Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Kaitlyn Greenidge, LIBERTIE


This is a beautifully written historical novel. If you look closely at this picture, you can see the red tabs that I stuck to pages when I found a particularly well-wrought sentence. There were dozens. 

The setting is 1860s Brooklyn. I have to admit, part of the charm of the book was that this was a time and place that was fresh and unknown to me.  

The line that opens the first section is this: "Se pa tout blesi ki geri. Not all wounds heal. 1860." 

The protagonist is Libertie Sampson, a young Black woman and the daughter of a doctor who can pass for white. Her mother intends that Libertie will join her medical practice, that they will be Dr. Sampson and daughter, but Libertie's interests lean elsewhere. The book begins in 1860, and we see through Libertie's eyes (told in first person POV) the world before the Civil War, during it, and afterwards, when Libertie moves to Haiti and experiences life there. 

Despite being set during a war, this is not a book full of Huge Events. Rather, it's a thoughtful, poignant look at a mother and a daughter, striving to find their places in a world where everything is changing. It is also a nuanced meditation on race and our responsibilities toward others. I'm tempted to call it a coming-of-age story, and I would recommend it not only to adults but to YA readers, who I think will identify with Libertie's longings and hopes, her fears of disappointing her mother, and her desperate break with her early life that causes her to feel regret and brings about a growing awareness of herself. 

I'm always entranced by authors who develop their secondary characters well. My favorite SCs in this novel are Experience and Louisa, two Black women singers, who are inspired by the Fisk Jubilee singers, all emancipated slaves, who formed an a cappella group that toured America and Europe to earn money to support Fisk University. The last section of the book, set in Haiti, was hard for me to read, as Libertie suffers emotional abuse at the hands of her husband Emmanuel's family. But her letter to her husband, at the end, is a satisfying triumph. 


Sunday, July 11, 2021




Monday, July 5, 2021



Like his award-winning debut BLACKTOP WASTELAND, Cosby’s new novel is gritty and raw and ambitious in its themes. There are two main characters, both ex-cons—a white father named Buddy Lee and a Black father named Ike—whose sons Derek and Isiah fell in love and were married and raising a daughter when they were brutally murdered. The fathers had rejected their sons’ sexuality and marriage before the young men died; but now, belatedly, the two men resolve to “set it right” by discovering why the young men were murdered and taking their revenge. Although the book contains plenty of curses, and guns and blood appear frequently, the profanity and violence are neither gratuitous nor superfluous. These men live in a brutal world (present-day, in a small town in Virginia), where the power is held by some truly unredeemable men, characterized by ignorance, fear, and rage. As the fathers’ regret for their irreparable mistakes nearly breaks them, Buddy Lee and Ike each find some redemption in the acceptance they find for each other and their differences, which go far beyond skin color into the domain of lived experiences and fundamental assumptions. Ike schools Buddy Lee regularly about the injustice he faces as a Black man, and at times I felt Buddy Lee was a stand-in for the insensitive white reader. But far more often, I felt the authenticity of Ike’s pain—the gross injustices as well as the mundane, grinding ways that Black people are treated with less decency and consideration than white people. 

At times, reading Cosby’s book, I found myself thinking of Brit Bennett’s VANISHING HALF because that book (also very good) grapples with similar questions: Why do we fear difference, and how do we transcend that fear? What does it mean to accept someone who is very different from ourselves, by virtue of their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity? (Like VANISHING HALF, RAZORBLADE TEARS features a transgender young adult.) Cosby’s novel adds another question, a poignant one: What can we do when we come to acceptance too late, and how can we make amends?

As a novelist, I keep my eye out for moments when the language conveys profound feeling, a raw experience that pulls the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters. Cosby is good at this; the moments come frequently. I also scribble in the margin at places where the language sings. In his writing, Cosby slips smoothly from forthright description into language that feels lyrical and even poetic: “The air had a stale, spoiled scent. A thin layer of dust covered most of the exposed surfaces. Death had laid his cold hand on this place and stilled its heart.” He turns nouns into verbs, and vice versa, making the language fresh: “His truck shuddered as the engine dieseled for a few seconds.” And he paces the book well, with the conflict becoming more and more desperate—until the final, terrifying showdown.

A powerful, well-written page-turner with compelling and troubled protagonists, this book will please fans of Lou Berney and Tana French.


This true-crime art heist tale, published in 2004, has as many unlikely twists, betrayals, and double agents as a compelling mystery novel.

In 1974, a British heiress sympathetic to the IRA, together with three men, stole 19 paintings, including Vermeer's LADY WRITING A LETTER WITH HER MAID, from Russborough, a castle and the dwelling place of the English aristocrats Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in Ireland. The paintings were recovered; but in 1986, the Vermeer and other paintings were stolen again by a bold Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Set against Irish tensions of the late 1900s that reflected the chasms between the classes and between Ireland and England, this story illuminates the darker side of art--including the connections to drug and mob money and to violence.

My fascination with the stories and historical tidbits that surround high-end art began when I worked at Christie's Auction House in NYC in the 1990s. Much of what I learned there about the art world became good fodder for the novel that would eventually become A TRACE OF DECEIT. I first read this book (THE IRISH GAME) as I was drafting TRACE, years ago, because it tells more than the story of the solved art heists. It also tells the story of how a man restoring the painting carefully removed the top layer of paint (which was added after Vermeer died) to reveal a red wax seal on the letter, which adds to the emotional depth of the painting; and how a conservator discovered the technique Vermeer used to achieve perspective in his painting. Amazing.

I reread this book again recently because as I develop my new protagonist, Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and raised in an Irish section of Whitechapel, I'm obsessing about Ireland--its history, the prejudices against the Irish in England in the 1800s, and the complex web of police and criminals that reached from one island to the other across the Irish Sea.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in art, Ireland, and true crime.