Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.43: Underutilized Settings and Attica Locke’s Pleasantville

Happy Wednesday! This week, we’re sharing some thrilling podcast news, talking about time and place settings we’d like to see in more books, and reviewing Attica Locke’s new mystery Pleasantville. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

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Links of interest

Vulture reports on JK Rowling’s non-prequel play.

The Vox article about leading slavery tours at a plantation.

Books mentioned (those that have been reviewed in this space are linked to the review):

Ada or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov (podcast readalong!)

The Cutting Season, Attica Locke
We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
Bittersweet, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Amelia Peabody series, by Elizabeth Peters (the first is Crocodile on the Sandbank)
The Night Villa, Carol Goodman
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Where’d You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple
Troubling a Star, Madeleine L’Engle
The Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions, M. M. Kaye
Sleepy Hollow the FOX show (what a great show)
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Hiding in Plain Sight, Nuruddin Farah
On Sal Mal Lane, Ru Freeman
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn
The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson

Pleasantville, Attica Locke (reviewed!)

Emma, Alexander McCall Smith (to be read for next time!)
Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld (roundly loathed by Whiskey Jenny)

Get at me on Twitter, email the podcast, and friend me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Goodreads. Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Song is by Jeff MacDougall.

The Cutting Season, Attica Locke

Oh wonderful Attica Locke! If only I had read The Cutting Season after Difficult Men rather than before! Attica Locke would have been a wonderful antidote to the maddening failure of representation.

The protagonist of The Cutting Season (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), Caren Gray, has come back to work and live at the Louisiana plantation where her mother was a cook and her multi-great grandparents were slaves. She manages all of the plantation operations, from tours (complete with a rose-colored play about antebellum life at Belle Vie) to events — Belle Vie is a popular location for weddings and benefits. When an undocumented worker is found on the grounds of Belle Vie with her throat cut, Caren and her nine-year-old daughter are drawn deeper and deeper into the police investigation and the dark past of the plantation where they make their home.

Locke’s evocation of the nausea and nostalgia of old southern plantation homes could not be better. Though the Belle Vie job provided Caren and her daughter a lifeline when they needed one the most, that doesn’t prevent Caren from casting a cynical eye on the way the plantation tours frame the house and its history. She runs the house as its (white) owners want her to, but she won’t go near the slave quarters, which remind her all too vividly of Belle Vie’s violent and traumatic past. She’s as wearily unimpressed by her newest employee’s rhetoric about seeking racial truth as she is by the resident scholar’s impassioned claims about the plantation’s historical importance.

As in Black Water Rising, there’s a degree to which the characters’ mistrust of the police is the sole cause of all their problems, and it would have been easy to feel like, Ugh, but just, if you had just, it’s not like they were going to think your nine-year-old killed someone! Attica Locke smartly subverts this by letting the police focus attention on the immediate, obvious suspect: a young black employee of Caren’s, who has been acting suspicious but not, you know, murder suspicious. It’s another reminder of the unsafeties that attend being black, and it cements Caren’s determination to protect her daughter and herself.

Attica Locke is great and should write more books. The end.

Review: Black Water Rising, Attica Locke

Sooooooooo. This is mixed. Not mixed in the way like that everything about it was neutral to me. Mixed in the way that some things about it were neutral to me, some things about it I loved so, so hard, and all of me thinks Attica Locke’s second book sounds m.f. amazing and I want to read it. I realize that is a very specific kind of mixed, but I want y’all to know exactly where my head’s at.

Jay Porter is a lawyer and one-time civil rights worker in 1980s Houston. When he and his pregnant wife help out a white woman in danger, they quickly find themselves in peril. There’s, like, conspiracies that go all the way to the top? And then union disputes? And some flashbacks to when Jay Porter was a hotheaded young civil rights guy chillin with Stokely Carmichael. If this sounds like a lot of different things in one book, it is because it is really too many things for one book.

So that’s one thing that I didn’t love. The book just has so much stuff going on. Too much stuff for me, and I am a girl who is perpetually trying to talk everyone into The Vampire Diaries by assuring them enthusiastically that a lot of stuff happens (my God a lot of stuff happens in that show). In particular: Jay’s working with the mayor, with whom he has a History, to help resolve a labor dispute between some members of his father-in-law’s church and the white members of the union. This plotline isn’t unrelated to the rest of the book, but it’s not that interesting because there isn’t enough space for it. Plus it detracts from the other, more interesting plotline by taking space away from that one. It made me feel a bit like Attica Locke didn’t know where she really wanted to aim me.

The more interesting story is about the white woman Jay and his wife help out. The day after they help her, they discover that a man has been found shot twice (on the night in question they heard two shots fired) not far from where they found the woman. Fearful that he — a black professional in 1980s Houston with a criminal record from his college days — will be accused in the crime, Jay is reluctant to go to the police. But his sense of justice doesn’t let him leave the story alone, and he finds himself more and more deeply enmeshed in the situation that unfolds, and less and less able to extract himself.

All the racial stuff was fantastic, I thought, from the tension at the white woman’s initial appearance, to Jay’s reluctance to engage with the police unnecessarily, to his parents’ tragic backstory, to the backstory about Jay and civil rights and the Black Panthers (slightly teachery but exciting for me because I knew all those facts already from that time I read some books about the Black Panthers) — none of it was done in too-broad strokes or milked for moar feelings than it deserved. This is what kept me reading when parts of the plot bogged down a little, and I’m really really really excited about Attica Locke’s second book, a mystery about a black woman who runs a plantation house in modern-day Louisiana (my hooooome state!).

The other reviews are numerous. Here they all are.