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review 2019-08-12 09:52
Inspiring, tough, appalling. A must read.
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

In brief, this is an extraordinary book. Beautifully written, haunting, it vividly portrays and era and a place (the early 1960s in Florida), and illustrates the very best and the very worst of human beings and their behaviour. Although everybody should know about the true story this book is inspired by, my only hesitation in recommending this book to all is that it is a tough read, and one that could upset people who have experienced abuse or violence or prefer not to read graphic accounts of those topics. (It is not extreme, in any way, in its depiction of violence and abuse, and much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than being unnecessarily and openly graphic, but then, my level of tolerance is quite high, so it might not be an indication of other readers’ opinion. On the other hand, it is emotionally harrowing, as it should be).

I had not read any of Whitehead’s books before but had heard and read many comments about his recent success with The Underground Railroad, and was keen to see what he would write next. Although I can’t compare the two, based on how much I have enjoyed this story and the style of writing, I am eager to catch up on the author’s previous novels.

I went into this book not having read reviews or detailed comments about it, other than the short description on NetGalley, and I was quickly drawn into the story. After the brief prologue, that sets up the scene and introduces what will become the main setting (and a protagonist in its own right) of the story, The Nickel Academy (previously, The Florida Industrial School for Boys, created in 1899, a reform school in serious need of reforms), we get to meet the two protagonists, first Elwood Curtis, an upstanding boy, determined to make his grandmother proud, a firm believer in Martin Luther King’s philosophy and speeches, a hard student and worker, and later Jack Turner, a boy with a more difficult background whom we meet during his second stay at Nickel. The interaction between the boys, the differences between them, the unlikely friendship that develops, and the ways their lives influence each other, not always evident as we read it, form the backbone of this novel, whose action is set mostly in a momentous era, the 1960s, and with the background of the Civil Rights Movement at its heart. Elwood’s determination to follow King’s dictates is sorely put to the test at Nickel, but he does learn much about himself and about the world there, including some things that should never happen to anybody, no matter their age or colour. Turner, a survivor who has been exposed to a much harsher reality than Elwood from the beginning, learns a new set of values and much more.

As I mentioned above, the story, narrated in the third person but mostly from the point of view of the two main characters (the novel is divided into different parts, and it is clearly indicated which point of view we are sharing), is beautifully written. It lyrically captures the nuances of the period and the place, using a richly descriptive style of writing that makes us feel as if we were there, experiencing the oppressive heat, the excitement of being a young boy going in his first adventure, the thrill of joining a heartfelt protest, the fear of Nickel, the dashed hopes… And later, we also touch base with the main character’s life at different points after Nickel, including the present, when he hears about the unearthing of the story, and we realise that, for him, it’s never gone away; it’s never become the past. The author intersperses the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, of James Baldwin’s stories, and, as he explains in the Acknowledgements’ section at the end, he also quotes from real life accounts from survivors of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, whose story inspired the setting and much of the story this book narrates. Although I didn’t know the story was based on a real place, I kept wondering about it as I read —it felt true, for sure—, and I was not surprised when my suspicions were unfortunately confirmed at the end. (The author provides plenty of links and information about the real story of Dozier and also includes a bibliography of the other sources he has used, which will prove invaluable to researchers and readers eager to find out more). The author’s use of quotes adds to the true feel of the novel while establishing a clear connection between this story and the troubled history of race (and to a slightly lesser extent class) relations in the USA. Although based on a real reform school, Nickel is a microcosm, a metaphor for the abuse and corruption that has marred not only the United States but many other countries, and a reminder that we must remain vigilant, as some things and behaviours refuse to remain buried and keep rearing their ugly heads in more ways than one. I, for one, will not hear talk about the White House and not think about quite a different place from now on.

The characters are compelling, easy to empathise with, and one can’t help but root for these young men who find themselves in impossible circumstances. Some are complicit in the abuse, some mere victims, but most are just trying to survive. As for the perpetrators… There’s no attempt at explaining why or how it happened. This is not their story. Their story has been the official History for far too long.

Apart from all I’ve said, there’s quite a twist towards the end of the story, which casts a new light on some of the events and on the relationship between the two boys, clarifying some questions that are left answered as the story progresses. This is not a mystery or a thriller as such, but the twist introduces an element of surprise that, at least for me, increased the power of the narrative and the overall effect of the story. The compelling plot of the novel is perfectly matched by the masterly way it is told.

I highlighted a lot of passages from the novel, but I thought I’d share the opening, and another paragraph from the preamble, to give you a taster. (As I mentioned, mine is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final published version).

Even in death the boys were trouble. (A fantastic opening line that will become one of my favourites from now on).

When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he’d have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter’s shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of the dry flies. It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.

A great novel, inspiring, appalling, tough, lyrical, fitting homage to the victims of a corrupt, merciless, and racist institution, and an indictment of the society that allowed it to exist.  Highly recommended, with the only reservations mentioned above about the subject matter.

