in 1922, America’s prosperity trickles down to the Elliotts, who can finally bring their young son north with them. Harlan develops into a gifted guitarist who thrives in the Harlem Renaissance music scene and his job in a jazz band finds him touring in Paris on the eve of World War II. Hitler’s visions of extermination aren’t limited to Jews, and Harlan and his bandmate Lizard are caught up in an unimaginable nightmare.
McFadden does not sugarcoat the lives of the Elliott family, and by extension, the broader African American experience. Poverty, single motherhood, addiction, injustice and race-based prejudice cycle around again and again, making the upward mobility to which the Elliotts aspire a two-steps-forward, one-step-back journey. From the turn-of-the-century segregated south to the Newark riots of 1967, The Book of Harlan offers a sweeping view of 20th century African American life in which the constant is the unbreakable bonds of family and friends. Readers who enjoy Bernice McFadden’s perspective should also try The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.
The 100th anniversary of the War to End All Wars has created a proliferation of popular fiction set during World War I. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd is Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.
Agatha Kent has a well-ordered life as the wife of a British diplomat. She has travelled the world, and resides contentedly in the coastal Sussex town of Rye. Agatha is confident that her husband will succeed in his efforts to quell the quarrel in the Balkans and looks forward to a visit from her two nephews. Hugh is a brilliant young surgeon just finishing his studies. Daniel, the apple of his aunt’s eye, is a burgeoning poet of great promise. The only potential tempest on the horizon is Agatha’s arrangement to hire a female Latin instructor for the local school.
Beatrice Nash has lost her beloved father and must find a way to support herself. Her inheritance has been tied up in a trust controlled by relatives who do not believe a single woman should be without the protection of a man. Fleeing their plans to marry her off, she has accepted the position of Latin instructor in an insular English village. The daughter of a respected writer, Beatrice is well-traveled and highly educated. Her new role, as well as her independence of spirit, presents a challenge to the rigid hierarchy of the town. As the summer deepens, everyone must face a far greater threat to their way of life; the German invasion of Belgium brings reality as well as refugees.
Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an international bestseller. The Summer Before the War is an insightful, witty, haunting portrait that will surely captivate its readers.
Dawn Tripp’s Georgia is an arresting, sensual novel that offers a startling and realistic picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life, inspirations and influences.
The novel is mostly a close examination of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, noted photographer and curator who was an early champion of her art. As each period of her art passes, and their relationship develops, we feel her frustration with how others perceive her deeply personal work as an extension of Stieglitz’s art: how the photos he’s taken of her are linked in critics’ minds to her work itself. This imbalance threatens their marriage and, more importantly, O’Keeffe’s ability to create.
It's when O’Keeffe is on her own on her self-directed retreats that we feel her freedom to take her work in an entirely different direction. “When someone looks at something I have painted, I want them to feel what moved me to paint it in the first place. I paint as I feel it. Light, sky, air. As I want it to be felt,” she said.
Georgia is a work of fiction and, while the rich descriptions of O’Keeffe’s art are well-written, reading about them will inspire you to look up O’Keeffe’s actual works. Georgia O’Keeffe: An Eternal Spirit by Susan Wright offers a great overview and pictures of her most famous paintings. Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction by Barbara Haskell and E. Bruce Robertson is a great companion to the novel as it focuses on some of her often-overlooked art. Also worth watching is this brief video about her life and work from the O’Keeffe Museum.
On March 28, 1968 in Memphis, shop windows broke and mace-triggered tears flowed when African American sanitation workers marched to protest dangerous and inhumane working conditions; within days, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel kicked off a period of riots and mourning nationwide. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. So, we’re all good now, right? In his newest novel Grant Park, Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. looks at the complicated dance of race relations as played out by two aging Chicago journalists whose lives intersected in 1968.
