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Archive for the ‘Sense of place’ Category

yummyIn 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was executed by fellow members of his gang. He was 11. What was his crime? In the eyes of his killers, he was bringing too much police and media attention to their part of town. Eager to prove himself to older gang members, he had shot wildly into a group of kids playing in the street, killing a 14-year-old girl named Shavon. Yummy’s murderers were only 14 and 16 years old themselves. The shocking nature of his death as well as his life landed his mugshot on the cover of Time magazine and a mention by President Bill Clinton in a speech addressing the three-fold increase in homicides in Chicago since 1980.

What would drive a child to become a hardened gang member at such a young age? Author G. Neri uses a fictitious narrator, named Roger, who is the same age as Yummy, as his vehicle for exploring the cause and provocation for his conduct. The story unfolds with few surprises: abuse, abandonment, and a lack of supervision that left Yummy to find his own amusement out on the streets. Arrested for the first time when he was 8, he quickly came up against a shortcoming of the state laws regarding juveniles. Since no juvenile could be convicted of a felony, gangs eagerly took advantage of this law, using young men to do hard crimes with no harsh consequences. Yummy was just one of a veritable army of children living on the streets and committing crimes to please their gang leaders.

Were Yummy and other juveniles in the same situation monsters or children? The authors don’t pretend to have a pat answer. Finding a solution to the spiral of violence would be ideal, but first the problem itself needs to be understood. Human troubles are always fraught with nuance and are hostile to simple resolutions. Instead, the book aims to shed light on the lives of the different players, in order to bring some humanity to what is otherwise just a grim set of statistics on youth gang life.

Designated a Coretta Scott King Award honor book in 2011, this title is a tough read, but the author brings a lot of honesty and reality to the dramatization of these real events. Recommended for readers with an interest in graphic novels, American history, and social justice.

Check the WRL catalog for Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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Hell at the BreechTom Franklin is a logical heir to William Faulkner, or more recently, Cormac McCarthy, powerful writers who explore the violent world of the American South through character-driven historical fiction. Perhaps even more than those other two greats, Franklin derives his tales from real historical events.

The subject of Hell at the Breech is the Mitcham War, fought in rural Alabama in 1897. Comparatively wealthy townfolk had been exploiting sharecroppers, and the resulting resentment boiled over into violence when Arch Bledsoe, a man-of-the-people political candidate, was mysteriously murdered. This killing was used as an excuse for violence by the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, a secret society of thugs who had been terrorizing their sharecropper neighbors into compliance. They went into town in a series of robberies and brutal raids, which in turn inspired a vigilante posse from town to ride roughshod into the countryside, attacking anyone unlucky enough to fall in their path.

Franklin’s novel is given extra dimension by wonderful characters. Tooch Bledsoe is a country Machiavelli, a gifted manipulator of men who leads the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. Mack Burke is a 15-year-old, apprenticed to Tooch under mysterious circumstances to work at his country store. He’s trying to do the right things, but unsure of what those are, and he carries the weight of a secret about the murder of Tooch’s step brother Arch. Billy Waite is the aging, decent sheriff–one of the few power figures from town who isn’t out to exploit the sharecroppers–sent into danger to investigate Bledsoe’s murder. These are the lead characters, but Franklin populates his story with a great variety of larger than life ne’er do wells.

This isn’t for everyone. Franklin will challenge your conception of ethics. There are no easy answers and nobody in his novel is blameless. Violence is a way of life for these people. You know you’re in for a dark ride when the opening chapter concerns a boy being instructed by his mother to drown a sack full of puppies. If you can handle that kind of darkness, you’ll find this a rewarding read, a believable if operatic look at the dark heart of the wild days of early America.

Check the WRL catalog for Hell at the Breech

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Hum and the ShiverIn the first decade of the new century, urban fantasy went from a blip on the genre map to a big part of the fantasy fiction market. That success was built on kick-ass heroines modeled after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quirky casts of characters such as those found in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, or glib modern magicians standing in for the classic noir detective, as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The novels featured the creatures of classic horror films–vampires, werewolves, and other monsters–and/or the traditions of the English faerie story–the battle of the seelie and unseelie court beneath the noses of regular mortals–all given a modern twist. At the time, these tropes were fun, and fresh, a great variation on the fat doorstops of epic fantasy.

