Small Town Tumult in "Beartown", by Fredrik Backman - Book Review

If you pick up Beartown with the hopes of getting all the feels and goosebumps you got from A Man Called Ove, let me dispel you of that thought right now. What you will get is a beautifully written book that tackles a spate of complex issues.

While the thrust of the story centers around a sexual assault, author Fredrik Backman also addresses bullying, immigration, sexual orientation, the meaning of true friendship and what being honorable actually means. Seemingly about small-town living, Beartown, at its core, is about people and human survival, regardless of their locale.

Beartown: A Novel
By Fredrik Backman

Since Beartown was published, the Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement exploded into the forefront of the news and, with them, countless accusations of assaults against high powered males all across the country. Suddenly, women have felt safe coming forward and speaking about their stories of abuse. Hopefully, this global exposure will change the face of sexual harassment and abuse as we know it. 

But not in Beartown. A small, dying Swedish town where hockey is the biggest commodity, rapes simply do not occur. Especially by a star hockey player who is the only hope of leading the high school team to victory in its first-time appearance in the national championship game. Once the accusations are made by a teenage girl who was drunk at a party, the lines are drawn and drawn hard. Those who believe him, those who believe her. And those who are inclined to give the accused a pass for the 'better of the whole' because they see the outcome of the hockey game as the town’s only chance of survival.

It is infuriating yet all too similar to what is happening in our daily news. Backman writes with a deft touch about how a sexual assault can rock a community on micro and macro levels. He shows the fierce loyalty of parents who close ranks around their children and support them unwaveringly even though one of them has to be lying. He exposes how the importance of an event – in this case, a hockey championship – can be deemed vastly more important by people who should do better than a criminal investigation.

Even though the book is a couple of years old now, it is hard to imagine one more relevant in our current turbulent times. Not necessarily a feel-good read, but perhaps one that should be required.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

 

Mini Book Reviews: Thriller Edition

The Walls
By Hollie Overton

The Walls, by Hollie Overton - Kristy Tucker works as a public information officer at a death row prison facility in Texas navigating between inmates, the press, and prison officials. Despite her longing desire to quit and do something less soul draining, as a single mom to a teenage boy and a dad with declining health, she needs the paycheck and security of the job. When Lance Dobson walks into her life, she finally feels like she has a partner with whom to share responsibilities and burdens. But there’s more to Lance than meets the eye, and none of it is good. Unfortunately, Kristy is the only one who he shows his sinister side to and it paralyzes her. Until, one day, her animal need for survival kicks in. Despite some holes in the storyline, like a death row inmate racing against the clock to file his final appeal, The Walls will have you racing to the last page. It’ll also have you wondering if there really is such a thing as a ‘criminal’ mind or does that pathos exist in all of us, lurking in our subconscious only to surface in those situations where we see no other way?

Published: 2017
Publisher: Redhook
Elizabeth's Rating: 3½ stars

Good Me Bad Me, by Ali Land - Annie, now known as Milly to hide her identity, is finally freed from the grasps of her murderous mother and is placed with a foster family awaiting one of England’s most publicized trials. A female serial killer of children in her own home, Milly’s mom forced her daughter to witness her crimes and keep her deadly secrets. Milly’s new home life is far from perfect. With a drugged out foster mom and a vicious foster sister, Mike, her foster dad is the only one who is really looking out for her. But are his motives solely altruistic? And is Milly the innocent she appears to be? This book ponders the genetics vs. environment argument behind criminal activity and keeps you guessing until the end who are victims and who are perpetrators. Struggling to find a hero in this story, it is still hard to put down.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Flatiron Books
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 3 stars

I Found You: A Novel
By Lisa Jewell

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell - Alice Lake, eccentric map making artist and single mother of three all from different dads, finds a man stoically sitting on the beach in front of her house in the rain. Frank, as she dubs him because he has lost all memory of himself, stays in her guesthouse and inches into her heart as they try to uncover his past. As the story unravels and the connections between Frank, Alice’s house, and her town deepen, we are faced with the dilemma that Frank is either a murderer or in grave danger because he was witness to one. Which will it be? Jewell’s character development and scenery description elevate this mystery into more than just a riveting story.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Atria Books
                                             Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine - Amber has one goal in life, to become the wife of a New England social and financial elite. And she has her sights set on one mister in particular: Jackson Parrish. Unfortunately for her, he’s currently married to his soul mate, Daphne. But Amber will not be sidelined by something silly like true love. Her calculated moves allow her to worm herself deeper and deeper into the Parrishes’ lives until she’s exactly where she wants to be. Or is she? Despite seemingly playing Daphne like the stupid, spoiled rich girl that she is, perhaps Amber has misjudged Daphne’s perceptiveness. Also, has she overestimated Jackson’s suitability as the perfect mate? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ and ‘all appearances are not what they seem’ are clichés that will run through your mind as you churn to the finish of this book.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Harper
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

Post WWII Thriller “Leaving Berlin”, by Joseph Kanon - Book Review

Award-winning author Joseph Kanon is internationally recognized, having published bestsellers, including The Good German, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. With much acclaim, I picked up his latest spy thriller with great expectation. I was disappointed.

Leaving Berlin takes place in 1949 Berlin; the city divided by the Allies into Soviet, French, British and American sectors. In the East, the Soviets rule with an iron fist, grabbing people off the streets for small suspected infractions, friends turn into informants, and war-time concentration camps are turned into prisons for party dissenters.  At the center of the drama is Alex Meier, a Jewish German writer who was able to leave a concentration camp during the war after a payoff. 15 years later, after exile in America, he returns at the invitation of the new Soviet-backed German party to help form a cultural revival. 

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