Jam! on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

The vivid life of an African American newspaperwoman, civil rights activist and lover both entertains and inspires.

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LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam! on the Vine, is filled with color, suffering and feeling. Barnett’s protagonist Ivoe Williams is inspired by the life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, newspaperwoman, suffragette and civil rights leader, and she sparkles from the first page, when she steals newspapers from her mother’s white employer to revel in the smell of the ink and the magic of print. Her mother, a Muslim and a former slave, is a talented gardener and cook, her father a masterful storyteller, so she is surrounded by art and encouraged in her education. The plucky Ivoe, a native of rural Texas born just after Emancipation, receives an unlikely scholarship to attend college in Austin, where she studies printing and journalism. She returns home overqualified for the kind of work available to young black women. Under the forces of power and prejudice, the Williams family will ultimately fracture and be forced to migrate to the city, where new challenges await. Ivoe finds love and purpose in work, eventually founding a Kansas City newspaper called Jam! on the Vine, which pursues the rights of African-Americans and women.

The connections to Wells-Barnett’s life are vague; the vibrancy of Ivoe’s trials and loves are a credit to Barnett the author. Sensual evocations are among Jam!‘s greatest triumphs: the Texas dirt and the tomato vines it sprouts, the savory jam crafted by Ivoe’s mother from their fruit, the family’s music and laughter, blood and pain and pleasure. Ivoe is stimulated by her study at the university, the tactile challenge of setting type and the intellectual exertions of politics and social justice. She grows from a gutsy child to become a famished student, then a frustrated young woman and, finally, finds love and joy and danger, in the Red Summer of race riots in 1919.

It is no exaggeration that the beautifully written Jam! on the Vine recalls Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Sensuality, pleasure and pain, as well as the righteous difficulties of the early civil rights movement, yield a story that is passionate, inspired and lively. Barnett’s (editor of I Got Thunder and Off the Record) prose flows with rhythm and feeling, and her characters both major and minor are intriguing. While Ivoe’s hard, important work and her love of written words will endear her especially to readers interested in the history of journalism and the civil rights movement, this literary novel has broad appeal.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 jars.

The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella

The unlikely, humorous, heartrending story of a teenaged female wrestler in the 1950s.

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Angelina Mirabella’s debut novel, The Sweetheart, opens with an older woman’s reflections, then quickly flashes back to 1953 Philadelphia. Leonie Putzkammer is an awkward, bookish teen with no self-confidence, despite a figure her peers would kill for and some tumbling skills left over from gymnastics. When she is recruited to attend Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling in Florida, a star-struck Leonie is sure everything will change. She gains a tag-team partner, Screaming Mimi, and a boyfriend, Spider, as well as an intimidating coach. Soon she is assigned a new name, Gwen Davies–later, Gorgeous Gwen Davies and, finally, the Sweetheart.

Many readers will sympathize with the older protagonist when she addresses her younger self: “What you have wanted more than anything was change… but the idea that the old life would no longer be waiting here for you is hard to accept.” The heart of this story addresses questions of autonomy, self-determination and regret: how to become someone different without entirely losing your past, how to recover from making the wrong choices or even how to tell when you have made wrong choices. Told from an unusual retrospective second-person perspective and perfectly evoking 1950s culture, The Sweetheart is often hilarious but also filled with the wholly realistic yearnings and heartbreak of young-adult reinvention, and is peopled by familiar, sympathetic characters. Mirabella’s impressive debut offers laughter, tears, failure, redemption, striving, success and a sweetheart we can’t help but love.


This review originally ran in the January 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 MoonPies.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (audio)

**AVOID SPOILERS!** (There are none below.) As a commenter pointed out, there may be spoilers even on the dust jacket or other coverings for the book or audiobook itself. Proceed cautiously. Just trust me and read the book itself.


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This is one of those with a big reveal to it that *makes* the book. For the love of whatever you love, please, avoid all discussion of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves until you read it. Excepting this review, of course, which promises to be spoiler-free and is therefore safe, and brief.

I’m glad Liz recommended this one to me, on audio specifically, and I shall do the same. Get the audiobook, which is beautifully and feelingly narrated by Orlagh Cassidy. Our young female protagonist/narrator Rosemary is a little troubled, but likeable right from the start. She uses the unusual second-person voice, breaking down the fourth wall to talk directly to her audience: “you may have the impression from what I’ve just said, that… but here’s another thing I’d like you to know…” Her story is compelling from the beginning, and involves a number of different threads and an occasionally disjointed timeline. I don’t know what else I can tell you without giving it all away. It’s about family, self-determination, the nature of memory. Life. You will laugh and be amazed. Go out and get this book now, and don’t let anybody tell you anything about it. Oh – a little bird told me Karen Joy Fowler gave away the big secret in a book talk somewhere. She is an outstanding writer, but apparently a potentially disastrous speaker. Avoid her talks til you’ve read the book. Go read the book. That’s all.


Rating: 8 studies quoted.

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil

The lengthy and bizarre search for a childhood bully, with humor, pathos and redemption.

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During his single year at a boarding school in Switzerland, sixth-grader Allen Kurzweil roomed with a boy improbably named Cesar Augustus, who bullied him physically and emotionally. Then Allen moved on, lived all over the world, found a successful career in journalism and writing, married a French anthropologist and had a son. But throughout those intervening years, Allen was bothered by the memory of Cesar.

