‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ reminds us that we inherit the pain of our ancestors

The songs in Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” are a litany of moans. The moans of a 12-year-old black boy killed after being wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. The moans of an 18-year-old black man shot by a racist because of the color of his skin.


“Sing, Unburied, Sing”
By Jesmyn Ward 
304 pp. Scribner. $26.

They haunt their loved ones who can’t get over the deaths of their son, brother, uncle, friend and in turn, their ancestors inherit their songs.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” isn’t a happy book. Ward fills it with a chorus of pain, sung through the alternating first-person viewpoints of three generations of black narrators: JoJo, a 13-year-old practically raising his three-year-old sister Michaela; Leonie, JoJo’s largely absent mother; and Richie, a ghost who knew JoJo’s grandfather and Leonie’s father Riv when he was still a slave.

These characters moan too, crying about neglectful mothers or ungrateful children or abandoning friends. JoJo learns that Leonie unintentionally kills things (like their beta fish that died from starvation). Leonie learns that her children prefer to comfort each other (her three-year-old prefers her son’s parenting over hers).

All are restless.

Even more so when JoJo and Michaela’s father, Michael, a white man who was imprisoned for drug charges, was released from prison and Leonie takes her children on an uncomfortable car ride to pick Michael up.

Through Ward’s words, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” shows us what it’s like to be black in America — to almost get shot by a police officer because they think you have a gun in your pocket, to be thought of as rude or lazy or less than by strangers who don’t even know you and don’t want to know you, and to be haunted by slavery, still.

The ghosts of racism and slavery don’t go away. They moan and sing and shout.


‘Red Clocks’ shows you what it’s like to be a woman

Leni Zumas “Red Clocks” is a book about cannots. How a woman cannot be published because she’s not a man. How a woman cannot finish her law degree because she became a mother. How a woman cannot become a parent because she’s not married. How a woman cannot speak about sexual or physical abuse because no one would believe her. And “how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight against the will of most of the people.”

Limiting a woman’s right to choose even further is the 28th Amendment of the United States, also known as the Personhood Amendment, which overturned Roe v. Wade, making it absolutely illegal for anyone to have an abortion.


“Red Clocks” 
By Leni Zumas. 
351 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $26.

In Zumas’ dystopian near-future, anyone caught having or aiding in an abortion would legally be tried for murder. And anyone attempting to flee to Canada to terminate an unwanted pregnancy would be returned to the United States and promptly arrested.

Because abortions are a federal crime under this Personhood Amendment, the theory was that more children would be available for adoption and that there would be no need for in-vitro fertilization.

Public Law 116-72, also known as Every Child Needs Two, would prohibit single parents from adopting a child; only married couples would be permitted to legally adopt.

To show what this world looks like, Zumas braids the narratives of four unhappy woman living in the quiet fishing and whaling village of Newville, Ore.

Roberta “Ro” Stephens is a 40-something-year-old single history teacher, list maker and researcher who desperately wants to raise a child of her own despite not being able to have any.

Stay-at-home mom Susan Korsmos is trapped in a loveless marriage for the sake of her two children. She desperately wants leave her lazy husband Didier, but thinking of her children bouncing between two single parents guilts her in staying.

Matilda “Mattie” Quarles is sixteen and pregnant. Mattie desperately wants to end the clump of cells growing inside her because she knows what it’s like to be adopted and to spend every day wondering who her biological mother is. She doesn’t want her child wondering who her real mother was and why his or her mother didn’t keep her.

And Mattie’s birth mother, Gin Percival, is a hermit and suspected witch doctor who illegally heals women with herbal remedies.

These women tell you what it’s like to be a woman living in a male-dominated world  — to constantly live in doubt and fear exacerbated by laws created by men. It’s time that we listened to them.

When you can’t stop thinking about ‘Turtles All The Way Down’

John Green’s newest young adult novel “Turtles All The Way Down” begins with a fictional character wondering if she’s a fictional character from someone else’s imagination.

And she is entirely fictional, conjured out of Green’s mind, but she feels very real.

That realness comes from Green, who like his creation, 16-year-old Aza Holmes, has crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Like his character Aza, he sometimes loses himself in his thoughts and can’t stop thinking about it how the bacteria around him could make him sick, how the food he eats might be poisoned, or how to write a novel that could follow the smashing success of book-turned-movie “The Fault in Our Stars” (2012).