On the eve of the 2008 election, African American syndicated columnist Malcolm Toussaint, a man showered with professional accolades and prizes, enjoying the trappings of the upper middle class, has written a final piece in which he declares he is “sick and tired of white folks’ bullshit.” And, everyone knows Malcolm is tired of white folks because despite his white editor, Bob Carson, telling him this column cannot run, Malcolm sneaks onto the office computers and inserts it into the Chicago Post’s front page. Fall-out is swift; Malcolm is now jobless and the newspaper management team also fires Bob. An angry Bob sets out to find Malcolm, who has disappeared. Instead of hiding from everyone’s wrath, Malcolm’s been abducted by a Frick and Frack pair of suicidal white supremacists who intend to strap Malcolm to the front of their explosive-filled van like a hood ornament and blow them all to kingdom come at Grant Park as the first black POTUS makes his election night speech.
Pitts jumps from Malcolm’s and Bob’s pivotal experiences in the civil rights movement as it moved away from King’s nonviolent preaching to finding both men on the cusp of retirement, their discouraged, sometimes jaded, voices reflecting frustration born of lack of progress. Often farcically funny, Pitts manages to humanize the worst of us while pointing out that we, black and white, have no choice but to work together for change. Meet Leonard Pitts Jr. as he reads from Grant Park and discusses race relations in America today at the Towson Branch on April 23 at 1:30 p.m. as part of the BC Reads: Rise Up! month of events.
Immigrating to a new country is hard enough, but when your (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal) ghosts travel with you, you need someone who will protect and ward your community from those with malevolent intentions. In The Girl with Ghost Eyes, author M. H. Boroson mixes fantasy, martial arts and Chinese culture to create a thought-provoking tale with a resilient heroine.
Xian Li-lin is a priestess and exorcist of the Maoshan tradition of Daoism living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1898. After a fellow exorcist attacks her, Li-lin plots to confront her enemy in order to restore honor to herself and to her father, the only family she has left after the death of her husband. She cannot afford to lose any more face since she is already considered something of an outcast due to her widowhood status, and she’s cursed with yin eyes — the ability to see the spirit world. In her quest, she has to navigate not only the power struggles of the rival tongs of male-dominated Chinatown, but also the avenues of the spirit world, home to demons and monsters of all shapes. Unbeknownst to Li-lin and her allies, there is a horrifying plot to unleash a monstrous abomination that exists only to destroy everything in its path. Li-lin will have to challenge both the world of spirits and of men if she is to stop the monster.
The Girl with Ghost Eyes is refreshing because not one character is a stereotype or a caricature. Boroson treats the culture and history from which he draws his fictional Chinatown with respect and honesty, keeping the depictions of Chinese and Chinese immigrants’ culture and Maoshan tradition as close to reality as possible. Li-lin is a fantastic reluctant hero struggling through an almost impossible task simply because no one else will. She’s not the only person who can succeed in stopping the plotters, but she is the only person who keeps trying to do so.
This book reads like a detective noir crossed with the best kung fu movies, with lots of action and characters that are well-rounded, conflicted and complex. Li-lin will resonate with fans of Garth Nix’s Sabriel. This is also the first book in her series, promising lots of future ghost adventures to come.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?
In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.
In the debut novel The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters, life isn’t easy for William Fletcher, former-boxer-turned-private-detective living in segregated 1930s New Orleans; not many white people are willing to respect, let alone hire, an African American private eye. When his former employer and mob associate, the violent Bill Storm, reappears in Fletcher’s life with a final request – to locate Storm’s daughter – Fletcher figures things couldn’t get worse.
But then, Storm is found shot in the head, and his killer seems to be gunning for his daughter. She hires Fletcher as protection, setting off a chain reaction of escalating violence between the police and different mob factions. Fletcher has to use all of his boxing experience and investigative instincts to survive the coming storm.
The Red Storm is a treat for any hardboiled detective or historical fiction fan and especially so for fans of boxing as the book is rife with references. Bywaters is frank in his depictions of violence, be it a boxing match or a fight between mobsters. He also never lets the reader forget the time period he’s writing in either; not only does he reference specific events and places in New Orleans history but he also doesn’t shy from the slang or the racial issues. Counterpoint to the rampant casual racism and segregation is Fletcher himself, who won’t let anything impede his investigations.
It’s easy to understand why Bywaters won the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Minotaur Books, with his professional experience as a licensed private investigator adding authenticity to Fletcher’s fictional investigations. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley and James M. Cain, mystery fans will appreciate this new voice in hardboiled detective fiction.
In Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.