Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Charles Thomas “Tommy” Tester is a Harlem native who understands the uselessness of a black man working hard for a good wage in New York City. Unlike his bricklayer father, who’s body is broken and wallet empty from long hours of backbreaking work for meager pay. Tommy prefers to hustle for his money, the mystique of a carefully chosen suit and an old guitar doing a good portion of the legwork for him. If he sometimes gets involved with the arcane and the occult, at least he’s making a loving sufficient to support himself and his aging father. But after an encounter with a sorceress in Queens, events begin to spiral out of control. Tommy has attracted he attention of dangerous beings, and he, New York, and reality itself are in grave danger.

I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft’s stories, though the man’s personal beliefs are frankly odious. I love the concept of unknowable cosmic horrors, of elder gods so ancient and vast that human beings (always so full of ourselves) are essentially bacteria in comparison. However, Lovecraft’s blatant racism shouldn’t be ignored, and the best modern Lovecraft derivatives take this into account rather than trying to smooth over it.

This is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s famous short stories, but the narrative takes us along the flip side of the original. This is a story about race and arcane magic, of injustice and revenge, of the dark, foreign, and “lesser” discovering beings who make their oppressors less than nothing.

Thus may be a book about elder gods and magic, but it is also a brutal and and all-to-relevant story of those pushed out to the margins, and what happens when they are pushed too far.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother: A Novel by Robert Hicks

The Orphan Mother is set in 1867; two years after the end of America’s Civil War and solidly in the reconstruction era. At this point in time, the country, and especially the southern states, were poised on the blade of a knife. The hope of the newly emancipated former slaves warred with the intransigence of their former masters, each seeking to pull the country down a different path. It was a time of possibility and exquisite danger. A time when, theoretically, black men were as free as their white counterparts, but the reality of their status remained mired in the past.

Into this simmering brew Robert Hicks draws Mariah Reddick, former slave, now midwife in the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. Mariah, world weary and suspicious of the future, nevertheless seeks to build an independent life for herself in the town where she has spent most of her adult life. Mariah’s son, Theopolis, embodies all the hope and promise of this time period. He works as a cobbler, but has aspirations of becoming a politician, and representing his people and their needs in the newly reunited country. We also meet George Tole, former sniper with the Union army, drifting through life after the war, finding it increasingly difficult to live as a regular person after what he has seen and done in battle.

When a riot breaks out at a political rally where Theopolis is giving a speech, Mariah is drawn in against her will into the world of politics and corruption, murder and injustice. Where the hopes and the dreams of black men crash against the wall of white racism.

Robert Hicks writes this era masterfully and lyrically. You can almost smell the dust on the roads, feel the heat on your skin. You can see the angry men “with bricked up faces” who are pushing so hard against change, against any perceived loss of status. In this novel Hicks illustrates the tensions between blacks and whites, between former master and slave. We see how the nature of justice can warp and change, especially when race and/or gender conspire to place you at the bottom of the social strata.

This book, though a work of historical fiction,reverberates in the present day. We find these echoes in Ferguson, Missouri, in Philando Castle and Trayvon Martin, and other victims of racially-motivated violence, in the work of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is a story that deserves to be read. That helps to link the inequities of our past to our present day. Robert Hicks has written a spectacular story, one that seems at once very far away and very, very close.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The Orphan Mother will be available on September 13th, 2016.