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review 2019-06-12 04:20
An entertaining while scathing commentary about race relations in America

 

Sidonie Frame is the manager one of Chicago’s buzziest small concert and event venues. When her sound manager goes AWOL along with essential equipment she has her assistant bring in another company to fill in temporarily.

 

Chris Hawkins is owner of Sound Alchemy and immediately he and Sidonie have a connection.

 

Author Lorraine Devon Wilke tells the story from two points of view and establishes her protagonists as equals in regards to education, income and aspirations. The only difference, other than gender, is Chris is black and Sidonie’s white.

 

Temporary work becomes permanent and friendship turns to love for Chris and Sid. The last thing they think about is the colour of each other’s skin, but that’s not the case for some friends and family members.

 

This is upsetting for Sidonie, but not surprising and she’s prepared to deal with it. What she isn’t prepared for or incapable of handling is the reality of a black man living in America.

 

Here’s how Wilke has her character, Sidonie, express it.

“What I didn’t know then is that by falling in love with you I would be stepping from my world into yours. Or maybe, more accurately, straddling both. I didn’t know that because I didn’t fully realize there were two worlds, two really distinct worlds with different sets of rules ...”

 

The Alchemy of Noise is an entertaining love story while at the same time a scathing commentary on race relations in America. The author’s take on inherent and systemic racism, something her characters are challenged with daily, sounds authentic and credible. In that regard, it is an important book that deserves a larger audience.

 

The book itself is a pleasure to read with believable dialogue, fully developed characters and exceptionally good diction, something that’s becoming increasingly rare. The plot is well-crafted and try as I might I couldn’t find one scene that didn’t develop character or advance the plot or both.

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review 2018-12-22 05:19
Subject worth reading about
Dreamland Burning - Jennifer Latham

I noticed a large trend in these kinds of books where it’s half in the present, and half in the past. It’s not a trend I particularly like as I adore historical fiction and mixing it with things happening in present day takes away the historical aspect, but I gave this book a chance. This one grabbed my attention because of the subject which interests me. I have not heard of the Tulsa Race Riot until I grabbed this book. It was an eye opener, and definitely something that can’t be ignored or forgotten.

 

The switch between Rowan and William is seamless and flows throughout the novel. Rowan attempts to figure out the mystery behind the skeleton while William’s story not only gives you the background information but also gives you the sense and the climate on how it was for African Americans back in those times. The historical aspects of the book is well written and gives you a good general idea.

 

At first, William doesn’t seem that all a likable character. As the plot progresses though, you change your mind as his behavior and outlook changes to something much  more favorable. Rowan’s side of the story is interesting too. She’s been pretty much sheltered in a good, privileged life who is also suddenly awakened by recent events affecting herself and others around her. She’s a well written character as well, but I’d have to say I prefer reading William’s side of the story more as I found Rowan’s point of view dragged in a few areas of the story.

 

The plot overall is well done and interesting. The mystery and historical elements of the story also keeps the plot engaging and it’s a good educational read.  Definitely something to read more into and a good subject to write about.

 

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review 2016-07-10 11:38
Fate, love, race, violence, war and how some themes remain always relevant
The Last Road Home - danny johnson

Thanks to Net Galley and to Kensington for offering me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

When I read the description of the novel I was interested in discovering a new Southern writer and seeing how Danny Johnson fitted in with a literary tradition filled with pathos and a heavy historical burden. Unfortunately, the news filled up with incidents of racial violence in the USA as I was reading it and it made the content of the book topical and urgent, even if the story goes back to the times of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

The story is told in the first person by Junebug, a young white boy that at the opening of the novel is only eight years old and has just lost his parents in a car accident (his father made moonshine liquor and they were driving with the car full of alcohol at the time of the incident). The boy goes to live at his grandparents’ tobacco farm and becomes friendly with twin African-American siblings, Fancy and Lightning. This is South Carolina and although the friendship flourishes whilst they are kids, it is clear that whites and African-Americans know their places and there might be heartache to come. From very early on fate seems to be against Junebug that after losing his parents, and in short succession loses his grandfather and later his grandmother, being left looking after the tobacco farm alone aged only fifteen. By that point Lightning has left seeking adventure, his relationship with Fancy has moved on and things get more and more complicated.

The novel deals with many of the typical themes to be expected from a Southern novel: race relations (and interracial relationships), the weight of family and small town morals, historical memory (there’s only a passing mention of the Civil War, but the Ku-Klux-Klan plays an important part in the plot and later we hear also about the Civil Rights Movement). The novel is also a coming of age story, as we follow the main characters from a very early age, and see them change, in body and character, and discover new urges and feelings as they grow. (A word of warning: there is some sexual content, although not the most explicit I’ve read or even close.) As they live in a farm, there is a fair amount of detail of traditional farming tasks, from growing up tobacco, to churning butter or killing a chicken or a pig, which I enjoyed and I didn’t find overly long or distracting from the main plot.

