BOOK REVIEW: Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn WardSalvage The Bones
By Jesmyn Ward
Completed June 12, 2012

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Many reviews about Salvage The Bones advised animal lovers not to read this book because of its dog fighting theme. Yes, I was warned, but I wanted to read it anyway. Set in the American South at the brink of Hurricane Katrina, the story was right in my wheelhouse. I figured I could skip the dog fighting scenes – and I did, but it wasn’t enough.

Why? Simply put – it wasn’t just about the dog fighting scenes or the breeding of pit bull puppies to be fighters (though both incidents are frightful enough). My issue is this:  I never got the sense that Jesmyn Ward was condemning dog fighting. I couldn’t find an underlying message that spoke against this cruelty.

I am assuming Ward included dog fighting in Salvage The Bones because it’s a popular past time in certain pockets of the American South. But the animal lover in me wonders what’s the point. Did it strengthen the story? Make the family’s plight more deplorable? I don’t think it did. And with the absence of a strong message that condemns dog fighting, I wonder why you need it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am sure Jesmyn Ward isn’t for dog fighting. I just wish she made dog fighting an allegorical theme.

The rest of the book was good. The characters were complex and believable. Their lives of poverty were startling. The effects of Katrina were devastating. Yes, everything else about Salvage The Bones was spot on. But the dog fighting was too much for me.

So, heed my warning. Don’t read this book if you hate dog fighting, if you are against breeding dogs to fight and are tired of pit bulls being used in this manner. Salvage The Bones will not be the book for you – just like it wasn’t the book for me.


BOOK REVIEW: The World Made Straight by Ron Rash

The World Made Straight by Ron RashThe World Made Straight
By Ron Rash
Completed March 9, 2012

Ron Rash was recommended to me by a book friend after I vacationed in the Appalachian mountains. I love discovering new authors, especially ones who use their settings as an important part of their storytelling. My friend sent me a copy of The World Made Straight to get me started, and I have to say: I am very intrigued by Rash’s writing.

The World Made Straight focuses on two main characters: Travis, a hothead teenage boy, and Leonard, a former teacher turned drug dealer. As the story unfolds, we read as Travis begins stealing pot plants from a crop he discovers while fishing. He sells the marijuana to Leonard – and for good money – which is why Travis keeps going back to steal more. However, the owner of the marijuana field – the gloriously villainous Carlton Toomey – doesn’t take kindly to thievery, and eventually catches Travis – literally. Travis flees to Leonard to recover from his wounds and to stay away from his father, who beat Travis for his acts of foolishness.

Once living together, Leonard becomes a surrogate father for Travis, encouraging him to get his GED and telling him stories about a Civil War massacre that occurred in the mountains, which involved Travis’s ancestors. The Civil War story piques Travis’s interest in learning again and slowly begins his turnaround – until a fateful night when Travis’s temper gets the best of him again.

The World Made Straight is all about correcting past mistakes – to put things “straight’ again. Sometimes, these acts of redemption were vengeful, others were virtuous. With this theme, Rash creates a page-turning book with simple storytelling. His writing style reminds me of Stewart O’Nan with the atmosphere of Charles Frazier. The characters and setting were spot on; however, I had an issue with the Civil War back story. Living in the American South, I know some wounds run very deep, but the “them vs. us” tone was a little much.

All in all, I enjoyed my first foray into the world of Ron Rash, and I look forward to reading more stories by this Appalachian writer. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

A Good Hard Look by Ann NapolitanoA Good Hard Look
By Ann Napolitano
Completed February 13, 2012

A Good Hard Look is the fascinating, fictional account of Flannery O’Connor’s last years, settled in her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. O’Connor suffered from lupus, and she fled home to her family’s farm to write and raise a menagarie of birds, including peacocks. While the reader is treated to a wonderful portrayal of O’Connor, Ann Napolitano creates a moving story featuring other memorable characters: Cookie, the hometown queen who despised Flannery; her husband, Melvin, a New Yorker trying to navigate small town Georgia; Lona, a seamstress who falls in love with a boy more than half her age; and Gigi, Lona’s daughter who pays the price for it all.

While I haven’t read much by Flannery O’Connor (side note: something to be rectified!), the story line of A Good Hard Look reminds me of the stories I have read by O’Connor. Each character makes a decision, knowing the consequences, and as the story evolves, tragedy strikes. The tragedies open up new lives and new decisions for the characters, and you hope they learn from their past and move on to happier times.

