Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

Case Histories is the first in the Jackson Brodie detective series written by author Kate Atkinson, and I only recently discovered it. Lucky me, Big Sky, the fifth book in the series was released in June. If you’re looking for a series to fall in love with, this may be your ticket.

Jackson Brodie is a former policeman turned private detective who is mostly called upon to find lost things: cats, sisters, nieces, and killers. In Case Histories, he is hired by three separate families to solve cold cases.

  • Amelia and Julia are looking for their sister Olivia, who disappeared in 1970 at the age of three on a hot summer night while sleeping out in a tent in the backyard.
  • Theo’s daughter Laura was brutally attacked and murdered in the board room of his law firm in 1994 and he wants to find the murderer.
  • Shirley’s sister Michelle, was an infamous ax murderess. Shirley had promised to take care of Michelle’s infant child, but was too young to gain custody and she’d lost track of her after she’d been adopted.

At the beginning, it seems his client’s faith in his ability is misguided. He is preoccupied by his recent divorce and concerned that his ex-wife and her new boyfriend are turning his eight-year-old daughter Marlee in to a tramp. He isn’t even capable of finding a lost cat for godssakes, much less tracking a 35-year missing persons case, a 10-year murder case gone cold, or an infant who would now be an adult. And to make matters worse, it seems someone is out to kill him.

In Atkinson’s hands, we need not worry. Her plot is complex, though masterfully woven. Her characters are peculiar yet provocative. And her protagonist, Jackson Brodie, is a broken man with a debt to pay, or so he thinks, which makes for some interesting choices.

I recommend Case Histories for fans of P.D. James, Lee Child, and Matt Goldman.

In 2016, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novel, Underground Railroad. At the apex of his career, it could be a downhill slide from there – but Colson Whitehead just keeps getting better. In the midst of writing a crime novel, Whitehead read the story of the Arthur G. Dozier school, a juvenile detention facility in Florida where dozens of brutalized and murdered bodies of young African American men were found in unmarked graves. He immediately set aside his crime novel and began research for his new novel, The Nickel Boys.

Elwood Curtis is a brainy, hard-working high school student living with his grandmother during the 1960’s at the height of the civil rights movement. He listens relentlessly to an LP of Martin Luther King’s speeches and is a fervent believer in King’s philosophy of non-violent protest and believes that he is living on the cusp of a big change; a good change; a turn toward justice for all. He is given the opportunity to take college classes at a local “colored college” across town, but his bike is in disrepair so he decides to hitchhike his first day of class. He accepts a ride from a black man driving a shiny, new Plymouth Fury, which just happens to be stolen. Guilty by association, Elwood is sent to serve time at the Nickel Academy.

Soon after arriving, Elwood meets Turner, a street-wise young man who does not share Elwood’s belief that justice will prevail. He has seen things at the academy that give him nightmares. He warns Elwood about the White House, a building on the property where boys are taken and never seen from again.

“Your family asks what happened and they tell them you ran away,” Turner said.
“It’s not how it’s supposed to be.” Elwood replies.
“Don’t no one care about supposed to.”

But as Elwood tries to stay under the radar, he feels himself fading away and he decides to take one last chance to report what’s happening at the Nickel Academy to the authorities. “It was not enough to survive. You have to live.”

Colson Whitehead has written just the right book at the right time. The Nickel Boys is a harrowing and heartbreaking novel about a broken criminal justice system and the continuing battle for equality. I highly recommend it for fans of Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man, and The New Jim Crow.

Ocean Vuong won the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize for his critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. His debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is lyrical and crushing, framed as a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. Little Dog lives with his volatile and abusive mother, Rose, and his schizophrenic grandmother, Lan. During the war, Lan served as a sex worker and his mother was fathered by an anonymous American G.I. The stories of the trauma Lan and Rose endured in Vietnam are woven throughout Little Dog’s narrative; he has grown up with them. In his letter he tries to explain the truth of his own existence to a mother not always able to step outside of her own pain.

“In a previous draft of this letter,” he writes, “one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences – and least of all that those sentences would save me. But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you everything you’ll never know.”

Vuong addresses a wide swath of issues: race, class, prejudice, sexuality, and addiction. The novel reads like a memoir and in fact, borrows much from the author’s life, which lends authenticity to the writing. Perhaps some of the more difficult chapters are those that deal with Little Dog’s sexuality. His sexual relationship with Trevor, the grandson of the owner of a tobacco farm where he works, is graphically depicted, not for the faint of heart, yet reveals Little Dog’s intense desire to be seen and understood by another human being. Trevor is wild and tender, the product of a motherless existence and an addiction to opioids prescribed to him after a broken ankle.

