Book Review: Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville
by
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I enjoyed Daniel’s Sea Creatures so much, I went back to read her debut novel which begins in the same community of stilt houses in the sand flats off Miami’s coast. This is also a story about marriage, family and relationships. It was interesting to read Stiltsville after Sea Creatures because I can see the where her unique writing style and character development begins.

When Frances Ellerby and Dennis DuVal meet at the DuVal family’s stilt house in 1969, they are twenty-somethings playing at being adults. Sparks fly and Daniel chronicles their relationship and marriage for thirty years. It’s not a perfect union, however, and they face many of the typical the pitfalls of married life.

I liked a lot of things about Stiltsville because I like reading about the ocean and boats. The author spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house and it’s obvious she knows what she’s talking about.  In addition, the stilt house community has a lot of draw because it is so different. Daniel does a great job describing the stilt houses and the dangers that exist, things people on land wouldn’t even think about. I think her other strength is in portraying the tensions and conflicts these characters face as they start their adult lives. I especially liked reading about Frances and Dennis’s early years because there’s a certain excitement in the time before things happen. That shows.

There’s a definite slow-down as time passes, however, and there are a few undeveloped story lines that would have been fun to know about. Frances’s friendship with Marse begins with a lot of tension and I think the early Marse is a great complex character. As the years go on, however, her personality mellows and becomes a little stereo-typed.  I also would have liked to have learned more about their daughter Margo, who struggles in her teens and during college, and about her marriage to Stuart, who has the potential to be one of the more interesting characters. 

Daniel also introduces several historical events into the plot which I think must be very hard to do.  There’s a shift in her writing style as this happens and I prefer when Frances returns to her thoughts about her own life. These events help bring authenticity to the Miami time and setting, however, and help to make the story whole. But the book is otherwise well-constructed and if you like to have the details of your story tied up in the end, you will enjoy this.

If you read both Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, you will be interested to see how Daniel experiments with themes and the ideas of marriage and family in Stiltsville. The mixed attractions of danger and the beauty of the stilt house settings are apparent in both. She also introduces the Stiltsville hermit in her first book – I enjoyed that!  And of course, the forces of nature play in both books.

This is an easy entertaining read with a relaxed and contented ending.  I’m looking forward to what comes next!

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Book Review: Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures
by
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Susanna Daniel does something very different in Sea Creatures, a novel set in Miami, Florida. She has written a great story about love, marriage, family, death, art, weather and the sea and the disabling effects of sleep disorders and selective mutism. Reading this combination of words, I wonder how she did it. Sea Creatures is a very well-written novel. Georgia and Graham and their young son Frankie have returned to the area after a scandal involving Graham’s parasomnia, a severe wakefulness and sleep-walking condition which has caused three-year-old Frankie to stop talking. They buy a houseboat and anchor it off Georgia’s father’s dock.  The story begins and unfolds during the summer of 1992.

A great deal of the plot takes place in Stiltsville, a community of about a dozen stilt homes, built on sand flats about a mile offshore. These homes actually exist and the author spent many of her own childhood in her family’s stilt house. Her first novel is actually titled Stiltsville and is the winner of the BEN/Binhgam prize for outstanding debut work published in 2010.

stiltsville house pic
Here’s a picture of one of the stilt houses. Only seven remain.

Daniel has a very talented way of telling a story. We get to know her characters through Georgia’s perspective and watch as her marriage founders. Georgia’s job as an errand-runner for sixty-one-year-old Charlie Hicks, a stilt house hermit, turns into something quite different for Georgia and Frankie.  And while Graham is on an extended assignment studying hurricanes, her life begins to change in unlikely ways.

The characters are so different; you might want to call them quirky. But they aren’t and their appeal grows as the plot develops. In addition to my long list of what this story is about, Daniel has created thematic layers, in which the main characters try to make meaning out of loss. Did they act quickly enough and do enough at the important hour? Did they say the right things? Did they treat the family who was left fairly? When regret surfaces, what do they do? She also shows the impact of reckless behavior and makes you wonder why certain people are drawn to these risks. And how much risk is too much – where do you draw the line? Daniel also shows how the powerful forces of nature and Hurricane Andrew can change everything.

Her characters also have that real quality of not being one hundred percent likable. Georgia is a loving mother, but she makes foolish choices. Charlie has a wonderful way of communicating, but has behaved badly. Georgia’s father Harvey seems to retreat during crucial times, but redeems himself at the end.  And Graham – he’s so troubled, but you want to help him, even when Georgia doesn’t.