“Turtles All The Way Down”
By John Green.
286 pp. Dutton. $19.99

“Of course, you pretend to be the author. You have to,” writes Green. “But I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”

Aza tries to tell her own story too. She really does. But it’s hard when all her brain thinks about is if she’s real. She thinks of herself as more a sidekick to her best friend Daisy rather than the main character, really. That’s why when billionaire Russell Davis Pickett goes missing and Daisy wants to find him to get the reward the police are offering for information leading to his arrest, Aza passively goes along with it.

Daisy knows Aza has an in. Aza used to go Sad Camp — a.k.a. camp for kids whose parent(s) died — with Pickett’s oldest teenaged son, Davis, whose family’s mansion is 10 minutes from her house. And so the plan is to get close to Davis again and find out where his missing dad is.

This is one of the rare John Green novels where you want to spend more time thinking about the boy (the Miles to Alaska of “Looking for Alaska”, the Colin to Katharine in “The Abundance of Katherines” or the Quentin to Margo in “Paper Towns”) rather than the book’s quirky teenaged heroine. Perhaps that’s because Davis is the tragically abandoned, wonderfully nerdy, articulate and misunderstood teenaged billionaire who looks at stars, watches space movies and writes poetry in his spare time (Do those really exist in real life?). But mostly, it’s probably because you’re in Aza’s mind and her consciousness has you picking at your blisters, slabbing on hand sanitizer and breathing into a paper bag too.

If you had some control, you’d put the book down and try to think about the reward at the end of the treasure hunt — just anything other than your own insecurities. But that’s not how anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders work. You can’t stop thinking about how the tiniest of moles might be cancer, how everybody hates you or how you just might be a fictional character in someone else’s story.

Mental illness isn’t easy to live with, but through Green’s novel, you get a peek into its host. Aza can’t kiss anyone without panicking about germs. But somehow, life goes on anyway.

It doesn’t matter what you think of ‘Emma in the Night’

No matter what you think of Wendy Walker’s newest psychological thriller “Emma in the Night,” that doesn’t matter.

“We believe what we want to believe,” writes Walker in the book’s opening lines, perhaps challenging those who dismiss it as a worser version of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or as a book that makes so sense.


“Emma in the Night” 
By Wendy Walker. 
305 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.

The theory in her case is two teenaged sisters went missing on the same night about three years ago. Three years later, Cass Tanner, now 18, returns on her mother’s doorstep. Her older sister, Emma, is still missing, but Cass says Emma’s held captive on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine.

Walker’s book alternates between the first person perspective of 18-year-old Cass and that of 32-year-old Dr. Abigail “Abby” Winter, an FBI forensic psychologist who’s been examining the case with her partner Agent Leo Strauss. (Weirdly enough, since the chapters are titled either “Cass” or “Dr. Winter,” Dr. Winter’s chapters are written in the omniscient third person where the narrator knows what Abby is thinking and feeling — a direct contrast to the “Cass” chapters, which are written in first person.)

These writing conventions make “Emma in the Night” a bit hard to follow, for perhaps both author and reader — especially when you’re reading points of “Dr. Winter” chapters when Cass is supposed to be talking, but speaks as if she’s writing; or when you’re reading Abby chapters where Abby knows exactly what Cass means with a bit of obscure dialogue.

It’s as if Walker is arguing about a pig who could fly with an elephant on its back in a submarine in outer space.

But that’s besides the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter if you hate “Emma in the Night” because there will also be those who love it, its unreliable narrators and it’s plot twists. To borrow Walker’s words, “We believe what we want to believe” — which means it’s pointless to try to convince someone why they need or don’t need to read “Emma in the Night.”

A love like ‘A Million Junes’

Normally I don’t start a book by reading it’s end, but “A Million Junes” ends with a love letter so beautiful that even if you didn’t read the rest of Emily Henry’s 391-page young adult novel, I’d encourage you to read just that.

It’s like that game parents and children play where each ask the other to guess how much they love them — the type of love you want every child to have and know.


“A Million Junes”
By Emily Henry.
391 pp. Razorbill. $17.99.

These feelings are probably why “A Million Junes” feel like the warmest of hugs.

Henry’s book is a ballad about a love that defies death — how a child copes with the death of a beloved parent, whose body is cold even before the book begins.

Jack O’Donnell’s death is the emotional stimulus for much of his daughter’s writing, which one imagines as lyrical as Henry’s own. In it, June O’Donnell tells the tales her father passed down to her — how her great grandfather settled in the Five Fingers and started a cherry farm, how coywolves steal shoes from their backyard, and how their house is haunted by ghosts (which are mostly good).

Both are still playing that game and the child still can’t win. The child, high school student June O’Donnell, loves her dad from the moon and back while her dad, Jack, loves June from beyond.