Little Dog, Trevor, Lan, and Rose, all of them are looking for freedom and connection, a safe place to be and be known.

But “All freedom is relative,” Vuong writes, “and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous isn’t a comfortable read. Its poetic style makes it feel stream-of-conscious and the plot does not march forward in a linear fashion. If you are a fan of “fade to black” moments in the area of sexuality, you will most likely be uncomfortable reading the raw scenes between Trevor and Little Dog. But if you are a fan of lyrical language, of the essay, a fan of the struggle – as in understanding oneself and others outside of your experience, you should give it a read.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Finally, a book that embraces women of a certain age for their talent, tenacity, and can-do spirit (who actually like beer!) Helen and Edith are sisters who have a falling out after their father leaves his entire inheritance to younger sister Helen.

“His heirs were two daughters, neither of whom wanted to farm, nor married men who did. And now one of these daughters was asking him to leave it all, every cent, to her. Not out of malice or anger to the other, but just because one had a plan and the other didn’t.”

Helen’s plan was to refashion her husband’s family’s failing soda-pop business into a brewery. She wanted to brew something new — something for the times, light beer. Their motto? Drink lots. It’s Blotz. Helen became a successful brewer and a savvy business woman and she wished she could reach out to Edith, but she knew she had done something unforgiveable.

Edith struggled to make a living. She worked in a nursing home and café baking pies that brought her some acclaim, but little income. When her daughter and son-in-law were killed in a car accident, her teen-aged granddaughter Diana came to live with her. Diana recognized the precariousness of their financial situation and wanted to help her grandmother — but her methods could’ve landed her in juvie jail. Fate was on her side and through the benevolence of a local brewmaster, Diana learned how to brew an IPA that could stand head-to-head with the best of them. Could she save their family from financial ruin? Not without the help of Edith and her compadre of granny friends who learned to brew craft beers with catchy names and ingredients.

“Along with the beers that Diana had brewed, the Artemis lineup now included Grandma Betsy’s Strawberry Gose, Grandma Linda’s Chocolate Stout, and Grandma Lucy’s Pale Ale . . . they’d also made a label for Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb Pie-In-A Bottle Ale.”

After years of successfully brewing Blotz’s light beer, Helen’s luck had run out. Beer palates were changing, micro-breweries were popping up everywhere, and it seemed that Helen’s comeuppance might come at the hand of her sister’s granddaughter. But that wouldn’t be very Minnesota-nice, would it?

J. Ryan Stradal was born and raised in Minnesota and his affection for the quirky characters of Nicollet Falls  and Artemis Brewery is apparent. The women are strong, smart, sassy, and hard-working. And while the narrative is not linear, this reader never felt lost. I highly recommend J. Ryan Stradal’s THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA for fans of Lorna Landvik and Sarah Stonich.

Listen to my interview with J. Ryan Stradal on November 28 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais.

In the winter of 2001, Sheila O’Connor accompanied her mother, June to the Gale Family Library at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul  in search of information on her mother’s birth and adoption, armed with a letter from the court granting her mother’s access to her own history.  O’Connor’s mother was born in 1935 at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, MN. She was the daughter of a fifteen-year-old inmate, referred to as V, who was serving a six-year sentence for incorrigibility.

 For the next decade, O’Connor studied texts and academic articles on the history of female incarceration and the criminalization of female sexuality. What she discovered was the systemic institutionalization of girls who had been deemed immoral or in danger of becoming immoral – some of them as young as six years old. In actuality, many of these girls were victims of physical or sexual abuse prior to their commitments — victims blamed for the actions of their perpetrators.

At the center of the novel is the question: who was V and what happened to her? V had a gift for dancing and singing and aspirations for Hollywood, leaving her vulnerable, a target for unscrupulous men who wished to take advantage of her youth and naivety. Her father was dead and her mother remarried and was often working and inattentive. When V became pregnant by the much older manager of the club where she performed, she was incarcerated  at the Home School, an institution whose motive was to socially readjust girls and make them decent wives, mothers, and home-makers. The girls worked in the fields and learned to cook, clean and sew; all emphasized as aspects necessary for keeping a proper home. After their babies were born, the young mothers were required to nurse their infants for the first three months before the child was put up for adoption as a “kind of reparation for having brought him into the world so handicapped.” V was not released immediately, in fact most of the young girls were put on probation for a period of several years after their children were born and sent to work for families as domestic servants.

