Local Book Review: Tupelo by Alec Clayton

Let me start by admitting that I don’t usually read books about the American South. I find them tedious and often, as dry as a sad packet of army-issued crackers. I’m not a big fan of authobiographical-ish tales of young men fumbling through their youth, either (get out of here, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, scat!). So, when I started reading Tupelo by Alec Clayton, I was less than thrilled to realize I was in for both.

But like a good friend and a fellow, local writer (one who doesn’t want to avoid eye contact with an author I see at least once a month and very much enjoy chatting with), I decided to read the first quarter of Tupelo before passing judgement on it or tossing it back on the bookshelf. Plus, Clayton is a damn good author and storyteller, so his book, Tupelo, deserves a fair shake, right?

The answer is yes. And I’ll fast forward a few days and a lot of cups of coffee here to a moment when I realized I was thoroughly enjoying Tupelo, despite my early misgivings. And no, it didn’t take the first quarter of the book to get me there, either. It simply took the realization that this story, the story of a young man and his family navigating through an evolving cultural landscape, is told with a hell of a lot more honesty than usual. Oh, and the overall quality of his storytelling was on point, too.

Set in a small Mississippi town struggling to adjust to change during the mid-twentieth century, Tupelo could have been a book about a young, white and male protagonist making all the right moves during his youth and eventually, bridging the cultural and political gap between whites and African American’s during the Civil Rights Movement. It could have been a hero’s journey full of moments where the protagonist did exactly the right thing at exactly the right time and played a pivotal role in changing the world around him. But it isn’t. It’s much more honest than that.

Clayton provides a truer picture of what it was like to grow up in the confusing and racially and politically charged times of the 1950’s and 60’s. His protagonist doesn’t make all the right moves, he isn’t always at the center of the action, and he doesn’t try to cover up the unpopular or insensitive views of the people in his life. Instead, Tupelo offers readers a realistic look at a family and community who aren’t only concerned with the civil rights movement, but are entrenched in their own ups and downs, budding and failing relationships and struggles to survive. It’s about the change, and lack thereof, that a young man, his family and his community are all facing in the midst of an evolving cultural landscape.

And to be perfectly honest, I think Clayton’s focus on representing his youth honestly and without unnecessary fanfare would have been lost on readers if Clayton wasn’t such a strong storyteller. Tupelo is full of sidebar adventures and peripheral characters that eventually circle back to the main plot-line, but the digressions don’t feel unnecessary because Clayton does an excellent job weaving them into the fabric of his larger story. Tupelo’s characters have a healthy dose of positive and negative personality traits, too, which keeps readers invested in the story even when it’s taken a detour. And true to his promise, Clayton ties up any loose ends before readers reach the end of their literary journey.

I was pleasantly surprised to realize how much I was enjoying Tupelo as I turned the last few pages of the book, despite being very sure I’d dislike it in the beginning. And for all you readers out there who’re like me, who might be thinking Tupelo isn’t your cup of tea because of its genre or content, I say give it a go. The honest narrative and strength of storytelling alone will be more than enough to to get you hooked, trust me. Tupelo is a good book, by a great storyteller. Don’t pass it up.

 

Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love

Who reads crime thrillers anymore?

Oh, that’s right, everyone but me. I did give it an honest go earlier this summer, though, when I picked up Lola, a fast-paced crime thriller, by Melissa Scrivner Love. Did I fall in love with the book? Not exactly. But I did enjoy it, and I think people who usually read books in this genre will like it, too, even if they won’t admit it to their friends.

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So why’d I pick up Lola if I’m not a fan of books in this genre? For one reason, really: the protagonist is a fierce, Mexican-american woman who secretly leads a gang in South Central L.A. and I wanted to live vicariously through her.

And isn’t that the whole point of opening up some books? To step into the lives of outrageous characters and for a few, brief hours, living their adventures as if they were our own? Don’t we all want to be kingpins and spies and space travelers? I know I do, and that’s the experience I was looking for when I read Lola. 

Scrivner Love’s story follows Lola and her gang, The Crenshaw Six, as they struggle to stay alive after the cartel taps them for an impossible job. No one but Lola’s crew knows she’s actually in charge, though, and she operates in secrecy under the guise of being nothing more than the fake leader, Garcia’s, girlfriend.  As the story progresses, Lola’s life is threatened by the cartel and the world she’s built for her makeshift family starts to crumble. Drama ensues.

Some of the better qualities of the book are that it’s quick-paced, there’s rich character development, and the author wasn’t afraid to delve into tricky, but often real, complications in life, including abuse, betrayal, and poverty. And like I mentioned before, I appreciated that the protagonist is a minority woman who isn’t weak or enmeshed in a sappy love affair. Instead, she’s (ahem) a mother-fuckin’ boss. This, in and of itself, was very refreshing.

Unfortunately, the book has a few problems that I couldn’t overlook while reading, starting with the quality of the writing. The narrative is choppy and overly dramatic, with cheesy lines sprinkled across each page. Every time I opened Lola, I felt like I was reading an unadapted movie script instead of a novel. There were also too many antagonists without any redeeming qualities. I mean, we all love to hate a guy, but a story is much more interesting if you give me a few reasons not to. 

Overall, I’d only recommend this book to someone who really enjoys crime-thrillers, or maybe to someone who can’t let go of Law and Order (just let it go, guys, let it go…). I would not recommend it to any of my lit-loving friends. As soon as I finished reading it, Lola went straight into my guilty-pleasure reading pile. And if any of you were to find it in stashed somewhere in my apartment, say behind On Tyrrany or The Giver, I’d probably say “I’m just holding it for a friend” and look the other way.

 

*Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review. 

Local Book Review: Hagridden by Samuel Snoek-Brown

How often do you pick up a book from one of your favorite authors and hope and wish and pray it’s as good as the last? I do it every time, but truth be told, only about half the books I read live up to my expectations. Lucky for me, Samuel Snoek-Brown’s Hagridden did, in fact, live up to my expectations as I read it while camping in wilds of Utah.

Hagridden is a historical fiction novel and it’s set in the U.S. South as the Civil War came to a close. It follows two women who’re struggling to survive in the bayou and rebuilt their lives with the little (humanity) they’ve got left. The book reads very much like a Cormac McCarthy novel, both in tone and content, but it’s much easier to palate during the gritty moments (read: less depressing and less descriptive of gore … most of the time). I was also pleasantly surprised by the author’s dedication to staying within historical bounds. As someone who doesn’t read historical fiction very often, I’d say this is a great book to start with.

One thing that piqued my interest while reading was that Snoek-Brown doesn’t name either of his protagonists, leaving an air of mystery around the two women. Is the author saying we’re all capable of ugly, animalistic behavior under the right circumstances? Or asking readers to consider how quickly the line between being civilized and being a savage is erased when faced with the harsh realities of survival? I’ll let you read and decide for yourself, and maybe one day we’ll discuss it when we bump into each other at a coffee shop (this is inevitable, trust me).

Lastly, of my favorite aspects of Hagridden was how similarly it reads to Snoek-Brown’s short stories, which were some of the best I’ve read over the last year. Believe me when I say the short stories of Box Cutters are just as good as those of Helen Oyeyemi, author of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours or Primo Levi, author of The Periodic Table. Snoek-Brown’s work, whether in short story or novel form, is consistently dark and eerie, and he’s managed to retain a distinctive, original voice throughout. Overall, I thoroughly enjoy his writing, Hagridden included.