Three troubled but tough generations of women, all molded and wounded by the Pentecostal culture around them, are celebrated in Kelli Jo Ford’s masterpiece, patchwork novel, Crooked Hallelujah.
Religion became a source of both sustenance and pain when Lula’s husband left her for a non-Native woman. In her grief, Lula accepted the restrictions of the local Holiness Church, dragging her reluctant daughter, Justine, into it along with her. But an act of violence left Justine with the determination to refuse the stifling demands of her mother’s tradition. It also left her with a daughter, Reney.
The book moves through the women’s stories in a dreamy, linear fashion. Justine watches children gather minnows at the site where her own childhood ended. Reney observes as her young mother struggles through strained relationships and backbreaking work. Still, Justine musters the energy to encourage Reney’s wonderment over freed goldfish and wide skies. Later, Reney repeats, and breaks, family patterns.
The women’s stories move from Oklahoma to Texas and back again. They include tornadoes, wounded animals, wildfires, and deaths. Men hurt, awe over, and challenge Justine and Reney, narrating side stories that indicate variations in how they are understood. Only feminine bonds sustain them.
Even through its harsh circumstances and looming disappointments, Crooked Hallelujah maintains a sense of hope, centering the women as sources of light in the tiny communities where they land. Its closing scenes are overt in their biblical tie-ins, but also so consistent with what precedes them that they force rear-gazing considerations: was the divine present in every event of the women’s lives after all? Or was it their fierce, life-giving love for one another that most warranted emulation and awe?
Its events like psalms for mother-daughter bonds, Kelli Jo Ford’s novel celebrates bold, everyday acts of enduring love.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (June 27, 2020)
In Keith Rosson’s chilling novel Road Seven, two men set out in search of the unknown, but karma catches up to them.
Mark is a disgraced cryptozoologist who’s eager to leave the country; he hopes to escape the darkness of his past. Grainy footage of an alleged unicorn sighting provides the perfect excuse to leave. Mark rushes to a small island off of the coast of Iceland, accompanied by an assistant with equal reason to flee. The two arrive and set up base on a local woman’s farm. They are shocked to discover a US military base nearby, and that the forests are brimming with darkness.
The alleged unicorn hooks the imagination, but it’s also the least unusual aspect of Mark’s adventure. Mysteries stack up: about why the locals are hostile, about the purpose of the military base, and about the dangers lurking in the forest. They connect to each other in a masterful fashion. As Mark and his assistant deal with the escalating threats, the text becomes tense and difficult to look away from.
Inventive and empathetic, the novel is populated by broken people with deep flaws whose relationships are troubled. The alien abduction novel that catapulted Mark to fame factors in; his assistant also harbors secrets. Both men are unreliable, compelling, and human. Then WWII ghosts and unspeakable monstrosities appear, and the truth beckons.
The text’s perspective shifts between Mark and Brian, and between the first and third person. Such jarring changes maximize its tension. Cross-genre elements— including personalized, existential horror; noir threats; and the unsettling unknown—result in a disconcerting adventure whose dark humor prevails.
Darkly comic and brimming with flawed characters, Road Seven examines the price of knowledge as the unknown becomes horrific.
JOHN M. MURRAY (June 27, 2020)
Norman Lock’s dark, carnivalesque American Follies mines the seamier side of the 1880s through a woman’s febrile imagination and New York sojourns.
Ellen, who was once Henry James’s typist, now helps Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with the newest edition of their book. She is pregnant and grateful for the empathy of her firebrand employers, even if they are wont to spar with each other. The lovable suffragist duo are only one layer of the novel, which, in escalating, satirical swerves, brings Ellen’s tendency to view life as a hyper-real amalgam of omens and injustices to the fore.
The novel takes broad liberties with timelines and beloved figures. It includes Pinkerton agents, clairvoyants, and a submarine. Ellen befriends Margaret, a dwarf from P.T. Barnum’s circus; encounters Herman Melville; witnesses tenement poverty and death in Bellevue Hospital; visits Sing Sing, and hears about prison reform. She’s a lightning rod for other people’s good causes, though she herself stays out of the fray. But childbirth prompts a postpartum nightmare that sets Ellen and her friends on a perilous rescue mission.
Believing that her infant son was kidnapped so that the Ku Klux Klan could make an example of him at a Memphis rally, Ellen, her friends, and godlike Barnum travel south to save him. The ensuing, blistering satire of race relations in America puts the suffragists and circus eccentrics in the midst of the Klan’s gathering. The aftermath involves a near-lynching and minstrelry, all of which hammer home how ugly and absurd history is in hindsight, and how little changes.
The fascinating historical novel American Follies features lavish period details and unsettling alternative world building, warping expectations and standing out for its rapier wit.
KAREN RIGBY (June 27, 2020)
It’s red, round, and has just crash-landed in a lush summer garden. In Alien Tomato, a lively crop of animated veggies rally round their silent new addition, much to the dismay of a practical groundhog. Is it an ordinary ball or an alien tomato? Colorful illustrations brighten adorable peas in a pod, an enthusiastic carrot, and their pals as they welcome the mysterious orb in this lighthearted tale featuring community, friendship, fun, and surprises.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (June 27, 2020)
Conqueror, Liberator, Anointed One
For myriad reasons, King Cyrus II, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is one of the most compelling figures of ancient history. Stephen Dando-Collins’s expert biography, Cyrus the Great, combines ancient and modern sources for its excellent retelling of the Persian leader’s life and accomplishments.
Cyrus was an expert military tactician who conquered the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians, in the process creating the largest empire of his time. He’s just as well known for running that diverse empire with respect for minority rights, human rights, and religious tolerance, and for being the only non-Jewish figure named a messiah in the Bible after ending the Jewish exile in Babylon. His story has always been told with a mix of history and mythology, most often drawing on sources from outside of Persia.
Cyrus the Great reads like a novel, with the Persian king’s life shared as an engaging narrative. It begins with the legend of his grandfather’s dreams predicting that he’d be overthrown by Cyrus, his decree that Cyrus be killed, and the would-be killer saving the boy’s life and raising him. The story proceeds through Cyrus’s numerous military setbacks and triumphs, through which he came to take over Babylon, and continues up to the competing narratives about his death.
When sources disagree about details, the book explains those differences, treating the agreed-upon information as part of the story. The ruler’s legacy is covered in detail, from the actions of his sons to how he is remembered in biblical tradition. Important context is provided, highlighting the stories of former and contemporary figures to explain why Cyrus stands out in history.
Cyrus the Great is a comprehensive biography that treats an important piece of history as the gripping story that it is.
JEFF FLEISCHER (June 27, 2020)