BOOK REVIEW: All We Ever Wanted, the rippling effect of cyberbullying

Griffin, Emily - All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted
Emily Griffin

On the surface, Nina Browning’s life is idyllic. Her family, thanks to her husband’s lucrative sale of his company, has more money than they could ever spend. They life in an exclusive neighborhood in Nashville, Nina spends her time on philanthropy, and their son, a lifer at the prestigious Windsor School, has just been admitted to Princeton. They have everything they have ever wanted–until Finch, Nina’s son, becomes involved in a scandal that threatens not just the stability of their family but his very future.

At a party, Finch allegedly took a picture of a passed out Lyla Volpe, whose absent mother was Brazilian, holding a green Uno card and captioned: “She finally got her green card.” Nina is horrified, but her husband, Kyle, believes they should use their resources to protect Finch at any cost.

The book is told from the alternating points of view of Nina, Lyla, and her father, Tom Volpe. I wondered how Griffin would expand the story to fill an entire novel, but there are some interesting developments exploring themes of entitlement, class differences and the privilege of wealth, cyberbullying, children’s privacy, and the role of parents in terms of protecting children versus teaching them responsibility.

Kirk, and to some extent Finch, are presented as villains and have few if any redeeming characteristics, and I found this problematic, primarily because it seemed unrealistic that they would be so one-dimensional. It also brought out a very unattractive blood lust in myself, and I spent much of the novel hoping they would get their comeuppance and wondering if justice would be achieved.

Nina and Lyla to some extent irritated me because they were so gullible, willing to believe what they wanted and put themselves in unfortunate situations as a result. At the same time, it was interesting to have a character like Nina, a mother who wanted her son to face at least some consequences, since so many novels depict parents as willing to do anything to protect their children from the repercussions of their bad behavior.

All We Ever Wanted is an easy and compelling read and ultimately satisfying though not in the way I expected. At times, though, I thought the prose veered too close to maudlin. It’s not very demanding but is captivating enough that it’s an ideal airplane book.


BOOK REVIEW: Where the Dead Sit Talking, an intense and disturbing account of the relationship between Sequoyah and his foster sister

Hobson, Brandon - Where the Dead Sit Talking w AmeliaWhere the Dead Sit Talking
Brandon Hobson

Fifteen-year-old Sequoyah, half Cherokee, scarred from hot grease his mother flung when she ostensibly didn’t realize he was in the kitchen, has been in the foster care system since his mother was arrested with possession with intent to distribute. His tireless social worker has seen him through a placement with a family that didn’t work out and a stint at a group home where he was able to sneak out and roam the streets. She finally thought she found the perfect match with the Troutts, an older couple living in rural Little Crow, Oklahoma.

The Troutt family includes Howard, a bookie, Agnes, who we don’t learn much about, and their current foster children, George, about thirteen and likely autistic, and Rosemary, seventeen, a Kiowa Indian who is planning to go to art school on east coast. Sequoyah feels more comfortable at the Troutt home than he did in previous placements, though he bemoans the loss of freedom. He becomes particularly attached to Rosemary, feeling they are connected, like twins, or even the same person at times and able to communicate telepathically, and obeys her directives whatever she asks, though internally, he has violent thoughts about her.

No narrator has scared me like Sequoyah in a very long time. The sentences are simple with little variation in structure, a deliberate choice that bleaches the emotions out of Sequoyah’s delivery and makes his fantasies of violence and, at times, descriptions of actual violence, even more harrowing. Sequoyah frequently begins his statements with I saw…, I watched…, I remembered which also places him in a position of observer and further distances him from the emotions associated with the events in the novel.

One latent emotion is present–rage–and perhaps Sequoyah’s rage is justified. Not only is he judged for the scars on his face and torso, not only has he been abandoned by his mother, he watched a series of boyfriends abuse her and was possibly abused himself. He struggles with identity, his Indian identity, but also his gender identity. He wears eyeliner, a bold choice in rural Oklahoma for young men even today, but in the late 1980s completely radical. His desire to become Rosemary speaks to his desire to shed his masculine skin.