Evidence of V, A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions is a hybrid novel; without access to much of V’s story, O’Connor wrote a fictional one based upon the facts she was able to glean from documents, records, and observations of experts in the juvenile justice system. She filled in the gaps with poetry and fiction in an attempt to piece together the life of her grandmother, a life she hoped would explain the familial trauma that had been passed down through the generations. Evidence of V is a compelling read –  the story of V and all that was stolen from her, the criminalization of female sexuality, the forced adoptions and servitude and morality. In an era of turning back a woman’s right to choose, Evidence of V is a manifesto for women; a poignant reminder of the importance of female autonomy during a time when the rights of women are becoming increasingly politicized.

Evidence of V will be published in October and is available for pre-order from your favorite bookstore.

Listen to my interview with Sheila O’Connor on Superior Reads September 26 at 7:00 pm. Sheila will be presenting at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival November 7-10. Watch the Grand Marais Art Colony website for registration information.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is a big-hearted novel that doesn’t disappoint.

Four orphans form an unlikely family in 1932 Minnesota: Motherless Odie O’Banion and his brother Albert, are the only Caucasians at the Lincoln Indian Training School, committed there after their father’s death; their friend Mose, a Native American boy whose tongue was cut out in an attack that left his mother dead; and Emmy, orphaned at six after a crushing tornado kills her mother. The Lincoln School is a dark place — DiMarco, a groundskeeper-cum-sadistic enforcer for the school superintendent, Thelma Brickman, also known as the Black Witch enjoys giving the children the belt for infractions large and small, but even more he enjoys isolating them in the “quiet room” where he can do with them as he wishes.

Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy eventually escape the Black Witch and her sadistic minions under the cover of darkness in a canoe, each of them searching for something; home, identity, and safety. They are running from the Black Witch, who claims that the older boys kidnapped Emmy. The police are after them, and they must hide their identities. 

Krueger has a stethoscope to the heart of each of his characters — he knows what makes each of them tick, the longings buried deep in their broken and empty chambers, he also knows what each of them needs to become whole. The orphans travel the Gilead to the Mississippi hoping to eventually reach St. Louis where Odie and Albert remember having an aunt — their mother’s sister, Julia.

The cast is filled with remarkable characters: One-Eyed Jack, a hard-drinking farmer who has lost his family and is about to lose his farm; Sister Eve,  a kind-hearted faith healer who may or may not be running a scam; and Aunt Julia who harbors more than one dangerous secret.

 The novel is framed by an aging Odie, looking back on his early years:

“Our former selves are never dead. We speak to them, arguing against decisions we know will bring only unhappiness, offering consolation and hope, even though they cannot hear. “Albert,” I whisper, “stay clearheaded. Mose, stay strong. Emmy hold to the truth of your visions. And, Odie, Odie, do not be afraid.”

William Kent Krueger’s super power is creating characters with real depth and placing them in stories that reveal truths about what it is to be human in this world. This Tender Land is a novel in the tradition of the Great American Novel. Highly recommended for fans of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, as well as contemporary author Leif Enger.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a digital advanced reading copy for review.

Lin Salisbury is host and producer of Superior Reads and Superior Reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota and on the web at http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog. Listen to her author interviews and reviews on http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog.

Dessa is a rapper, singer, and member of the Doomtree hip-hop crew – she’s also a brilliant essayist with a philosophy degree and a keen interest in science. In her new collection of essays, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love,  she examines love, science, and language.

In “The Fool That Bets Against Me,” she writes to Geico asking if they will insure  her broken heart:

“I am a songwriter who makes her living writing torch songs. I’m able to do that well because I’m naturally melancholic and also because of unresolved feelings for a former romantic partner. If I were to find myself in a state of unchecked, protracted joy, I’d either have to re-career or take a lengthy sabbatical to acquire the skill set necessary for a new mode of self-expression.” Within twenty-four hours she got a rejection call from Geico.

In “Congratulations” she considers whether she will be able to make it in New York City. She finds herself traveling back to Minneapolis where she has an established network and reputation two or three times a month to play a show or give a lecture. “Making money in the Midwest to spend in Manhattan,” she writes, “Is like hustling backward. The exchange rate is against you; it’s like getting paid in pesos to pay rent in yen.” She needed to find a way to make money in New York, but it was slow going. Then someone picked up her chapbook and invited her to  appear as a guest performer at a showcase in Brooklyn and read one of her poems. Someone else invited her to rap an eight-bar verse at a fancy hotel party where Jon Bastiste, the musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert heard her. And then she hit the big time – she got a call from Lin-Manuel Miranda asking her to cover a song for The Hamilton Mixtape.  The mixtape hit number one on the Billboard charts the first week. It was streamed over a million times and though it wasn’t a rocket ship to stardom, it helped open doors to other opportunities.

