Book Review: REFUGEE, the harrowing journeys of three young asylum seekers

Alan Gratz

Forced by life-or-death circumstances to flee home at a moment’s notice, the young protagonists of Refugee by Alan Gratz illustrate the journeys of asylum seekers in three periods of history. In 1938, Josef, a Jewish boy, boards the MS St. Louis for Cuba hoping for freedom for persecution. Isabel, her family, and her next-door neighbors, in 1994 board a handmade raft to Miami from Cuba after her father took part in a demonstration against Fidel Castro. Mahmoud and his family leave his beloved city of Aleppo, in ruins after six years of civil war, in 2014, after their apartment building is destroyed by a missile. Despite being separated by decades, the families are interconnected in surprising ways.

Though each has a unique voyage, similarities run through the pilgrimages. They all experience danger; watch as their families separate, sometimes permanently, witness death; and take on adult roles even though they are only twelve or thirteen. The book also shows how living besieged and then as refugees can affect people differently. Additionally, the reader can find interesting symbolic parallels such as the role of dictators and how they are displayed visually in each society.

These are heady and difficult issues, but Gratz presents them in an age-appropriate way. Especially at the beginning of the book, he provides a lot of context about the leaders in power in Germany, Cuba, and Syria, and the conditions that create refugees. While there is a lot of loss and sorrow in the book, it ends on a hopeful note.

I would recommend this book to any guardians who want their children to learn more about the refugee crisis. It’s also a book that promotes empathy with people of other cultures and backgrounds. Adults, too, can learn from the story.

Book Review: THE SNAKES, the traps may be set but who is the prey?

The Snakes
Sadie Jones

Relative newlyweds Bea and Dan are superficially happy in a small apartment in London, she a psychotherapist and he an estate agent. Bea, who came from a wealthy family, accepts no financial support from them. Dan, however, child of a black mother and absent white father and who grew up in poverty, hates his job and wants to return to his passion: painting. Dan, often described as the most handsome man in the room, surprised some of his friends when he paired up with the “frumpy” Bea.

Dan’s patience with his meaningless job comes to an end, and Bea suggests a three-month holiday through Europe. Bea has kept Dan away from her family, but she wants to stop in France and see her brother Alex, an addict who has been in and out of rehab but who is now clean and managing a hotel.

When they arrive at Hotel Paligny, however, they learn “clean” is relative and the decrepit hotel is less of an ongoing concern than a major stalled project. Even worse, for Bea, her parents, Griff and Liv, arrive for a visit. With them comes an air of entitlement and a level of access Dan has never before experienced. He doesn’t understand Bea’s ardency against them—but he also doesn’t know the childhood secrets Bea has locked away.

What starts as a family drama spins into a mystery when a character suddenly dies, and then the narrative shifts into horror for the dénouement. As a result, I never fully got my bearings when reading this novel, and the writing style, which I can best describe as staccato, kept me at a distance instead of drawing me in. That might very well be the point, as Bea had many mechanisms for putting layers between her and others, in which case it makes for clever writing but not necessarily enjoyable reading.

On the one hand, this novel explores how parents’ sins corrupt their children. Sadie Jones herself, talking to NPR, gave another perspective: “It’s a book about chaos and the surprise terrible things that happen that we can’t foresee …” In any case, this is book that is rich in symbolism (snakes!) and ideas and so intellectually stimulating, but not a book I would pick up for its entertainment value.

Audiobook Review: FURIOUS HOURS, Harper Lee researches the infamous Reverend Willie Maxwell

1E637C1C-2484-4A93-953C-DD11F29AEB4EFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Casey Cep
Narrated by Hillary Huber

In the 1970s, in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell suffered the loss of five family members, including two wives, a brother, and nephew. After police discovered he had multiple life insurance policies on the decedents, Maxwell was brought to trial but successfully defended by attorney Tom Radney.

When Maxwell’s stepdaughter, Shirley Ann Ellington, died in 1977, ostensibly due to a mishap while changing a flat tire, Maxwell was suspected of killing her, yet he delivered the eulogy at her funeral. Before the crowd dispersed, Shirley’s uncle, Robert Burns, fatally shot Maxwell inside the chapel.

Despite hundreds of witnesses, Burns was acquitted, and his lawyer was none other than Tom Radney, the same man who insured Maxwell himself didn’t go to prison. Watching the proceedings unobtrusively was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the world’s most beloved novels.

Harper Lee, who had traveled to Kansas with Truman Capote to help research In Cold Blood, had in mind to write a true crime novel of her own, and she spent time living in “Alex City” and interviewing the principals.

In the well-researched Furious Hours, Casey Cep presents two narratives in a single volume: the story of Maxwell’s misdeeds and downfall and of Harper Lee and her book, The Reverend, that she never finished. In recounting these histories, Cep offers vivid and lively biographies of a range of characters and provides important sociological context, particularly regarding issues of race in Alabama.

I listened to the Libro.FM audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber, and I thought she did a phenomenal job bringing the words to life. (When I read her biography, I learned she’s recorded almost 400 audiobooks!)

Published by Knopf Doubleday

Book Review: HEAVEN, MY HOME, an East Texas mystery set against the casual racism emboldened by Trump’s victory

aHeaven, My Home
A Highway 59 Novel

Attica Locke

In the wake of Trump’s election victory, Ranger Darren Matthews travels down Highway 59 to Jefferson, Texas, where nine-year-old Levi King, son of an imprisoned Aryan Brotherhood captain, has gone missing. Strangely, only Levi’s father and sister plead for the boy’s return. Local law enforcement assume he’s dead, his own grandmother, one of the town leaders, remains eerily distant, and Matthews’ boss only wants him to find evidence to implicate his father.