Love has it’s own rules, of course. It can become boundaries like “if you love me, don’t.” And O’Donnell’s don’t. They don’t go to Five Fingers Falls. And they don’t hang out with their neighbors the Angerts because for generations (at least) whenever O’Donnells and Angerts meet, bad things happen. Bad things like her father’s death.

This becomes problematic when 20-year-old Saul Angert drops out of school and returns home to care for his sick father. June starts seeing Saul hanging around town and her high school. Worst of all, she starts liking him — which seems to defy her dead father’s wishes.

But as June learns, to love is to live — even if it hurts.

Disappear in ‘The Blinds’

If you want to disappear (from the latest sexual harassment scandal, Trump tweet, breaking news push alert, or _______ ) for six hours, pick up Adam Sternbergh’s sci-fi western mystery thriller “The Blinds.” It’s the type of book you get lost in and end up finishing in one sitting.

The name for the book comes from the nickname for Ceasura, Texas — a shoebox type of town in the middle of nowhere where nothing bad ever happens. That changes when someone’s shot dead in a trailer.

To realize how strange that is, there’s a few things you have to understand about Ceasura. First off: it’s in the middle of a desert.

Second off: no one has guns.

And lastly, The Blinds isn’t your normal town.


“The Blinds”
By Adam Sternbergh.
382 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.

The Blinds is the place where people go to disappear from the world when they have exhausted all their other options and have nowhere else to go. It’s a place where there’s no cell phones, no Internet, no guns (except the one the sheriff carries). A place where it’s rude to ask someone about their past.

Since The Blinds was built as a safe haven when a select few can start over without a past, anonymity is key. Everyone is given a new name in The Blinds — even the sheriff and his deputies. (The formula for creating new names is to mash-up first and last names from recognizable celebrities and forgettable vice presidents.)

With these new names and identities, the residents of The Blinds are told they can never have any visitors and they cannot contact or return to the outside world.

This arrangement goes relatively well for a while — until a homicide becomes the catalyst for the town’s unraveling.

Most of the 48 residents in The Blinds don’t remember their lives before The Blinds — even if you asked. A total or partial memory wipe which took away your worst memories was one of The Blinds’ entrance fees. The only people who know their past are Ceasura’s sheriff (whose not actually a sheriff even though everyone calls him one), Calvin Cooper (whom I imagine as Sheriff Hopper from “Stranger Things” — a generally good guy with a few skeletons in his past); and Cooper’s two deputies, Robinson and Dawes.

These three are in charge of figuring out who or what killed a man they don’t even really know.

Closing a chapter: A last look at Potter midnight madness

It all began more than a decade and a half ago when J.K. Rowling penned and released “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” scribbling the blueprints on napkins in cafes. Then 10 years ago, the first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” made it on the silver screen, and every boy and girl Muggle grew up knowing the name of Daniel Radcliffe — whose name became synonymous with his silver-screen persona, “the-boy-who-lived.”

Outside The Elephant House in Edinburgh, U.K

As a kid who grew up with Potter and Rowling’s books, I looked forward to spending sticky, humid summers with the Dursleys, if only to read about and return to Hogwarts and that world of magic and wizardry. Yet years of waiting for book releases and midnight movie showings — seven books and eight movies later — that wait if finally over and many fans like me are closing a chapter to their childhoods.After watching director David Yate’s second film installment of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” at midnight with millions of fans across the country and around world last night, one realizes the love and investment one truly has for these actors and characters. This includes shedding tears for Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and his pensive memories, cheering for Neville Longbottom’s stance (Matthew Lewis) and the Hogwarts professors’ stronghold, appreciating Luna Lovegood’s quirkiness (Evanna Lynch), sympathizing with Lucius (Jason Issacs), Narcissius (Helen McCrory) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and cringing every time a favorite character died as a casualty of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and Harry Potter’s final face-off.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” takes off from where the film’s November release ended and is truly J.K. Rowling’s end game, winning the love and hearts of many dedicated fans dressed in black graduation gowns, round-framed glasses and diagonally striped green, red, yellow or blue ties — a modern Muggle’s wizarding wardrobe. Watching the death toll of characters as well as how seamlessly clues and puzzle pieces fit together, one comes to realize that Rowling is as sneaky as a Slytherin, as witty as a Ravenclaw, as kind a Hufflepuff and as brave as a Gryffindor. For her to share her gift of storytelling with the world is a real treasure — and just like how Potter and the gang parted with their offspring in the epilogue at King’s Cross and Platform 9 and 3/4 19 years later — it’s a treasure that fans and their offspring will enjoy for years to come in books, movies and Pottermore.

Click here for a related post on Part 1 of the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” adventure.