In researching Cesar’s likely whereabouts, Allen dismisses false leads and relives old trauma. Eventually, he finds his childhood tormentor in a nearly unbelievable narrative: Cesar was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a criminal scam so outlandish that it reads like a novel. Allen Kurzweil’s Whipping Boy is a work of nonfiction, with no names changed; just when it starts feeling like a thriller, it gets stranger than fiction.

Kurzweil is obsessed with Cesar, his “menace and muse.” He wants to right wrongs, to avenge himself and to solve a mystery. He also wants to stick up for his son, also bullied at a young age. Along the way, he is distracted–as is the reader–by the monstrosity and incredibility of con men who claim to be royalty, with costumes and jewelry to match, who manage to defraud eminent savvy businesspeople; and he is forced to consider questions about the nature of memory. But in the end, courage and closure are the rewards for a heartfelt, very funny, poignant and extremely weird story to which Kurzweil’s self-deprecatory voice is perfectly suited.


This review originally ran in the January 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 foosballs.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

A delicious, deceptively simple tale of art, crime, love and betrayal.

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In the opening pages of Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, Julie from California is working in Paris at an antiques repair shop, polishing and replacing hinges, cleaning beadwork and resetting jewels. Except her name is really Grace, and she’s from Garland, Tennessee. Two young men are about to be paroled from prison in Garland, and Grace is nervous, because her name is not all she’s lying about. From this beginning, we follow Grace back in time: her unhappy home life, her great luck in being loved by a popular boy from a good family, her joy at being his mother’s daughter, her departure for college in New York City, her work in art appraisal and her ignominious retreat from all of the above. Only at the end of the novel do we learn how exactly Grace landed in Paris with a new name, a forged biography and a fear of her past.

Unbecoming is beguiling: a love story with twists and turns; the tale of an insecure, insufficiently loved girl from the wrong side of the tracks; a delightfully nuanced narrative about trust and trustworthiness. Grace is endearing and intriguing, although she is not all (or is more than) she seems. Layers of lies, longing and duplicity recall The Talented Mr. Ripley, another chilling masterpiece of dishonesty’s helpless acceleration. Scherm’s light, confident touch with pacing, suspense and characterization is pitch-perfect. Beware staying up all night to rush through this engrossing, enchanting debut.


This review originally ran in the January 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 trillions.

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, less glorious years in Hollywood, fictionalized with nuance and grace.

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“A poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at boarding school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner out West,” F. Scott Fitzgerald “knew better than anyone how to live in an imaginary world.” In West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan (The Odds) fictionalizes Fitzgerald’s final four years in the late ’30s, spent in Hollywood scraping by, writing and editing screenplays while Zelda rides out her own ups and downs at Highland Hospital. Their years of wealth, fame and adventure are behind them, and though he lives modestly by Hollywood standards, Scott’s finances are increasingly desperate, with Zelda’s hospital bills to pay, their daughter Scottie’s tuition and his own living expenses.

Between pills to sleep and pills to wake up, Scott struggles to hide his heavy drinking from his employers and eventually falls in love. He continues to visit Zelda as her mental illness persists and sees Scottie on holidays, while his girlfriend, Sheilah Graham, barely tolerates his drinking (not to mention his marriage). In these years, Fitzgerald begins but does not finish The Last Tycoon, his last manuscript.

O’Nan brilliantly, sensitively portrays Fitzgerald’s internal drama with a tone of wry wit and doom. The nuances of Zelda’s character are apt and appropriate, and appearances by Dorothy Parker, Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart add color and humor. O’Nan’s characterization and dialogue are spot-on, and his choice of the less-glamorous years of his subject’s life yields a beautiful, elegiac novel worthy of its model.


This review originally ran in the January 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 Cokes.

The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care by Angelo E. Volandes, M.D.

A physician’s fervent quest for better information about medical options for patients nearing their end, and the steps necessary to make those choices clear.

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In The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care, Angelo Volandes, a medical doctor for decades, focuses on the extensive, intensive, intrusive medical interventions that patients routinely receive at the end of life, many of which extend life by a matter of hours or days or not at all, while decreasing its quality substantially. He earnestly argues that every patient should be offered the option to choose among three broad categories of care: life-prolonging, limited medical and comfort care–in other words, the choice between quantity and quality of life. The Conversation advocates for all patients and families to receive information about what end of life care looks like within these three categories, and firmly states the importance of patients, families and medical professionals having what he calls the Conversation about end-of-life wishes openly and often.

To make these points, Volandes describes his upbringing as the child of Greek immigrants and the impact it has had on his life: from his start as a student of Socrates and a Greek diner cook, his stint as a philosophy major and then his work as a medical practitioner, he has been interested in what good life (and good death) are. Appropriately, Volandes neither attempts nor claims to be impersonal or unemotional about this charged topic; rather, he brings his personal and professional experiences as well as research to his impassioned argument.

The majority of the book is devoted to stories of patients, families and circumstances–and Volandes’s own attempts, good and bad, at approaching the Conversation. With names changed, these are real-life anecdotes of choices made with more or less preparation and knowledge of what a decision will entail, or what an incapacitated patient would have wanted. The last quarter of the book is composed of several appendices and a lengthy, narrative notes section, all of which provides substantive hands-on advice aimed variously at the patient, or the patient’s spouse or children. The Conversation is a how-to manual, enlivened by engaging–if occasionally painful–true stories. Volandes makes his points succinctly and convincingly and offers readers the tools to make change within their own lives.


This review originally ran in the January 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 people.
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