Matthews, though, realizes the local denizens are obfuscating at every turn. An elderly black man, Leroy Page, claims to have seen Levi the night he disappeared, making him the last person to see him. Leroy becomes a suspect, but Matthews doubts his guilt. He’s driven to find out what really happened to Levi, and perhaps escape his mother’s hold having a secret that could bury his career, even if it means making a devil’s bargain. Powerful forces in Jefferson, however, are intent on seeing him fail.

Heaven, My Home is compulsively readable with a compelling and serpentine mystery reaching back to the antebellum era. It brought in just enough Bluebird, Bluebird to both satisfy and whet curiosity. Background to the mystery is the town of Jefferson, a failed port city which capitalizes on its past, hosting ghost tours that visit the sites where white women died but conveniently ignoring the deaths of blacks before and after slavery. The book shows how racism can be so seamlessly institutionalized, those with privilege can see it only if looking, but people of color are subject to large and small aggressions. Furthermore, it hints at the practical and personal consequences of Trump’s victory which we’ve sadly seen play out over the past couple of years. Darren also has to confront his own biases and his tendency to view black men of a certain age as though they are the same as his uncles.

I did overwhelmingly enjoy the book, but something that worked less for me was the introduction of so many characters who weren’t utilized in the story, for example, a group of Matthews’ fellow Rangers who sound interesting but only appeared in a single scene. Likewise, I felt Levi’s sister, Dana, was savvy and observant, while Leroy’s neighbors, the Goodfellows, were important to the plot, but not as developed as I might have preferred.

Complex and flawed, Matthews presents a welcome alternative to the mystery protagonists who are male detectives, overconfident, and undeterred by rules or procedures. His Eastern Texas district, rural, conservative, and often racist, obstructs his ability to successfully navigate his investigations. Even when he is doing the wrong thing, I want events to work out for him. I recommend this series for readers who enjoy mysteries and who want to understand small town racism. I can’t wait for the next installment!

Thanks to NetGalley and Serpentine Books for providing an advanced readers copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: DARK AGE, War, Politics, and a High Body Count in Red Rising Book 5

Dark Age
Red Rising Book 5

Pierce Brown

The Rising is in shatters, leaving untold dead as the colors clash. Darrow remains above Mercury to defend the planet against the Golds while his closest allies are hundreds of thousands of miles away. Sevro has returned to his family, abandoning the Republic, while Virginia attempts to convince the senate to send troops to help Darrow and the few soldiers he has with him. Yet even her sophisticated spy network cannot identify the network of enemies arrayed against her and her husband. Pax and Electra, daughter of Sevro and Victra, have been kidnapped, and Ephraim, a mercenary-for-hire, represents their only chance for escape.

Meanwhile, Lysander au Lune, grandson of Octavia, the Sovereign disposed by the Rising, has returned to society after ten years in exile determined to bring peace by uniting the warring Gold factions, and to do that, he must defeat Darrow. With the Republic unstable, Sefi the Quiet, Queen of the Obsidians, sees an opportunity to expand her powers on Mars, even though it might mean breaking ties with her previous allies.

Lyria, a red from Mars, and Volga, an Obsidian, accomplices to the kidnapping of Pax and Electra, find themselves entangled with Victra, Electra’s mother. Yet, their importance to the Republic is unknown even to them, and they must decide whether to act in self-preservation or risk sacrificing themselves for the greater good. All alliances are in play, and no one can be trusted as the fate of the Republic and Society turn on the machinations of the world’s power-brokers in front of and behind the scenes.

Dark Age, aptly named, finds the heroes we’ve gotten to know over the past four books in dire straits. Like the other books in the Red Rising series, Dark Age depicts violence graphically, but it seemed more intense in this book to me, perhaps because of my state of mind, perhaps because it truly was relentless with a high body count, or maybe because the page count reached almost 800. There were two truly abhorrent scenes of violence against animals which make sense narratively but which I had to skip.

Like Iron Gold, Dark Age has multiple narrators, and I enjoyed some of the viewpoints more than others, as usually happens with more than one point of view character. The first section of the book, told alternatively from Darrow and Lysander’s perspectives, traces the battle for Mercury. This was the least interesting part of the book to me, unfortunate since it made the beginning a slog. I find that Darrow and Lysander have very similar voices, and their basic conflict has been ongoing for so long, I find it rather dull by this time. Furthermore, I do not like the trajectory of Lysander’s character.

The other narrators, Ephraim, Lyria, and Virginia have more interesting, fresher stories to tell in my opinion, though they do cross pass unexpectedly with characters I’d forgotten about from previous books, plus Lyria and Volga are set up to have critical roles in the next book(s) in the series. Victra, in this installment, becomes much more sympathetic, though remains quite a badass. I enjoy the strong female characters. Since they are written by a man, I do find myself prodding the edges of their characterizations for flaws, but if they are there, they are lost to me in the wave of the narrative, so I’m content to enjoy these strong female characters. Some other women on Mars in the Red Hand or affected by it are more one-dimensional, and there are some very creepy older women/younger men, mother/son sexual dynamics at play in certain relationships.

Given the length of the book, I thought the editors would encourage Brown to cut unnecessary scenes and subplots, but I thought there were some which I won’t mention due to spoilers. Additionally, Darrow and Lysander’s internal monologues are very repetitive. As a result, I’m glad they aren’t the primary focus of Dark Age. Younger characters such as Pax and Electra take more of a role, which is good because the body count in this book is very high.

The general fate of key characters is resolved by the end of the book, but not their next moves, and several questions remain for the sequel which I will no doubt read. I will leave you with one spoiler, though. Sophocles, the fox, survives!