Easily the most fascinating essay in the collection – and the one that reveals her amazing intellect and scientific curiosity, is “Call Off Your Ghost.” In it, she chronicles a project she undertook with a team of neuroscientists to try to clinically excise her romantic feelings for her on-again off-again boyfriend. “I was trying to change my brain to change my mind. If I could successfully modify the hand,” she writes, “Maybe the fist would let go.” She undergoes an fMRI and works with a neuroscientist, wired up in her father’s kitchen, to measure her brain activity to see if it was successful.

I recommend Dessa’s My Own Devices for fans of Patty Smith’s Just Kids. You don’t have to be a fan of Doomtree’s or Dessa’s music to get into her collection. If you appreciate intellectual curiosity, scientific theory, and philosophy, you should check it out.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and other reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at www.wtip.org/superior-reads and www.superiorreads.blog.

In 1951, three brothers left their family home one afternoon to go to Farview Park in North Minneapolis and disappeared: Kenneth was eight, David was six, and Danny was four. Their older brother, Gordon had stayed behind that afternoon to fix a broken knife sheath and intended to meet up with them later. When he went to the park, the boys were gone. Their parents, Betty and Kenneth Klein, never gave up hope that someday they would find out what had happened to their children.

In 1998, author Jack El-Hai called a phone number in a classified ad pleading for information on the missing children, an ad the Kleins placed every year. Betty and Kenneth invited Jack to meet with them at their home in rural Monticello, Minnesota, where they had moved in the years since their sons’ disappearance. Betty was seventy-three and Kenneth was eighty-one and undergoing cancer treatment at the time, but they agreed to share their story with Jack El-Hai for a piece he was writing for Minnesota Monthly. The Kleins had a large family – five remaining sons, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, and though they were devoted to their family, they could not stop thinking about the part of their family that remained missing.

In 1999, bones were discovered in a Wright County gravel pit not far from where the Kleins had relocated. They were later identified as century-old remains of Native American origin, but years later, a Wright County Detective uncovered the files while organizing old department records and turned them over to the Criminal Investigation Division of the sheriff’s office. Deputy Lance Salls remembered the case of the three boys who had gone missing in Minneapolis and was curious about the case. He assigned another deputy to collect a DNA sample from Betty Klein to add to the registry maintained by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Her husband had since died, but Betty told the deputy that she thought the case had been improperly investigated by the Minneapolis Police and pleaded with her to look through the clippings, photographs, and records that she had collected over the years. Deputy Jessica Miller found Betty’s story compelling and she and Deputy Salls agreed to examine the Klein case on their own time to see what they could do.

The Lost Brothers tells the story of the missing Klein brothers, the Minneapolis police investigation, and the Wright County Sherriff’s office re-investigation – including new leads and possible suspects discovered in the process. Jack El-Hai drew upon a wide range of sources for the book: interviews with the family and Wright County deputies, newspaper and magazine articles from the 1940s through the 2000s, as well as case files of the Minneapolis Police Department and the FBI.

It is a heart-breaking and compelling read, part family story, true crime, and investigative journalism. Jack El-Hai’s effort to reconstruct the case of the missing Klein brothers, the initial investigation, the family interviews, and the new evidence and leads discovered by Wright County detectives is admirable. He has followed the case for over twenty years and he hopes that someday, the remaining Klein family will have the answers their parents so desperately sought.

The Lost Brothers is available for pre-order from your local bookstore or online bookseller and will be published in October 2019. Twin Cities Public Television will produce a podcast for release this fall – Long Lost – a special investigative history series that will explore what history can reveal about what went wrong in the case, where we go from here, and what the public can do to help.

Special thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with an advance review copy.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all my reviews and listen to my author interview with Jack El Hai on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota  on August 22 at 7:00 pm and after airing on line at www.wtip.org/superior-reads and www.superiorreads.blog.

It’s not often that I review a book with these two disparate comments: I loved this book, but I disliked the ending. Typically, if I don’t like the ending of a book, it ruins the entire thing for me. Not the case for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Let’s back track.

The book’s prologue is set in 1969. A dead man, Chase Andrews, has been found in the marsh. The police suspect he has been murdered and alternating chapters deal with the investigation.

Kya’s story opens in 1952 when she is six years old. Kya Clark is abandoned piecemeal by her family — first her mother, then her siblings, and finally her father leaves and never returns. Kya is only ten years old when she has to learn to make her own way.  She lives in a dilapidated shack in the marshland on the North Carolina coast.