Sequoyah’s navigation of the foster care system and his sense that no place for him is really home reflects the displacement and forced removal of Native Americans in the United States. He carefully observes the markers of home: portraits and paintings on the walls, books on shelves, pictures in frames, with the sense that that type of belonging and way to inhabit space is barred from him. (Interestingly, by the end of the novel, he spends most of his time in a teepee that Howard helped him construct.)

The presence of birds–hawks, geese, blackbirds, cardinals, and generic birds–looms large in the text, at times, serving as a symbol of freedom or protection, other times appearing as potential threats. Most frequently, though, they seem to be completely indifferent to whatever events Sequoyah is describing and highlight the sense that he is alone and rudderless.

Sequoyah and Rosemary often relate their dreams, with Rosemary especially aware of the preternatural meaning they hold, as warnings but as sources of hope as well. More than once, Sequoyah dreams about his father coming back to life and returning to him covered with dirt and debris from his grave. (As far as the reader knows, his father is in Mexico.)

Although Sequoyah does have moments of empathy–he carefully considers the life of an elderly man with dementia he encountered–he is not really able to see others, especially Rosemary, as distinct individuals. A final confrontation with Rosemary arises in large part because, in crisis, she pulls away from him, and he sees that as a personal affront rather than a reflection of her current state. That might not be so unusual for a teenager, but there are brief allusions indicating that Sequoyah didn’t change after his time with the Troutts.

Where the Dead Sit Talking, a 2018 National Book Award Finalist, is undoubtedly intense and disturbing. I always love reading books set in Oklahoma, but besides frequent trips to the Sonic Drive-In, the novel didn’t really evoke a sense of place unique to the state. Additionally, there are multiple scenes with violence toward animals. To some extent, I can accept that these depictions play a role in characterization, but I also think that the characters were fully drawn as disturbed individuals without including these scenes.

To fully appreciate the novel requires a degree of attention and concentration to unpack Sequoyah’s narration. Though there were many things about it that unsettled me, I was ultimately glad I read it.

BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightening, a dystopia with a Navajo protagonist

Roanhouse, Rebecca -Trail of Lightning (1)Trail of Lightening
The Sixth World #1
Rebecca Roanhouse

After cataclysmic climate change reformed the borders of the United States, the Navajo (Diné) closed ranks and built a wall around their land. This Sixth World also changed the borders between the real and mystical realms, allowing figures like the Coyote (the Trickster) to manifest themselves.

Diné Maggie Hoskie thought her life was over when she and her grandmother were attacked. Instead, her clan powers manifested and immortal monsterslayer Naayéé’ Neizghání appeared, seemingly out of the blue. For several years, Maggie traveled with Neizghání who taught her how to fight and use her clan powers to her advantage. But after a gruesome battle, Neizghání left Maggie. She retreated to life in a remote area of Dinétah with only her rez dogs as companions. But then, a representative from the Lukachukai convinced her to help them find a young girl who was kidnapped by a monster.

Maggie successfully defeats the monster, but it’s unlike any she has ever seen before. Its arrival pulls her into a dangerous quest to find who is creating the monsters. Along the way, she partners with Kai Arviso, a medicine man-in-training, who carries secrets of his own. Together, they inexorably advance to an inevitable confrontation with Neizghání who may be more of a monster than monsterslayer.

Having a young adult dystopian novel with a female Native American protagonist makes this a book worth considering since representation is so important. And I was poised to like the book. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Maggie is an unlikable main character who is judgmental, defensive, isolated, distrusting, quick to judge, and with an over-exaggerated sense of her own importance. Sadly, she was not a unique character. I felt like her voice was indistinguishable from that of Mare Barrow in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, and probably several other protagonists in this genre as well. Like many of the books in this category, it’s told in present tense which isn’t my preference, but became irritating when some flashbacks were in present tense and some in past tense. In that area, consistency is important. The plot was poorly paced in my estimation, and the motivations of characters unclear, while the denouement offered me no payoff for the investment.