The plot develops nicely. Seemingly unimportant events and facts, mentioned throughout, help tie characters and events together. Daniel’s descriptions of the water, boats and Stiltsville are easy to imagine and make the story flow.

There’s a lot to think about in Sea Creatures, an easy, but intelligent read. Daniel is currently at work on her third novel. Meantime I think I’ll be checking out Stiltsville!

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On my list – these books about libraries!

Maybe I’m slow in seeing this trend, but have you noticed there are more and more books about libraries? For me it started with The Library Book by Susan Orlean (read my review here). That was a couple years ago. Here are four fiction books I’d like to read (all descriptions from Goodreads). For many more, check out the links at the bottom of this post.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson: In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles: Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable story of romance, friendship, family, and the power of literature to bring us together, perfect for fans of The Lilac Girls and The Paris Wife.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray: The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian—who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray.

I’ve read a couple other books about libraries. Click the links for reviews.

I Work at a Public Library by Gina Sheridan
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Beyond the Bookends
Bibliofile
Book Riot 1
Book Riot 2
Goodreads

What are some of your favorite library-themed books?

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What’s That Book? Something to Hide: A Lynley Novel by Elizabeth George

Hi Everyone! Today I’d like to welcome Noelle Granger, today’s contributor to What’s That Book. Thank you, Noelle!

Title: Something to Hide: A Lynley Novel                                                  

Author: Elizabeth George

Genre: British mystery, police procedural

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What’s it about? Elizabeth George is an American writer who sets her mysteries in Great Britain. There are eighteen books in this series and I’ve read more than half of them. Her main character is Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth earl of Asherton, who has a massive intellect and who struggles constantly with his background. The books have followed him over the years, through his marriage and the loss of his wife and child, and his tolerance for the foibles of his co-workers.

His partner is the decidedly unattractive Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, who comes from a much lower class. Lynley and Havers clash constantly because she is short-tempered and very aware of her class, making her very difficult to work with. Winston Nkata is his Detective Constable, a very tall black African with a remarkable scar on his face who can relate to victims where Havers cannot.

George writes massive books, and I’ve heard complaints they can be used a doorstops. But despite the length, they are works of art—fiercely intelligent, stunningly researched, and always enticing. This novel concerns the practice of FGM (female genital mutilation) an underground, ritual practice in the Nigerian population of London. As usual with her books, written in third person omniscient, the story opens with vignettes of various characters that at first seem disconnected but which become increasingly entangled as the story unfolds. The central plot is the death, later deemed murder, of a black police sergeant who is investigating FGM in the Nigerian community. Lynley is assigned to the case, which has cultural associations that are completely foreign to him. As usual with George, there are a number of threads to the solution to the case, including a father’s cruel, violent insistence on subjecting his eight-year-old daughter to the practice. I kept reading on because I had no idea who the murderer was and there were plenty of candidates.

George’s character development is compelling and in this book, we learn more about Havers (who makes me want to tear my hair out) and Nakata, a gentle giant with a wonderful family. The author teaches the reader a good deal about the tribal origins of FGM and the work the British police are doing to root out its practice and stop it.

How did you hear about it? This book was on a best seller list.

Have you read other books by this author? Yes, quite a few.

What did you like about the book? The entangled plot line and the characters.

Closing comments:  I consider Elizabeth George an author in the footsteps of Dame PD James.

Contributor:  N (Noelle) A. Granger is a Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. She is the author of the Rhe Brewster mystery series and the historical fiction novel, The Last Pilgrim. You can learn more about Noelle at saylingaway.wordpress.comand na-granger.com. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her husband and a Maine coon cat.


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it? Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Book Review: Run by Ann Patchett

Run
by
Ann Patchett

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m on a bit of a mission to read all of Ann Patchett’s books and so last week I picked up Run, which was first published in 2007. I like Patchett’s fiction because she writes about a wide variety of situations, yet with each book I’ve read, I’ve felt a familiar warmth about the characters she creates.

Run is a domestic drama set in Boston and takes place over twenty-four hours in the aftermath of an accident during a blizzard. During this time, members of the Doyle family discover a shocking connection between them and a mother and daughter involved in the accident, Tennessee and Kenya Moser, and must redefine their beliefs about family.

