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Friday, December 8, 2023

The new Jesmyn Ward novel, plus more reader reviews

Editor’s note: The opinions of the smart, well-read women in my Denver book club mean a lot, and often determine what the rest of us choose to pile onto our bedside tables. Sure, you could read advertising blurbs on Amazon, but wouldn’t you be more likely to believe a neighbor with no skin in the game over a corporation being fed words by publishers? So in this series, we are sharing these mini-reviews with you. Have any to offer? Email [email protected].

“Let Us Descend,” by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2023)

“Let Us Descend,” by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2023)

The title comes from a quote from Dante’s Inferno, “Let us descend and enter this blind world.”  The main character, Annis, does indeed enter a hellscape when she is sold from a rice plantation in the Carolinas and force-marched to New Orleans, where she is sold to a heartless sugar plantation owner.  Memories and visions of Annis’ mother and grandmother, an African warrior, help sustain her along the way. Do these and other spirits really exist and are they as capricious as they seem? Ward’s writing is breathtaking in its brutal honesty of life among slavers and is also lyrical in the moments of imaginative escape. The author does a splendid job of not only depicting harsh realities but also offering the possibility of a better life, illustrating how, as she so eloquently put it, “enslaved people might have retained their sense of self, their sense of hope in a time and place that attempted to negate both, day in, day out.”  — 4 stars (out of 4); Kathleen Lance, Denver

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry," by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 2014)
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 2014)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 2014)

By the time I reached page 77, “Storied Life” had me saying “Oh no! Oh no!” loud enough to dismay my dogs. This is not a little, charming book about a little, charming bookstore on a little, charming island in Massachusetts. This is a little, charming, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny, touching, devastating, beautiful, big book in every way other than page count. It’s one of my favorites, and this is a favorite quotation: “We are not the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on.” — 4 stars (out of 4); Neva Gronert, Parker

“To the Land of Long-Lost Friends,” by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor, 2020)

Doing favors for friends isn’t always a good idea. A recent offering in the beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series sets Precious Ramotswe on a case with a childhood acquaintance’s daughter, involved with a charismatic, shifty preacher. Assistant Charlie also has romance troubles in meeting his girlfriend’s bride price and ponders a fishy job offer. Mma Ramotswe draws on love, family and the nature of men and women to resolve family dramas and remind us about the good things in life. Pithy, funny and utterly human, she should be everyone’s neighbor. — 3 stars (out of 4);Bonnie McCune, Denver; bonniemccune.com

“The Fraud,” by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press, 2023)

“The Fraud,” by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press, 2023)

This ambitious novel explores fraud on many levels, from the mischievous fraudster to the outrageous, illegitimate abuse of power through enslavement. “The Fraud” follows the life and career of William Harrison Ainsworth, a prolific (though now minor), real 19th-century author.  Charles Dickens figures throughout as a colleague and literary rival. I often thought I was probably missing some insider Dickens references. But I didn’t miss the references to modern political corruption, played out in the novel through the 19th-century trial of a populist identity thief, described thusly: “Of all the places truth may appear, perhaps the least likely is a circus.” — 3½ stars (out of 4); Kathleen Lance, Denver

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