Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

I refuse to believe that Black Cake is author Charmaine Wilkerson’s first novel. It is just too darn good to be her first try. I learned from reading the book jacket that she is a nonfiction writer of some standing, but her first novel showcases a mastery of fiction that few writers ever achieve.

The eponymous black cake is a Jamaican rum cake that Eleanor Bennett has left in the freezer for her children, Byron and Benedetta, to share after her death. She has also left them a recording that contains many revelations about her life, that she never chose to share with them while she was alive.

The story is told from several different characters’ points of view, and one of the greatest achievements of Wilkerson’s work is that each character’s voice rings true. The technique of multiple narrators is difficult for even seasoned novelists to manage, and rarely do all the narrators feel equally authentic. But Wilkerson writes the voice of an elderly Chinese-Jamaican man as easily as she writes a fortyish Black American woman.

The layers of symbolism are something else that one doesn’t expect to encounter in a first novel. The black cake itself, made from ingredients gathered to the Jamaica from around the world, is the concrete symbol of Caribbean identity (or lack thereof). Eleanor’s turbulent narrative highlights how she struggled to establish her own identity over and over again, while all of her children face identity crises in the aftermath of her death. Wilkerson beautifully integrates symbols and meditations on the theme of identity into every character’s arc.

My only concern about Charmaine Wilkerson is that Black Cake will be her first and last novel. Occasionally, a novelist produces an earth-shattering debut, then nothing (notable) ever again. These one-hit wonder novels are often semi-autobiographical–To Kill A Mockingbird, Bastard Out of Carolina–and seem to be the authors’ cris de coeur about the conflicts in their own lives. I desperately hope that Wilkerson can go to the well again and again, because I very much enjoy reading her writing.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC WILKERSON)

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

Booth, as the title would suggest, is a fictionalized biography of not just presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, but his entire family as well. (And they were a particularly interesting family!) I think it was the author’s intent to show John Wilkes within his family milieu to both humanize him and suggest how he came to be an Angry White Man With a Gun. I don’t think the author entirely succeeds in this aim, and as a result the novel stumbles where it might have soared.

If you are not up on the nineteenth-century theater, you probably don’t know that John was merely the least of the Booth family members performing upon the stage. His father, Junius Booth, was considered the greatest tragedian of his time, and his brothers Junius Jr. and Edwin were well-regarded actors in their own rights. Even his brother-in-law, Sleeper Clarke, a comedian, was better known than John. Sisters Rosalie and Asia and a largely absent brother, Joe, round out the six Booth siblings who survived to adulthood.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different sibling, which gives the narrative a strange and halting gait. The sisters are by far the most compelling narrators, especially Rosalie, an invalid who hears the ghosts of her dead siblings and tipples gin in her tea. I would have like to see the entire book written from Rosalie’s point of view. The author also inexplicably chose to preface each chapter with a quotation and a short vignette from the life of Abraham Lincoln–John Wilkes Booth’s fated victim. This breaks up the cadence even more, with no benefit to the novel that I can discern.

The author has obviously done extensive research on the Booth family, and the descriptions of daily life are beautifully drawn and highly realistic. I think she might have had better luck writing a nonfiction biography of the Booth family, or else a less ambitious novel focusing on a single sibling (Rosalie is my pick, but Asia Booth Clarke would be good too).

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC FOWLER)

Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

I should know by now that Reese Witherspoon and I do not agree on books. I haven’t liked a Reese’s Book Club pick since the very first one (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine). They are usually passable but bland, with bright covers and voices that aren’t too edgy. Rather like a Reese Witherspoon movie, now that I think about it.

Sankofa, by Chibundu Onuzo, checks all those boxes. Its glorious cover and promise of a female African story drew me in despite my misgivings about Reese’s picks. It starts off with an intriguing premise: Anna, a middle-aged British woman, empty of nest and newly separated from her husband, discovers her father’s identity. The former Francis Aggrey, a student in London when he met Anna’s mother, is now Kofi Adjei, the retired dictator of a small (fictional) African nation.

This discovery launches Anna on a voyage both literal and figurative, to the country of Bamana and through her own identity. And then the author wimps out. She doesn’t push Anna through any real crises–even an overnight stay in jail is cushioned with kindness and rescue–and seems to sand off the sharpest edges of her self-examination. One expects this sort of thing in a young-adult novel, but a work of literary fiction for adult readers should be unflinching. The transformation Anna undergoes should not be as easy or gentle as Obuzo depicts.

This review is also colored by my recent reading of two excellent works of fiction by women authors of the African diaspora. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo, are both superior novels focusing on female African stories. Choose either of those before you pick up Sankofa. And it was no surprise to me that Evaristo’s novel captured the 2019 Booker Prize–I always like the Booker Prize picks!