Patchett tells the story in a third-person omniscient point of view and through her characters’ thoughts and other flashbacks, readers learn the Doyle family’s back story. Bernard Doyle, a widower, is the former mayor of Boston and father to three grown sons, Sullivan, Tip and Teddy. Sullivan, the oldest and his only natural son, is thirty-four and has just come back from Africa. He’d left Boston after a scandal and his prodigal return brings tension to the family, as it seems he is again on the run.

Tip and Teddy are Doyle’s adopted African American sons, brought into the family before Doyle’s wife died. They are natural brothers, given up by their mother, first Teddy, as a newborn and soon after, Tip, a toddler. Now in college, their father is pressing them to enter politics, to fulfill his own dream that was cut short. Through their conversations, Patchett shows the growing conflict between the otherwise loving, though doting, father and the mostly always appeasing boys who have no interest in politics. Tip is a student at Harvard, and has immersed himself in the study of ichthyology (that’s fish). Teddy, like his uncle, Father Sullivan, is a freshman at Northeastern and plans to become a priest. Doyle, always persistent, still thinks he can change their minds.

But that’s all on hold because now the Doyles must step into new roles as they look after Kenya Moser while her mother is in the hospital. Kenya, twelve, lives in the projects not far from the Doyle’s upscale home and the uncomfortable contrast becomes the elephant in the room. I was particularly moved during a heartbreaking scene in which Doyle takes Kenya to her apartment to pack her things and Kenya has nothing to put them in. And while Sullivan seems to be the one you can’t depend on, he comes through in a way the others can’t.

Readers sense a building tension as the Doyles and Kenya move through the day and Tennessee recovers at the hospital. Teddy has urged them all to meet up at the hospital and arranges to transport his frail uncle to see Tennessee, certain that his Uncle Sullivan’s healing powers will help her.

I enjoyed this family story about dreams, disappointments, secrets and lies, although I thought it was a little bit dated, fifteen years later and a bit coincidental. Patchett includes themes of religion, race, privilege and poverty and shows how the brothers and Doyle, despite their privileged lives, learn a great deal from Kenya. The title comes from a variety of ideas. First, there is Doyle’s desire for his sons to run for political office. In addition, Kenya’s talent as a runner connects her to Tip and Teddy, who were once talented runners. And although I didn’t realize it until I started writing this, the title can also refer to how Sullivan has run away from his problems.

I recommend Run to readers who like family dramas that are tied to social and political ideas.

Check out my reviews of:

Bell Canto
Commonwealth
The Dutch House
State of Wonder

Here’s some information about Ann Patchett and her books.

From Ann Patchett’s website:

ANN PATCHETT is the author of eight novels, The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder, Commonwealth and The Dutch House. She was the editor of Best American Short Stories, 2006, and has written five books of nonfiction, including Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, What Now? an expansion of her graduation address at Sarah Lawrence College, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of essays examining the theme of commitment, and These Precious Days, essays on home, family, friendship, and writing. In 2019, she published her first children’s book, Lambslide, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Escape Goat was published in 2020.

Fiction:
The Patron Saint of Liars (1992)
Taft (1994)
The Magician’s Assistant (1997)
Bel Canto (2001)
Run (2007)
State of Wonder (2011)
Commonwealth (2016)
The Dutch House (2019)

Nonfiction:
Truth and Beauty (2004)
What Now? (2008)
The Bookshop Strikes Back (2012)
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (2013)
These Precious Days: Essays (2021)

Children’s Books
Lambslide (2019)
Escape Goat (2020)

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Book Review: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Razorblade Tears
by
S.A. Cosby

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I know to be wary about books that get a lot of hype, but I fell for it this time. When I saw the critical acclaim from The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post and many others, naming Razorblade Tears one of the best books of 2021, I wanted to read it.

In the beginning, I thought I was part of that cheering crowd, but I soon changed my mind. Here’s the premise of the book:

Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins are two ex-cons whose gay sons, Isiah and Derek (married to each other) were gunned down outside a wine shop in Richmond, Virginia. When Buddy Lee suggests they combine forces to avenge their sons’ deaths, Ike agrees.

Ike, a successful Black business owner, has kept a clean record in the fifteen years he’s been out of prison for manslaughter. And he’s kept his violent temper at bay. He needs to, especially now that he and his wife have custody of three-year-old, Arianna, Isiah and Derek’s daughter. Buddy Lee, who is white, is a career con man and an alcoholic, living in a dilapidated trailer. On top of their grief, they have many regrets about shunning their sons for their homosexuality. Now they have a chance to make things a little better.