And, Roanhouse violated my cardinal rule regarding the treatment of animals. Maggie went off several times without any thought to her dogs. I wonder if labeling them “rez dogs” means it’s okay in her mind for them to fend for themselves. This is an irresponsible position. Today, Reservation Animal Rescue estimates that as many between 1,500 and 6,000 stray dogs roam the Navajo reservation. Spoiler alert: their lives are not good. Yes, Trail of Lightning is fiction, and yes, it’s set in a dystopian future, but still, the behavior of characters in fiction serves to normalize the attitudes of readers, especially those who are looking for a hero like Maggie. This type of dismissive, fend-for-themselves attitude towards dogs is irresponsible to perpetuate.

BOOK REVIEW: Transcriptions, domestic spying during WWII and its consequences

Atkinson, Kate - Transcription (2)Transcription
Kate Atkinson

Still a teenager and reeling over her mother’s death from cancer, Juliet Armstrong is unexpectedly recruited into MI5. At first, she works in the converted cells of Wormwood Scrubs in administrative support, but soon Peregrine “Perry” Gibbons asks her to join a special operation. Agent “Godfrey Toby” is posing as a representative of the Third Reich and has several contacts who share their knowledge with him. Her job is to transcribe the recordings of his meetings. When Gibbons wants to infiltrate the fascist-leaning Right Club, though, he sends Juliet into the field.

The action unfolds in two timelines, 1940, during Juliet’s wartime MI5 service, and ten years later, when she works for BBC Radio and ghosts from her past haunt her present and push her towards a reckoning, with bookend chapters from 1981. I’d not thought much about domestic spying in Britain during World War II, and Transcription unpeels a layer off this topic. Not surprisingly for a novel about espionage, the themes of truth versus lies and about the nature of dual (or more) identities as well as group loyalty in a time of conflict are woven through the text.

The narrative rewards a close reading. I am still unpacking some of the details. For example, the book is full of parenthetical references from Perry, usually about tradecraft, and perhaps represent Juliet’s only training. Additionally, several phrases are repeated frequently (e.g,. If you’re going to tell a lie… and We’ve had rather a shock). Sounds and rhymes are emphasizes, with Mr. Toby, for example, having a characteristic rat-a-tat-TAT from a silver-tipped cane he always carries.

Unlike Juliet, a bona fide city dweller, Perry is drawn to the natural world (later becoming known as “Mr. Nature” due to his radio programs). He takes her to watch otters and observe other woodland creatures, including boxing hares. Birds also loom large in the book. Juliet is more associated with jewelry: a pair of diamond earrings borrowed to complete her transformation into a young woman of society, a ring from an aborted engagement, and strings of pearls. (Pearls are mentioned no fewer than ten times.)

I really loved reading this book, but it is one of those novels that for me, I dislike more and more as I have distance from the reading experience. There is nothing to fault in the writing, and the stylistic choices regarding themes and motifs are interesting if dense.

Atkinson also makes full use of literary references, pulling from myths, fairy tales, the Bible, Shakespeare, the 1940s cinema, and classical music. A full medley of spices, though I wondered if the recipe would have been more effective had Atkinson used fewer references more judiciously. It almost felt like she had a checklist of references she wanted to pack into the book without a clear purpose.

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with the book is that it took a completely unexpected turn and there was very little evidence for the plot twist. Especially when the book is dense with references and call-backs, having such a development with no warning feels manipulative and cheap, although I would listen to an argument that this reading experience–being surprised by a completely unexpected revelation–could very well represent MI5 who were so focused on fascists and Hitler’s allies that they failed to see threats from other quarters.

In any case, while I was quite enamored with the book as I read it, I am feeling disillusioned now that a few days have elapsed. I feel a bit manipulated and cross with Atkinson. If anyone else has read Transcription, I’d love to know your reactions.

BOOK REVIEW: Gun Love, a lyrical and gut-wrenching coming of age story – and searing indictment of gun violence

Clement, Jennifer - Gun LoveGun Love
by Jennifer Clement

A teenage Margot, who just gave birth in secret to an unusually pale daughter she named Pearl, parked her larger Mercury sedan in the visitors’ lot of the Indian Waters Trailer Park, a near-abandoned community adjacent to a garbage dump. She’d planned to stay there only a few months, until she could find a job and a place for her and Pearl to live. Fourteen years later, the mother-daughter pair still made the Mercury their home.