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC ONUZO)

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

My husband and I were about halfway through The Many Saints of Newark when I suddenly slapped my forehead and cried out, “‘Many saints’! Moltisanti!” Long-suffering Hubby just shook his head at me and sighed. The Many Saints of Newark is, indeed, the story of fictional mobster Dickie Moltisanti, and serves as a prequel to the action of the TV show The Sopranos. It is a real treat for viewers like Hubby who are both fans of the show and quick on the uptake. Even I enjoyed it, despite being neither a Sopranos aficionado nor a quick study.

The plot is standard mob-movie fare: Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is a low-level member of the DiMeo crime family in Newark in the 1960s. His father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta) Moltisanti, brings home a young and luscious new wife (Michela De Rossi) from Italy. Lust for power, money, and sex drives Dickie to ever-worsening actions. Watching it all is his young nephew, Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini). The future boss wants to play it straight, but he idolizes his uncle and starts moving dangerously closer to a life of crime.

Undoubtedly, the best part of The Many Saints of Newark is spotting all the Sopranos references. Some of them are obvious, even for me–young guns Silvio Dante and Paulie Gualtieri are hilariously accurate copies of their future selves. Vera Farmiga delivers the best acting in the film with her note-perfect rendition of the hectoring Livia Soprano. And Michael Gandolfini, real-life son of the late James Gandolfini who won three Emmy awards portraying Tony Soprano, looks and moves so much like his dad it brought tears to my eyes.

Other references are more like Easter eggs, only apparent to the truly devoted fans. As the characters on-screen discussed young Tony’s likelihood of making the varsity football team in the fall, my husband whispered to me, “He never had the makings of a varsity athlete”–a quotable line from Tony’s Uncle Junior in the original show. Just then, the 1960s version of Uncle Junior intoned, “He doesn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete.” Darling Hubby actually squealed with delight.

The ending of The Many Saints of Newark involves a great twist, and yet more references. When the first notes of the Sopranos theme song come up with the credits, the viewer is satisfied with the past and primed for the future–even though we already know what happens. Hubby has already floated the idea of rewatching the entire run of The Sopranos, and I just might join him this time.

Located in Adult DVDs (DVD MANY)

All That She Carried by Tiya Miles

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)
All That She Carried, winner of the 2021 National Book Award for nonfiction, is a must-read for anyone interested in American history, genealogy, or museums. Author Tiya Miles begins with a cotton sack–carried by a nine-year-old girl named Ashley and embroidered with Ashley’s story by her granddaughter 70 years later. From the sack and its five-line message, Miles traces the lives of Black women from the 1830s through the 1970s.

Miles uses almost every discipline in her quest to find out all she can about Ashley, her mother Rose, her daughter Rosa, and her granddaughter Ruth. She points out that because women–especially enslaved women–have rarely been viewed as worthy of mention in the historical record, a researcher has to get very creative when searching for clues about their lives. Genealogy, botany, art history, sewing, and literary criticism all take center stage in different chapters. In this multidisciplinary approach Miles emulates the former occupant of her Harvard office, distinguished women’s historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. (You’ll remember her from the oft-quoted line, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”)

My only quibble with the book is Miles’s writing style. She has also written novels, and in this nonfiction book I worry that she takes too much poetic license in her descriptions. The act of writing history does require some imagination, but “hard” history should never give more detail than the author is prepared to back up with research. (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.)

I sincerely hope that Tiya Miles continues with her innovative approach to seeking and writing Black women’s history. I look forward to more excellent books from her in the future.

Available through the Bridges Library System

The Bloodless Boy by Robert J. Lloyd

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

The Bloodless Boy is the very compelling title of Robert J. Lloyd’s debut historical mystery novel. Set in Restoration London among the lights of the fledgling Royal Society, The Bloodless Boy sparkles with historical detail and page-turning action. The author’s website says he is hard at work on a sequel, and I cannot wait to read it.

The story does begin a bit slowly, taking several chapters to introduce the characters and set up the mystery. Three men are summoned to the bank of London’s River Fleet to inspect the body of a young child who has been drained of his blood. Justice Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, Curator of the Royal Society Robert Hooke, and Hooke’s assistant Harry Hunt then embark upon an investigation into the murder. Harry Hunt eventually emerges as the main character, and develops into a regular Indiana Jones of intellect and action. Any fan of Dan Brown or Bernard Cornwell will instantly recognize the type.

Sometimes Harry’s escapes seem a bit far-fetched–can one really use pitch to seal a doorway so tightly that a raging fire can’t get through?–but it’s all in good fun. And as a romp through the colorful Restoration period and the checkered history of early modern science, The Bloodless Boy is quite fun.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC LLOYD)

Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

I have been reading the Outlander books for about twenty years, and I say now with the greatest affection that it’s time for the saga to end. The adventures of Jamie and Claire–and now their children and grandchildren–have been ever so entertaining, but I sincerely hope that the next book–the tenth in the series–will be the last.