But like any publishing phenomena, the pattern has been repeated so many times that it’s not so fresh anymore. After reading five or six series that follow the same approach, most readers feel like they had been there, done that.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see new takes on contemporary fantasy, and Alex Bledsoe has done just that with his novels about the Tufa people of the east Tennessee mountains. Yes, it’s another variation on the fairy courts, but by displacing the fey into the heart of the Appalachians, casting a wounded American woman soldier as the protagonist, bathing the story in mountain music, and putting Hatfield/McCoy-style feuding at the center of conflict, Bledsoe makes something entirely new.

The story concerns Bronwyn Hyatt, a young woman who went into the Army to escape the pressures of a close-knit family, her reputation as a trouble-making girl, and in particular her dangerously wild ex-boyfriend. But now she’s back from Iraq, a war hero with a shattered leg, knowing instinctually that she has to come to grips with her past and find a way to balance her own needs with her family obligation and destiny.

Two outsiders figure prominently. Craig Chess is a young Methodist preacher trying to build a congregation in the midst of people who don’t take to outsiders. There’s chemistry between him and Bronwyn, but that comes with the danger of provoking Duane, the hair-trigger violent ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to believe that their relationship is over. Don Swayback is a reporter sent to cover Bronwyn’s return who rediscovers his forgotten family history and his own musical gift.

All of this is set in the mysterious Cloud County, a locale where roads seem to disappear or re-arrange for unwanted strangers. Family traditions run deep, with most divided into one of two feuding camps, united only in their dislike of the outside world. Music lovers will love this world, as the magic is intrinsically connected with its playing.

The story continues in Wisp of a Thing, from 2013, and Long Black Curl, due out this year.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hum and the Shiver

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HookThere’s nothing so tempting to readers as the opportunity to rewrite the books they enjoy. (Even though sometimes it leads to chaos.) And how meta is it for fictional authors to give happy endings to “flawed classics?”  At their best, authors exploring fictional characters from different points of view–villains reconsidered, offstage characters allowed their own voices, principal characters followed beyond the ends of the original story–increase the reader’s understanding and pleasure in the original book.

If that’s what you’re after, don’t pick up Alias Hook. If you’re interested in a story that recasts the hero in an awful light and turns the two-dimensional villain into a grievously abused victim with a tiny chance at redemption, Alias Hook is a terrific place to go.

Gifted with magic and music, leader of boys who don’t want to grow up, recruiter of girls who take all responsibility until they ask too much, what character better represents eternal boyhood than Peter Pan? At least that’s the Pan that Hook cannot escape, despite trying for 300 years. This Pan is competitive, but only on his own rules, (which include keeping Hook alive while allowing the Lost Boys to kill his crew), controlling the environment to his own advantage, and of course ruling the Indians and mermaids that live in Neverland at his pleasure.

Granted, Hook is not that nice a guy–the spoiled rich son of a merchant, he became a privateer in the 1680’s and was imprisoned as a pirate by the French enemy. Released into the poverty and bitterness, his hatred took him on a path that led him to Neverland. He still dresses as the Restoration dandy he was, but underneath all that lace and rich cloth, he longs for redemption and an end to his captivity. With the arrival of Stella Parrish–a WOMAN! in NEVERLAND!–he may just achieve that.

Jensen leads us on a trip through Neverland, including the land of the fairies, the Indian village, and the mysterious path leading to the beautiful loreleis who lure unwary sailors to their death. In each, she shows us a rich and mythical place where wisdom and adulthood are held at bay by the mercurial boy. It is plain early on that Hook (and just how did he lose that hand?) must forge his own destiny and find a way to escape Pan’s world; but how? The answer is as simple and as mythical as it is emotionally rewarding.

Check the WRL catalog for Alias Hook

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JacketOK, let’s get this out of the way first – the book we have in our collection is actually titled The American, which as you read the book becomes patently ridiculous. This is a movie tie-in for a George Clooney vehicle, which got middling to bad reviews from ‘ordinary’ people, but middling to good reviews from top critics. If the movie follows the pacing of the book, I can see where the thrill movie seeker would come away less than satisfied.