A Good Hard Look is divided into two concurrent stories. First, there’s the story of Cookie, Melvin and Flannery. Cookie and Melvin are recently married and settled into Milledgeville. Melvin is a New Yorker at heart, and despite his wife’s wishes, he strikes up a secret friendship with Flannery. For Melvin, Flannery is like the city – spontaneous, honest and forthright. Second, there’s the story of Lona and Joe. Lona is a lonely, pot-smoking seamstress who agrees to take on her friend’s 17-year-old son, Joe, as an assistant. As they spend time together, they become attracted to each other. Their romance culminates until a a fateful afternoon begins a chain reaction of tragedies for their families – as well as the lives of Cookie, Melvin and Flannery.

Expertly written and beautifully rendered, Ann Napolitano draws the reader into the lives of these characters and creates a story of love and loss. Equally important, she sheds light on one of American’s most talented, and perhaps unsung, writers. I highly recommend A Good Hard Look to readers who enjoy literary fiction and stories about the American South.

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend by Donna TarttThe Little Friend
By Donna Tartt
Completed January 21, 2012

I am a sucker for books set in the American South. Stories with sweet tea and back porches feel like home. That’s why I was eager to read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend seemed to be the perfect book with all the right ingredients; however, by the midway point of this novel, I knew I was knee deep in a clunker.

The edition of The Little Friend that I read was more than 600 pages, and in my opinion, it could have been half that length. The beginning of the book starts out promising. Tartt introduces us to Harriet, a precocious girl who has a strong spirit.  We meet her mother, sister and a gaggle of great aunts – all of whom were interesting characters. We also meet Hely (pronounced Healy), who is Harriet’s best friend and partner in crime. Quickly, we see that Harriet wants to learn more about the strange and sudden death of her older brother, and she sets her sights on a local man as a possible murder suspect.

Three hundred pages later, we’re no further along in the plot then we were in the first chapter. Tartt’s tangents were pleasant at first, but by the middle of the book, I wanted to get on with the story.

Finally, Tartt delivers us the inevitable “stand-off,” and perhaps I was exhausted or bored or impatient – but the whole ending seemed too far-fetched. After a 600-page investment, I wanted something in return. Sadly, I was disappointed.

On the plus side, though, I commend Tartt for her vivid writing style. Her sentences were beautiful, and she eloquently depicted her characters and setting. It’s a shame that the beauty of her writing got lost in a tangled yarn.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003, The Little Friend has received many accolades, so please be sure to consult other reviews. This just wasn’t the book for me. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Nightwoods by Charles FrazierNightwoods
By Charles Frazier
Completed September 26, 2011

Charles Frazier is a dynamic writer. His sentences are beautifully crafted, conjuring up images that put the reader right into the story.  His first book, Cold Mountain, was nothing short of phenomenal. When his second book, Thirteen Moons, was released several years ago, I began reading it with eagerness – only to stop midway, disappointed with the plot and characters. So, when Nightwoods became available, I wanted to give Frazier another try. People have sophomore slumps, and I was hoping that was the case for this talented writer.

Nightwoods is the story of Luce, a young woman whose personal life was marked by tragedy and bad family relationships. She agrees to become the caretaker of an old, abandoned lodge in the North Carolina mountains – a place where she can be alone and away from people who inevitably hurt her. Tragically, Luce’s sister was murdered, and the state wants to place her sister’s twins into Luce’s care. When the twins arrive, Luce knows she has her work cut out for her. The twins, Dolores and Frank, won’t say a word and have a liking to starting fires. Luce, once alone and carefree, must now accept her fate as a guardian of very troubled children.

Luce’s situation is compounded when her sister’s husband (and murderer) arrives in town, looking for money that he believes Luce is in possession of. Bud is a no-good, violent man, and Luce knows he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Frazier’s superb writing style is in full force throughout Nightwoods. The reader gets a look at North Carolina mountain life – the good, bad and ugly. Unfortunately, I felt Frazier went to some extremes with his characters, especially the twins and their adventure during the last chapters of the book. As a fan of character-driven stories, this was a disappointment for me. But I am happy that Frazier seems to be on his game again, as Nightwoods is certainly a better story than Thirteen Moons.

So if you loved Cold Mountain like me, go ahead and get a copy of Nightwoods. Know it’s not perfect – but sit back and lavish in the wonderful writing of Charles Frazier. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: If Jack’s In Love by Stephen Wetta

If Jack's in Love by Stephen WettaIf Jack’s In Love
By Stephen Wetta
Completed September 21, 2011

Jack Witcher’s family is the black sheep of the neighborhood – poor, living in a tattered house with a lazy father, overwhelmed mother and hellraising brother. In If Jack’s In Love, Jack narrates this coming of age tale where we learn about his evolution from a Witcher boy to a young man with a mind of his own.