The ninth book in the Outlander series, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone, seems to acknowledge that the end is drawing nigh: author Diana Gabaldon teases the idea of Claire’s eventual death right in the title. (Spoiler: She doesn’t die.) But the 800 or so pages of GTTB only advance the story about one year, plodding through the seasons on Fraser’s Ridge one meal and bear attack at a time.

The reason for the slow development is that the reader is following five major storylines: one for Jamie and Claire, one for their daughter Brianna, one for their nephew Ian, one for friend Lord John Grey, and one for William (whose connection to the family is a major spoiler and so won’t be revealed here). When you split 800 pages into 5 sections, each storyline only gets a modest 160 pages. So instead of a rushing river of pounding narrative–as it was in the days of just Jamie and Claire–Outlander has become a delta of meandering streams.

I don’t want to see this grand adventure series continue into books eleven, twelve, and fifteen, following each of the different storylines to yet more storylines. Outlander gained its popularity on the strength of Jamie and Claire’s epic love story, and they don’t deserve to become supporting cast in their own saga. My message to Diana Gabaldon, as both an adoring fan and a discerning reader, is this: Bring Jamie and Claire’s story to a close with a bang, not a whimper.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC GABALDON)

We Know You Remember by Tove Alsterdal

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

We Know You Remember is the English-language debut novel for popular Swedish crime writer Tove Alsterdal. But don’t be fooled by that word “debut”–this is a well-crafted mystery, by a writer at the top of her game.

We Know You Remember is a complex story, but it begins with a murder. Olof Hagstrom, who has not visited his family in more than 20 years, decides on a whim to stop when he is driving near his father’s home. When he goes inside, he discovers that his father has been murdered. The investigation leads down twisted channels into the past, turning up more crimes–and more suspects–at every turn.

One of the investigators, detective Eira Sjodin, finds she has more than one special connection to the case. She pursues the Hagstrom case determinedly, challenging her superior officers, her skills as an officer, and even her own beliefs. Eira Sjodin reminds me of Thora Gudmundsdottir, the detective in Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s excellent Icelandic crime series. Alsterdal is reported to be working on a sequel to We Know You Remember, and I’m crossing my fingers that it will again star Eira Sjodin.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC ALSTERDAL)

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

The Devil and the Dark Water is billed as a classic locked-room mystery, and that is certainly what it delivers–and not much else. Though the mystery is a first-rate challenge for the armchair detectives, those who prefer a little bit of literary merit with their mysteries will be left unsatisfied.

The setting is a ship, bound for Amsterdam from Batavia in 1634, at the height of the power of the Dutch East India Company. Among the ship’s passengers are the governor general, his wife and daughter, his mistress, and his second-in-command, while locked in the ship’s brig is Sammy Pipps, the world’s greatest detective. Also aboard are Sammy’s bodyguard, a priest and his assistant, a greedy captain, a feckless purser, and innumerable bloodthirsty soldiers and sailors. And, apparently, a demon.

As the demon wreaks havoc abovedecks and below, the governor general’s wife teams up with Pipps’s bodyguard to stop whatever (or whoever) has summoned the evil. But every time they seem to be approaching a solution, a new problem appears. All the twists will definitely keep the reader guessing, but I found myself not really caring much about the outcome because I didn’t care about the characters. They are flat and uninteresting, and the dialogue falls somewhere between stilted and downright unnatural. The setting, which might be so evocative, is used almost entirely as a prop for new discoveries and given zero ink in its own right. And it’s best not to get me started on the historical accuracy.

Read The Devil and the Dark Water if you don’t have any friends handy to play Clue with. If you want a mystery with great 17th-century Dutch period detail, try The Miniaturist instead.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC TURTON)

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

The Guncle is a very contemporary novel, with a moral that is timeless. The premise is one that I can’t imagine in a mainstream fiction book even twenty years ago: two young children who have recently lost their mother to cancer and their father to rehab move in with their out-and-proud gay uncle (guncle) in Palm Springs. Hilarity ensues, as it always does in Steven Rowley’s novels. The kids learn to enjoy a leisurely brunch (and lupper), the Tooth Fairy brings signed playbills, and they all celebrate Christmas in July–complete with a pink tinsel tree.

The Guncle isn’t all fun and games, though. Guncle Patrick struggles to find a way to help the kids talk about their grief, and to deal with his own. When he finally hits upon something that seems to work–making funny YouTube videos together–it brings his disapproving sister down on them with a fury. He is also trying to figure out his stalled acting career and a new romance, and the stress seems almost overwhelming. But Patrick handles everything with a great sense of humor and a huge heart.

Throughout the book, Patrick teaches the kids “Guncle Rules” to live by, including: cameras are not always your friend, if you can’t tone it–tan it, and (my personal favorite) fun drinks make everything more interesting. But the rule I took away from reading The Guncle is a life lesson for everyone: as long as you do things with love, you get it right in the end.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC ROWLEY)