A Very Private Gentleman is slow, but in the way that develops tension even as the gentleman slowly allows readers into his very private world until we get a more complete view of a character who rationalizes and even elevates the evil he does.  Even the nature of that work is trickled out until we fully understand that he is a master craftsman of death. Not the death-dealer, but the maker of the custom weapons the death dealers require. That doesn’t make him any less a target, and there are plenty of people who want him dead.

His craft requires subtlety, patience, watchfulness, and mobility. For this, his final job, he has chosen to live in a small Italian village under the identity of a painter of butterflies, so he becomes Signor Farfalla to the inhabitants. While awaiting the commission, he argues theology over bottles of fine wine with the local priest, becomes known at the local bars and restaurants, and a regular customer at the local brothel. Even considering his obsession with security, this is the most idyllic place he’s ever lived.

Indeed, the idyll is seductive. The kindness of people who don’t demand intimacy, the eternal feel of this ancient village, the excellent food, the romps with two beautiful girls, the landscape around his temporary home all call to him that he can maintain this identity and settle into a well-deserved (but still watchful) retirement. But his sixth sense turns up a hint of danger, and the idyll becomes less than ideal.

Signor Farfalla still has that commission to fulfill, which means meeting the client for the specifications, finding the materials, creating and testing the weapon, then making the final delivery. Each of those is a potential vulnerability, and Signor Farfalla practices his professional paranoia to the hilt. When the commission comes face-to-face with the source of his unease, it quickly becomes apparent that his professional life will cause his personal death.

Signor Farfalla addresses the story directly to the reader, even telling us that he’s withholding information that might allow us to identify him. That almost-confiding tone also conveys a sense of hubris when he claims the rightful role he believes history owes him, but involves us in his love of nature, and the good life he’s got. That personal connection makes the climax much more shocking than a genre thriller as the final revelations erupt and Signor Farfalla must make fatal decisions.

Check the WRL catalog for A Very Private Gentleman (aka The American)

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North RiverIf you’re looking for plot-driven action, for big twists, or a wild climax, look elsewhere. Pete Hamill’s North River is a throwback, a lovely novel with sympathetic characters, steady pacing, a setting that feels lived in, and a story that will break your heart and then mend it again.

Set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, North River is the story of Jim Delaney, a doctor who was a little bit old for World War I, but went anyway, and sustained some injuries and emotional damage that stayed with him. When he came home, he found a distant wife who was angry that he had left in the first place. The two continued to drift apart, and as the novel opens, we find Delaney alone. His wife has gone missing and her status is unknown, although everyone fears the worst.

But Delaney doesn’t stay alone for long. His daughter, off on the chase for a revolutionary husband, drops off her toddler son Carlito on Delaney’s doorstep. Delaney is the kind of man who takes care of his entire neighborhood, but taking care of a baby who barely speaks English is another thing, and with help from neighborhood friends, he finds a woman, Rose Verga, to work as his live-in housekeeper and care for the child until he can convince his mother to return.

Over the course of the novel, the three begin to form familial bonds, but Hamill throws many obstacles in their way: a hostile crime boss made enemy by Delaney’s assistance to his rival, an old war friend; the differences of class and culture between Delaney and Rose; the steady, sometimes overwhelming of Delaney’s neighborhood practice and the often illiterate working class people who demand his time; the ghosts of past relationships; and the nagging possibility that Carlito’s mother will return and take him away just as Delaney and Rose have formed parental attachments.

Hamill captures the waning days of Tammany Hall politics, a time now dismissed as “machine” politics, but also an era with a positive side: people were still connected and looked out for each other in a way that modern citizens don’t often understand. These are characters who stay with you long after the book is put aside, larger than life, but completely believable. The story has crime, suspense, romance, and history, something to captivate almost every reader.

If you like audiobooks, I can also recommend that format. Henry Strozier’s voice captures Delaney’s world weariness perfectly and he does well with Rose’s Italian-immigrant English as well.

Check the WRL catalog for North River

Read North River in large print

Or try North River as an audiobook on CD

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