Junebug’s life is marked by violence, and it reflects the violence that is part of the history and the atmosphere of the land. He gets fixated on his dog’s death (his father shots the injured dog at the beginning of the story) and his fate, apart from losing loved ones, seems to put him on the way of circumstances that lead to his use of violence (but I don’t want to give too much of the story away). After a serious warning from the KKK, he ends up in Vietnam, as a way of finding refuge (for strange that it might seem) from his loneliness. There he discovers he has a natural talent as a sniper but finally things come to a head when he realises he’s not as hard and as strong as he had always thought and one can’t hide from the consequences of one’s own actions and violence forever.

I did enjoy the style of the novel, its many memorable lines, the many themes that give one pause (that also include PTSD after Junebug’s war experience although possibly even before that) and the details of everyday life offered by the narration. I spent over half the novel trying to accurately place it in time (we are given clues, like the price of things and the fact that Junebug’s mother’s grandfather fought in the Civil War) but Junebug mentions it is 1963 quite late in the story (although admittedly it would have seemed irrelevant to a child in his position). His style of language changes suddenly when he gets to Vietnam, as once more he has to adapt to new extreme conditions, and he seems to get into the role of the marine easily and with gusto.

I found the plot and the experiences of the main characters interesting, although perhaps too much is fitted into a single book and it does not allow for a deep exploration of the many different strands. Junebug is not very articulate when it comes to his feelings, although some of his reflections can be quite sharp. He not only tries to hide his feelings from others but also from himself (it’s not easy to trust somebody when all your loved ones die and you wonder if there’ something wrong with you), and even an experienced therapist has difficulties getting to the root of things, but that fits in with his experiences and his personality. Junebug has flashes of insight, like when he wonders how Fancy must feel, knowing that she’s considered a second-hand citizen only because of the colour of her skin. He does not notice a big social difference between him and Fancy and her folks, but he is young, naïve, inexperienced, and it takes him a while to realise that due to the fact that he is white and has a farm he belongs in a completely different universe in the eyes of his neighbours and a big part of the society. Personally, I would have liked to follow Fancy’s story in more detail, but that is not the focus of the book. Thankfully, the ending is not typical, although it might leave some wondering (considering the character’s age one can’t help but wonder if that’s the end).

In summary, a well-written novel that fits in within the Southern writing tradition, although not ground-breaking. I’ll follow the author’s career with interest.

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review 2016-04-28 12:57
The Show Trial
Pudd'nhead Wilson - Mark Twain

I had never heard of this story until I purchased a Samuel Clements (aka Mark Twain) book that contained it with two of the stories of his (Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) that I wanted to read (and it also contained the Prince and the Pauper). In a way this story is very similar, but very different, to Prince and the Pauper. The similarities involve two boys that take each other's place, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. This story is set in the United States and the two boys are switched at birth, not by accident, but deliberately. Further, the story only focuses on one of the boys, since the switch involved a pure white baby and a baby that was 1/32 part Negro, but because of that really minor part that was Negro, he was still considered a Negro.

 

The character whom the title is named after, David Wilson, really takes a back seat for most of the story, and only comes to the fore in the last few chapters when he is finally given the chance to prove his worth. Basically Pudd'nhead is a lawyer that moves out to a small town south of St Louis and on his first day makes a stupid comment and is then cursed with the name Pudd'nhead, which basically means stupid. Pudd'nhead is more eccentric than stupid, and one of the things that makes him eccentric, his collection of fingerprints, is what ends up turning him around and making him a hero.

 

Some have said that this story is a courtroom drama, but most of the comments that I have read about it have suggested that it is not. While there is a courtroom scene, it only makes up a small part of the story, though much of the story builds up to this scene. In a courtroom drama the murder is usually commented near the beginning, or even before the story begins. However the murder in this story does not occur until near the end, and while it is clear why the murder was committed (money and unpaid gambling debts) it is more like an anti-climax.

 

The thing that impressed me the most about this story though was that forensic fingerprinting played a very major role in an era before fingerprinting was actually accepted as evidence in court. However remember, this is a small town in rural America, and as such courtroom scenes become more like some sort of show (as is indicated in this book) than some really serious matter as one would expect in the city. Remember, everybody knows everybody else, including the judge, and it is basically the person that performs the best show that wins the trial.

 

However, that is still very much the case today. Trials are less to do with actually finding the truth and more to do with who tells the more believable story, and who the judge prefers to believe. In my time in personal injury litigation there are always stories about soft judges and hard judges. This is basically determined by who likes plaintiffs and who hates plaintiffs, and even then, their word is never final. When somebody else ends up paying the court fees, the ability of plaintiffs to actually prosecute their case increases.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/470316509
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