"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Secret of Magic

TITLE: The Secret of Magic
AUTHOR: Deborah Johnson

A letter sent to the NAACP in 1946, asking for help getting justice for a murdered, black war hero on his way back home to a small town in Mississippi, catches the attention of newly minted, black lawyer Regina Robichard, as much for the case as for the person who sent the letter: M. P. Calhoun, author of Regina's favorite book when she was growing up. That book was "The Secret of Magic," a story about black and white children playing together in a magical forest. Convincing her boss, Thurgood Marshall, to let her go investigate, Regina heads from New York City to the heart of the South, lugging her own baggage of injustice with her.

M. P. Calhoun, aka Mary Pickett, isn't anything she expected. An aristocratic, older white woman, Pickett makes it clear to Regina that she sent the letter purely to satisfy Willie Willie, the victim's father, someone she's fond of. But Regina is determined to get justice for Willie Willie's son Joe Howard. Her presence brings out distrust in the white community, and having lived a long time in New York City, Regina has a lot to learn about race relations in the South, where everyone knows everyone's business and only a few black people seem to want her to succeed.

There isn't much of a mystery here; in fact, about two-thirds through, Regina is told what happened by the killer. The book is more an examination of a changing environment where the way things were and are and always will be can no longer be sustained. For a book grounded in reality -- in the Author's Note, Johnson cites the real people who inspired the story -- it reads like a fairy tale at times, especially when quoting M. P. Calhoun's "The Secret of Magic." All the characters, white and black, are fully drawn. None feels like a stereotype. The feeling of satisfaction I got after reading the last page is lingering with me, something my favorite books do.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

The Changeling

TITLE: the changeling
AUTHOR: victor lavalle

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I wanted to love it. But I didn't. It reminded me of "The Stolen Child" by Keith Donohue, another book about changelings, but didn't live up to that book's emotional impact on me. That book focused on the changeling and the child it replaced. This book focused on the parents, mainly the father, a man with a troubled past. Apollo Kagwe's white father disappeared when he was a boy. Raised by his hardworking, black mother who had emigrated from Uganda, Apollo had a love for books and reading that led him into a career as a used book seller. He falls hard for a librarian, and soon they're married and parents to a boy they name Brian, for Apollo's absent father. Things are going well, until Apollo's wife, Emma, snaps, does something unthinkable, then vanishes. As Apollo comes to grips with what happened to destroy his idyllic family and searches for Emma, he slowly learns that magic is real and evil exists, in both human and non-human form.

I might've gotten more from this book if I were a parent, but even so, the first half of the book was great, spinning a nice tale of family life in New York City. Lavalle's style is simple, even a bit repetitious. Lavalle lives in New York and he fills the prose with lots of specificity, like street names and details that sound more like they were written by someone who did a lot of research on New York City and wanted to show it off. But I appreciated that he showed New York City as more than just Manhattan.

The second half of the book slides into a realm of magic, where fairy tales aren't fiction, and that's where I started feeling letdown. There are wonderful plot twists and revelations, yet the prose keeps a practical tone where something more lyrical would have been nice. This book was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2017 and I can see why. It's a good story that shows just how much a parent would do to protect or save their child, but it has one foot in realism and one foot in fantasy, as if Lavalle couldn't decide which to embrace. And because of the realistic tone, the loose threads and unanswered questions at the end bothered me more than they should have. They probably aren't enough to warrant a sequel, but for me, they remain irksome, leaving me mildly disappointed in a book I wanted to love.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

World of Trouble

TITLE: World of Trouble
AUTHOR: Ben H. Winters

I can't believe I forgot to post this. I think I'll chalk it up to a senior moment.

At any rate, the impending impact of the asteroid Maia has humanity in a downward spiral in this third book of the Last Policeman trilogy. Former police detective Hank Palace chooses to spend the last two weeks before impact searching for his sister. There's no central mystery setting up the story this time, just one man trying to find and spend what are likely humanity's final days with his only family. Even more than in the previous two books, the desperation of the people he encounters is a prime focus of the book, and the ones who have chosen a more graceful way to spend their remaining days.

But a mystery presents itself, one final crime that Hank is determined to solve before impact. Winters shows an impressive understanding of psychology, presenting what feels like a realistic look at what could happen should a giant asteroid be on a collision course with Earth. I'd love to see a follow-up, but maybe it's best to leave that to our imaginations.

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