 She learns to fish and forage for clams and sells what she doesn’t eat to her friend Jumpin’, a black man who runs a convenience store and gas station, and is able to buy grits and other staples to survive. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel look out for Kya, providing her with boxes of used clothing as she grows, and making sure she always has enough to eat. It’s a lonely existence, until Kya meets Tate Walker, a local boy who befriends her and teaches her to read. Over the years, she successfully evades the truant officers who stop by to occasionally check on her. She prefers to learn by reading the books that Tate loans her and becomes an expert on the flowers, fauna, and fowl of the coastland. As she grows, Kya longs for companionship and love and for a time falls for Tate, until college tears him away. Vulnerable and alone, she meets Chase, the town golden boy and jock, and though her better instincts tell her not to trust him, her years of loneliness leave her defenseless and exposed.  Kya is no match for Chase’s treachery.  She mourns each of her losses, and the gulls become her only constant companions. She collects feathers, shells, and wildflowers and categorizes them by order, genus, and species in her shack, studying old college textbooks and eventually writing her own field guides. To the townies, she’s gained the reputation of a wild child — the Marsh Girl — mysterious and maligned — and for the most part they leave her to herself, until Chase turns up dead in the marsh and she becomes the key suspect.

Author Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who has published three nonfiction books, winning the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing. Where the Crawdads Sing is her debut novel. Her prose is poetic and her lush descriptions of the marsh and its animal inhabitants render the landscape a character. Kya’s story of abandonment and longing broke my heart. It was Kya’s coming-of-age story that I found the most compelling, and the murder mystery woven throughout the book in alternating chapters, fell flat for me at the end. Still, I found Where the Crawdads Sing to be a ravishing debut that touched on contemporary environmental and social issues.

I recommend Where the Crawdads Sing for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Kaye Gibbons.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reads. Read my reviews and listen to my author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota, or on the web at https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0 and www.superiorreads.blog

 

 

At the age of 23, author Shannon Gibney was awarded a prestigious Carnegie Mellon fellowship and traveled to Ghana to research the connections between African Americans and continental Africans. While there, she stumbled upon the history of Liberia—colonized in the 19th century by freed African American slaves only to recreate the conditions of oppression they had fled from in America. It was a story that held her captive for twenty years, wrestling with whether or not she had the right to tell the story and wondering whether she had the writing chops to honor it.

Dream Country is the result of many drafts and narrative threads that finally coalesced into a novel that spans four generations of an African American family with ties to Liberia.

Kollie is a young Liberian refugee attending high school at Brooklyn Park High School. There, he becomes the target of discrimination by African American students who harass him for being too African. There is a distinction made between the two groups and Kollie tires of the constant fights and slurs thrown his way. He fights back and is expelled and his once promising life in America is gutted when his father sends him back to Liberia. Though he will return many years later, he and his family will never be the same.

Yasmine is a young widow, mother of four, who through the efforts of the American Colonization Society is convinced that she can provide a better life for her children in Liberia. Once there, the family must learn to farm through droughts and drenching rains and flooding. They are not welcomed by the indigenous tribes and life is not only difficult but dangerous. Through the years of loss and toil, she becomes head of the most prosperous farms in Monrovia and soon has indigenous servants that she mistreats as she had been mistreated.

Each story as compelling as the last, Gibney writes back and forth through time and continents. Togar flees into the bush in 1926 to escape the militia determined to force him to work the plantations of the African American slaves who colonized Liberia decades earlier. Ujay an Evelyn fall in love on the cusp of the 1980 revolution. Angel, Kollie’s sister, tries to tell the story of her broken family while creating a new kind of family of her own.

Gibney is a master story-teller. Her research is thorough and she expertly weaves together the stories of her characters. More importantly, Gibney is a writer who is careful not to misrepresent the truth or inflate it for the sake of propelling the story forward. Dream Country introduced me to a history that I’d not been taught, shocking in its profundity and compelling in its implications over the generations. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back of the book – it tells the story behind the story. Dream Country, Shannon writes, “is for all those on the continent and in the diaspora who feel they have no home due to the relentless violence of colonialism and enduring systems of white supremacy . . . It is for anyone anywhere who has tried to make themselves whole through small pieces of a larger story they could cobble together. It is for everything we have forgotten, and what we dream.”

I recommend Dream Country for fans of Homegoing and Behold the Dreamers.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, MN and on the web at www.wtip.org and my blog http://www.superiorreads.blog.