Jack is in love with Myra Joiner – a girl from the other side of the track (the right side, per se), whose brother, Gaylord, disappears one August night. The Joiner family smells foul play, and immediately Jack’s older brother, Stan, is a suspect. Stan and Gaylord have a history of not getting along, and with Stan’s quick temper, Jack’s not sure if his brother didn’t kill Gaylord. What he does know is that he loves Myra, despite the tragedies that have affected both families.

If Jack’s in Love is the debut effort by Stephen Wetta, and unfortunately, I think Wetta’s rookiness as a writer showed through. The pacing of the novel was a bit off, and I think the story would have been strengthened by dual narrators – Jack and his mother. Jack’s mom was an interesting character – a woman who married the wrong guy and whose life didn’t end up like she hoped. She would have added the right blend to this tale of family loyalty.

If you like coming of age tales, If Jack’s in Love is one to add to your wish list. Jack’s narrative was enough to carry the book through, despite some writing flaws. The ending wrapped everything up, and I was glad Jack’s story resolved because he’s a kid most readers can root for. I know I did. (  )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: Father and Son by Larry Brown

Father and Son by Larry BrownFather and Son
By Larry Brown
Completed September 15, 2011

Dirty, raw, gritty – and that just barely scrapes the surface of Larry Brown’s book, Father and Son. I don’t mind the dirt and the grit, but I must confess, this book was more than I can handle.

Glen Davis spent three years in jail for killing a young boy while he was driving drunk. He got early parole, and as Glen returns to his small hometown in 1968 Mississippi, you can tell trouble’s brewing. Glen’s one of those types who thinks the world is always against him – and that anything bad that happens to Glen (real or perceived) must be met with swift and cruel retribution.

So, within a short time of his return, Glen commits double homicide, seeking revenge on a man who offered to buy his girlfriend a drink (three years ago). Then he rapes a woman who flirted with him (she deserved it, you see). Finally, upon learning that his girlfriend broke up with him so she could date the sheriff, Glen kidnaps the sheriff’s mom, ties her up and rapes her too.

Mix in a lot of beer, whiskey, cigarettes and animal cruelty – and you get a less than favorable view of Southern life. I fear it fits the stereotype a little too much. Sure, there were some upstanding characters, but Glen’s crimes overshadow it all.

As Brown writes about the characters and their pasts, he starts to paint a picture of Glen’s youth – the child of a drunken, cheating father and a mother who complained to her son about his father’s misdeeds. We also learn about the death of Glen’s brother in a gun accident. Indeed, Glen’s young life was not an easy one, and Brown keeps pressing on his relationship with his mother as an important influence in his life – as if she had, in some way, caused him to be such an evildoer. I object to this position. Glen was a sociopath. While his mom may be guilty of bad mothering, no amount of good parenting could have cured him. He was evil to the soul.

Larry Brown writes with sparse prose and is fearless about his stories. If you like the styles of Cormac McCarthy, Jon Clinch or Robert Olmstead, then give Larry Brown a try. Be forewarned, though, the Father and Son is like a punch in the gut. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen GrissomThe Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom
Completed September 7, 2011

When we hear about the “labor force” of the antebellum South, we often hear about enslaved Africans, forced to work the land in an unimaginably oppressive life. Kathleen Grissom, in her debut novel, The Kitchen House, depicts another type of forced labor – the indentured servant – in her novel about family, slavery and plantation life.

Set in the early 1800’s, the story opens when Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks, a plantation in Virginia, as a young girl fresh off a ship from Ireland. Lavinia is an indentured servant – left without any family – and is placed in the care of Belle, a young slave woman who works in the kitchen house. At first, Lavinia is sickly and withdrawn, but as the months progress, she becomes stronger and more dependent on her new family, led by slave Mama Mae, her husband George and their children.