Frightened that social services will learn of their “dot-to-dot” life, Margot won’t let Pearl have any friends except April May Smith, a girl two years older who also lives in the trailer park. Other residents include Pastor Rex, infamous for his innovative “programs” to increase church attendance, including a monthly “Parking Lot Prayer” where worshipers don’t even need to leave their cars and April May’s parents, Rose, a nurse at the veterans hospital and Sergeant Bob, an Iraqi war vet who lost his leg. Widow and former schoolteacher Mrs. Robert Young and her adult daughter, Noelle, have lived in the park since they lost their house after Robert’s medical expenses bankrupted them. Ray and Corazón Luz, a Mexican couple who keep to themselves, round out the small community.

April May and Pearl occupy their afternoons smoking cigarettes Pearl has stolen from the smokers in the trailer park while pushing their luck putting their bare feet in the river known to house alligators or exploring the dump for abandoned treasures. Pearl, who has never said no to a dare and who courts danger, follows April May’s every command. Despite her surroundings, she is plucky, never falling into despair, and if anything loves her mother too much. Pearl shows no desire for her life to change, but she knows it will when Pastor Rex’s old friend, Eli, comes to stay with him. Eli sings a siren song to Margot, and soon, Eli displaces Pearl for her mother’s time and affection. Eli’s arrival coincides with a new program from Pastor Rex: Guns for God which brings men bearing guns and leaving cash rich. Once Eli seduces Margot, nothing is ever the same.

Based on the cover and promotional copy, I normally would not have selected this book to read, but once I saw it was on the National Book Award long list for 2018, I decided to take a chance, and I am so glad I did. I really don’t think the marketing did the book any favors with how they positioned the title which really doesn’t make clear what gun love means. And while there are most definitely gun loving characters and while the ubiquity of guns and the sound of shooting envelops the trailer park, while guns are gifts to women from the men who love them, the message is not ambiguous: guns cause death, destruction, devastation.

The writing style of Gun Love is deceptively simple. It doesn’t include long sentences or flowery phrases. But it requires close reading. Ideas or words subtly introduced reappear pages later. Clement has such an unusual way of combining words as well. One character feels “joyful sorrow.” When seeing a man she recognized but didn’t seem to place her, Pearl thought, “I wasn’t going to shake up the kaleidoscope of his memory.” When I came upon these gems, I felt as delighted as I imagined April May and Pearl when they found a ten dollar bill forgotten in a pair of jeans consigned to the garbage dump or when Pearl is able to steal not just a cigarette butt but an entire pack.

Paired to the percussion of gun shots woven through the text is the sound of music. (Clements even compiled a playlist to accompany the book.) Margot played piano throughout her childhood and, in the Mercury, “practices” on an imaginary keyboard on the dash. Eli’s voice, twinged with a Texas twang, is a like a song. Corazón idealizes Selena and dreams of visiting her grave as well as confronting the woman who shot and killed her. Or worst, when Pearl realizes that “there is no song inside me.”

Of course, with Pearl and her mother living in a car, the issues of homelessness and poverty are in the background as is mental illness and drug use. Ultimately, social services does become involved, and through Pearl’s social worker, readers see how a broken system wears down the people inside it.

Corazón says that Margot has an “empathy malady”: she has empathy not only for people, animals, and trees but also objects. Pearl found a collection of glass shards and sharp stones in her mother’s pockets: “Everywhere my mother walked she anticipated that someone might be out walking barefoot so she always picked up those objects and put them in her pockets. She kept people she didn’t even know safe.” Pearl believes this is her inheritance from her mother, and her object empathy is a vehicle for her to see all the violence caused by the many, many guns she encounters. Though she sees the deaths and dismemberments in the guns’ wake, and though she knows victims of gun violence, Pearl doesn’t renounce guns but instead carries one with her.

The narrative rolled to an inevitable conclusion that was at once surprising and expected. Gun Love was so much better than I anticipated when I started reading, and I am so glad that took a chance on it. I took great pleasure in the writing style and found the characters interesting. However, it was emotionally difficult given the conditions in which the characters lived. Pearl never engaged in self-pity, and I tried to respect that, but I couldn’t help feeling bad for her or the other residents of the trailer park. Margot’s “empathy malady” is a gift the author gives to the readers as well.