They soon learn that Ike’s son, Isiah, a journalist, was about to expose a scandalous relationship between a woman named Tangerine and an unnamed powerful man she’d met. On the other side, this powerful person has hired a hit man and his violent gang to find Tangerine and kill her before the story gets out.

Over a period of several days, Ike and Buddy Lee chase the killers and the killers chase them. And there are many violent casualties along the way, described in graphic detail. Between the violence, they move towards friendship as they joke around and share their struggles about accepting their sons. Ike also sets Buddy Lee straight on a number of racial assumptions. I thought these were good ways to bring out the subtleties of racism, one of the better parts of the book.

I was interested in the premise, but honestly, the rest of the book just isn’t that good, with all kinds of weird metaphors and choppy sentences. Razorblade Tears is described as noir fiction, and as a reader you have to accept the violence as part of the genre, but I found the characters to be stereotypical and the fight scenes hard to follow. In addition, to say you must suspend all disbelief is a huge understatement.

In the end, I felt manipulated by the hype and in the heavy-handed message about race, gender, sexuality, and a host of other social issues. I felt this could have been a much better book if the author had focused more on the characters and had chosen one or two issues.

Other WordPress bloggers have written mixed reviews. You can check them out here.

Books with Chai
The Lesser Joke
The BiblioSanctum

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Fun holiday reads – pretty covers too!

Hi Everyone,

Last week I hosted a virtual book chat on holiday reads for my library job. Wow, there are so many! Here are some contemporary holiday stories with pretty and very similar cover styles. Holidays are so busy that I don’t seem to have the time to read much, but these look fun and light. Have you read any? Some are new this year and some have been around a couple years. Which would you recommend?

Always in December by Emily Stone

Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox

The Holiday Switch by Tif Marcelo

A Holly Jolly Diwali by Sonya Lalli

The Matza Ball by Jean Meltzer

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Jenny Bayliss

Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur

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Book review: Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending Jacob
by
William Landay

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber is the first in his office to hear about a murder in the woods outside their suburban Massachusetts town’s middle school. When he arrives at the scene, he learns that eighth grader Ben Rifkin has been stabbed to death. Andy leads the preliminary investigation, even though there is a potential conflict of interest: Ben was a classmate of his son, Jacob. Police interviews with classmates and Facebook comments on a memorial page suggest that Ben had been bullying Jacob and that Jacob was preparing to defend himself. Damning evidence quickly puts Jacob at the scene, police charge him with murder and Andy steps down from the case.

Jacob swears he’s innocent and Andy believes him. Readers, however, must form their own opinions about Jacob. The author makes it tough to decide because Jacob is hard to know. He’s a typical teenager, closed and sarcastic. And he has only a few friends in his circle, friends who now keep their distance.

As Jacob’s lawyer prepares for trial, Andy and his wife, Laurie face the impossible problem of seeing the evidence yet wanting to believe their son. During this time, Andy reveals shocking information about his own past that may point to a pattern of crimes. Their lawyer suggests genetic and psychological testing and he and Laurie worry that Jacob has received the “murder gene.” The disturbing results call their parenting skills and decisions into question: are they bad parents because they put Jacob in daycare as a baby? Were they wrong to think he had outgrown his toddler aggression? Hadn’t he?

On the last day of the trial, readers may think it will all be over when the jury returns with its verdict, but twists and turns lead to a surprising finish. In the end, Andy may never be sure of Jacob’s guilt or innocence. Readers may feel the same way.

Published in 2012, Defending Jacob explores themes of marriage, parenting, bullying and nature vs nurture. Lesser themes include politics in the district attorney’s office and the false feeling of security in an affluent suburban town. I enjoyed this story, despite it being a little dated. This is my second time reading it and my only negative comment would be that Jacob seemed older, not like a fourteen-year-old boy. The story has been modernized and is now a TV miniseries starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell.

Defending Jacob is a good choice for a book club. I recommend it to readers who like mysteries and character studies.

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Book Review: The Address by Fiona Davis

The Address
by
Fiona Davis

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories set in New York and have been meaning to read The Address for a long time. In this 2017 novel by Fiona Davis, Sara Smythe and Bailey Camden live in New York, one hundred years apart. They are connected in indeterminate ways to the 1885 murder of the fictional architect Theodore Camden. Set in 1884 and 1984, their narratives revolve around the famous Dakota, an apartment building in New York.

The Dakota is a real place. Located on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, its tenants include famous musicians, artists and actors. It’s also where John Lennon was murdered in 1980. When it first opened in 1884, the Dakota was actually in a remote part of NYC, if you can believe it. Designed to attract the newly wealthy, the building opened its doors to a full staff and plenty of luxuries.