The Kitchen House is Lavinia’s tale of growing up on the plantation and her struggles of being a white girl raised in a black family. The story, though, is divided between Lavinia and Belle, whose narrative offers candid views of slave life. Lavinia’s narrative is equally candid – showing everything from drug abuse to pedophilia. A lot of bad things happen to the characters in this book; it’s amazing anyone could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I found the first half of the book to drag on, the middle to be gripping, and the ending to be rushed. Lavinia’s story, though, interested me enough to urge me forward. I question the historical accuracy of many aspects of this novel, especially how things fell together at the end, but all in all, The Great House was a good read. Fans of historical fiction should consider this book, especially if they enjoy tales about the Old South. (  )

REVIEW: Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench by Dolen Perkins-ValdezWench
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Completed March 19, 2011

Dolen Perkins-Valdez opens her debut novel, Wench, with a historical look at the word that is the title to her book. “Wench” in its earliest form meant a female child, but as the world evolved, the meaning of “wench” changed too. By the 1850’s, “wench”  described a “colored woman of any age; a negress or mulattress, especially one in service.” It’s this latter definition that characterizes the women who make up the book, Wench.

The “wenches” in this story were enslaved women, Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu. They met as their master’s mistresses at a resort called Tawawa House in Ohio. The Tawawa House was a place where white men brought their black mistresses, without the interruption of their wives, children or other distractions, so they could enjoy them more freely. They shared the same cottages, and while the men spent time together during the day, the slave women formed tight bonds with each other, commiserating in their lives and offering hope for freedom.

We learn the most about Lizzie in this book, especially in the section that takes us back to her plantation in Tennessee. She is owned by Drayle, and together, they have two children, Nate and May. Drayle was not as physically abusive as his peers, but he knew how to tug on Lizzie’s emotions, using their children as pawns to get what he wanted from her. Drayle’s wife, Fran, also knew how to play with Lizzie psychologically, threatening to sell her to a slave trader and taking over care of her children. Throughout it all, Lizzie kept her focus on what was best for her kids, inch by inch convincing Drayle to free their children. By novel’s end, we see some progress in this direction, but you have to wonder at what price Lizzie paid to achieve her goals.

The depiction of the master-slave relationship was accurate and harrowing. Slaves were a commodity, and their white masters traded them, sold them and abused them as they saw fit. This was particularly evident in the treatment of the other slave women, whose masters pimped them out to other men, or whipped and raped their mistresses in broad daylight.

I applaud Perkins-Valdez for tackling this subject matter. Little has been written about the Tawawa House, and the author took a creative license imagining what happened to the enslaved women who traveled there. While I enjoyed the historical aspects of this novel – and the no-holds-barred approach – I was not fond of the writing style. It was such a light, breezy read, and for a topic of this brevity, it seemed to need something else: starker language, harsher words, more traumatic diction.

The pedestrian writing style, by the end of the novel, proved to be a distraction to me. Perhaps if I hadn’t read other books about this topic, namely Property by Valerie Martin, I would not feel this way. As it stands, I still recommend Wench, and I appreciate Dolen Perkins-Valdez for eluminating a much-needed light on the treatment of black women in history. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find
By Flannery O’Connor
Completed October 1, 2010

Flannery O’Connor is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to get to. Prompted by recent reviews of her short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I decided there was no time like the present. Truth be told, after finishing A Good Man, I cannot believe I waited so long to enjoy this talented writer’s stories.

While I enjoyed each story in this collection, a few stood out for me:

1) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family and their grandmother are traveling by car to Florida for vacation. The grandmother is quite precocious, even smuggling her cat into the car, despite her son’s disapproval. She was also leery of going to Florida because she worried about running into an outlaw serial killer. When she takes her family on a wild goose chase to find an old house, her worst fear is realized, coming face to face with the serial killer.

2) “The River” – A young boy, Harry, goes with his new babysitter to a church revival where he is baptized for the first time. Harry is neglected by his parents, particularly his alcoholic mother. Once home, the boy remembers the words of the preacher – that he is somebody – and runs away from home to return to the river, to return to the feeling of self-worth that he experienced during his baptism. Of all the stories in this collection, this one touched me the most. I won’t soon forget young Harry.

3) “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” – General Sash was 104 years old, whose 62-year-old granddaughter was graduating from college. The general (who we realize later was only a major) could care less about his granddaughter’s academic accomplishment but looked forward to being featured on stage as part of the ceremony. As one of the oldest living Confederate “generals,” Sash enjoyed the limelight, especially the pretty girls who often posed with him for pictures. Upon arriving at the graduation, though, he didn’t find any pretty girls or much of the limelight, and eventually does something that no one planned on. This story had an undertone of dark humor, and I found myself smirking at the old general from time to time.

All of the stories featured in A Good Man is Hard to Find are gems – a reflection of post-World War II American South with all their doubts and insecurities. If you haven’t discovered the amazing writing style of Flannery O’Connor, then this story collection is an excellent place to start. ( )

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