There There – Tommy Orange

There There - Tommy OrangeOrange is one of a group of impressive Indigenous authors introduced to me during the Calgary Word Fest. This is a superb first novel with intersecting characters assembling in Oakland for a Pow-wow. These individuals have links to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma but their Indian identity is very limited: these are urban Indians. For example, a young boy, Orvil Red Feather, learns pow-wow dancing from YouTube videos. The intersecting multi-generational story-lines can be complicated to follow sometimes because of uncertain or unknown parentage, but the culminating climax is presented powerfully. This is excellent story-telling about identity, violence and recovery, of belonging and un-belonging, loss and hope.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn WardMs. Ward previously wrote the excellent Salvage The Bones, and this new book is even better. The setting is Mississippi, a multi-generational family struggling to live, to love and to survive. Past atrocities live on in the form of ghosts. There are indelible portraits in this story: a thirteen year old boy trying to find his place in the world, his mother who is incapable of loving her children, his mixed-race grandparents. Powerful and evocative storytelling.

Speak No Evil – Uzodinma Iweala

Uzodinma IwealaThis remarkable book is about two young people in Washington DC. Niro is a 17-year-old African-American who is graduating from High School and then on to Harvard. But Niro has a painful secret – he is gay, a wicked abomination to his conservative Nigerian parents. Niro’s best friend is Meredith but she is unable to provide Niro with the help and support that he needs. Niro is emotionally lost and conflicted with heartbreaking self-loathing and his relationship with Meredith comes to a tragic ending: powerful storytelling.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste NgThis is a relationship book, a favourite topic for me. The story describes the relationship between two families in a Cleveland suburb. The key relationships are between the two mothers and their children. There are secrets and divided loyalties, free-living versus a life bound by rules, with a sub-plot of a custody battle that divides the community. Ms. Ng writes like Anne Tyler: deceptively simple writing that is incredibly perceptive – highly recommended, one of my best reads in 2018.

The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk KiddSet in Charleston in the early 19th century, this novel tells the story of slavery from two parallel and linked perspectives. One perspective is that of two privileged sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The sisters are living in a home with slaves and eventually become crusading abolitionists. The other perspective is Hetty/Handful, a house slave in the Grimke home. The stark reality of slavery is presented effectively in terms of slave abuse and cruelty, by a “good” family.  There is also the church justification of slavery and the reality that the “value” of a slave is equivalent to a specific fraction (3/5) of a non-slave. Therefore, although there have been a multitude of books about slavery, this novel offers some new insights.The story also illustrates clearly the limitations of women in a male-dominated society, with an interesting perspective on Quaker philosophy. The author previously wrote the very good The Secret Life Of Bees.

March, Volumes 1-3 – John Lewis, Andre Aydin & Nate Powell

March, Volumes 1-3 - John Lewis, Andre Aydin & NatePowellThese three graphic novels tell the story of Congressman John Lewis, an iconic hero of the American civil rights movement. The narrative is provided by Aydin and the evocative black and white drawings are by Powell. Volume 1 covers Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, leading to the struggle to de-segregate lunch counters in Nashville. Volumes 2-3 cover the intense period from 1963 (the Birmingham church bombing) to the Selma March and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The controversial politics of the civil rights movement is detailed, especially the rivalries and debates over the extent of non-violence to be utilized by the protestors, and the participation of white protestors. The stark black/white drawings are very striking when illustrating the horrible abuse and violence subjected by the authorities towards the civil rights movement. This is powerful storytelling, and timely.

The Star Side of Bird Hill – Naomi Jackson

The Star Side of Bird Hill - Naomi JacksonThis is a remarkable first novel about 3 generations of women who are both powerful and vulnerable. Two sisters in Brooklyn, Dionne and Phaedra, are sent to Barbados to spend the summer with their grandmother, due to their mother’s deepening depression. There is a predictable cultural clash as the strong-willed grandchildren are confronted with a more traditional society. Life becomes more complicated with their mothers suicidal death. This is  passage near the end of the book when Phaedra thinks about her mother’s death: “This time there was no hope for her mother’s arrival, because Angie was where she would always be now, silent and below the ground. And this had, rather than saddening Phaedra, settled in beside her, the way that the hill’s red dust filmed her white clothes, the way that sand lined her pockets days and weeks after she came home from the beach. It was always there, a reminder of what had come before”.
Powerful story-telling about love and conflict, death and discovery, pain and hope – highly recommended.