Sara’s story begins in 1884 when Theodore Camden recruits her from the London Langham Hotel to become the first managerette (how do you like that job title?) of the Dakota. Unmarried and in her thirties, Sara works as the head housekeeper. She’s ready for a change, however and drawn to Theodore’s charms, despite the fact that he’s married with three young children. In a bold decision, Sara quits her job and crosses the Atlantic to start a new life during New York’s gilded age. She lives at the Dakota and confidently manages a large staff of housekeepers, porters, maintenance crew and the tenants’ maids. Unable to resist their mutual attractions, Theo and Sara begin an affair that leads to Theo’s ultimate death and the end of Sara’s career.

Jumping to 1984, interior designer Bailey Camden must rebuild her life after a struggle with drugs and alcohol. Out of rehab and jobless, she visits her wealthy cousin Melinda Camden, who lives at the Dakota, in the same apartment where Theo was murdered. Bailey’s family connection to the wealthy Camdens began when her grandfather became Theodore Camden’s ward. Melinda will soon inherit trust money, but Bailey, whose family has learned to live without, will not. In a gesture of seemingly good will, Melinda hires Bailey to redesign her apartment and agrees to let her live there until she gets on her feet. When Bailey discovers personal items belonging to Sara and Theo’s family, she will soon learn more about the affair and just how she fits into the Camden lineage.

I enjoyed this novel which is part mystery and part historical fiction. Davis explores the messy themes of money, class, inheritance and family and entertains the reader with images of New York’s upper and working classes and the city’s development and its varied architecture. In addition, a special appearance by investigative journalist Nellie Bly provides an up-close look at the horrors of Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum. I recommend The Address to fans of New York stories as well as readers who like historical fiction, interesting characters and themes of money and class.

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Book Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage
by
Tayari Jones

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Can a young marriage survive a long separation due to a prison sentence? How will they cope and what could it look like at the end? Roy and Celestial, a young black couple, must face these questions and additional challenges as they begin what they hope is a temporary, though daunting situation.

Roy and Celestial have just celebrated their first anniversary at the Piney Hotel in Louisiana when Roy is arrested for assaulting a woman at the hotel. Although falsely charged during a time of racial profiling, he’s convicted of rape and sentenced to twelve years at a prison in Jamison, Louisiana. Time can only tell if their marriage is strong enough.

Despite their love, Roy has a weakness for women, Celestial has a fiery temper and there are a few additional conflicts in the making. But before his arrest, they were managing and were on the road to success. Roy’s career was taking off and Celestial, an artist, was building a promising doll-making business. They were both proud of their achievements, especially Roy who grew up in Eloe, Louisiana, the son of hardworking parents. Celestial, from Atlanta, also came from humble beginnings, but her father, a high school teacher had recently hit pay dirt with a scientific invention. Both have strong ties to their families, but different ideas about parenthood, tied to their own experiences.

In the first year of Roy’s sentence, they exchange heartfelt letters and Celestial visits regularly, but over time, Celestial becomes more distant as she builds a life of her own and turns to her childhood friend, Andre. In prison, Roy can only count the months and years as he thinks about family, fatherhood and winning his appeal.

When Roy’s conviction is overturned after five years, Roy, Celestial and Andre must decide what their new lives will look like and what a marriage commitment means. Andre tells Celestial, “My parents’ divorce made it clear what kinds of raw deals are brokered at the altar. But right now, in America, marriage is the closest thing to what I want.” Celestial thinks of marriage differently, “like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk.” Roy wants to return to what he had.

I enjoyed the central conflict in this story, a reminder of the unfair suppositions and treatment of blacks in America, making it an important read. But I found the main characters unlikable, especially Roy for his transgressions and Celestial for her selfishness. Minor characters were more likable, but no one seemed to have good judgement. In my opinion, the story could have been more powerful if there had been at least one character readers could feel good about.

In addition, readers must accept Roy’s wrongful arrest and conviction, with no discussion of evidence, the investigation or trial. How could he have been convicted during an age of detailed crime scene investigations? I also had trouble believing the highly unlikely coincidence involving his cellmate.

Despite these comments, I enjoyed reading about Roy and Celestial’s college experiences at Morehouse and Spellman, how their relationship developed and the overwhelming problems they faced. I recommend An American Marriage to readers looking for a light story about real problems.

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