Train ride to the precipice

The Salt Fields by Stacy D. Flood

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella-length character study of a Black man during his transition from a life full of tragedy in South Carolina to an uncertain future up north.

Post WWII

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 128

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Publication date: 3/9/2021

Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss

From the publisher: On the day that Minister Peters boards a train from South Carolina heading north, he has nothing left but ghosts: the ghost of his murdered wife, the ghost of his drowned daughter, the ghosts of his father and his grandmother and the people who disappeared from his town without trace or explanation.

This beautifully written novella is a close study of the interior life of a man who has had to compartmentalize all his various tragedies. Some are particular to him; some are sadly endemic to being a southern Black man in 1947.

Some things we lose should be irreplaceable, and the thorns of the past or the future should always pierce the skin.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

If you want plot, there’s not going to be much for you; it’s a ridealong with the protagonist on a train ride from his lifelong home along the South Carolina coast toward the promised(ish) land of the north. He’s not even sure of his destination—just away from the ghosts that haunt his days.

I was longing to pass the time until the train until the train until the train actually moved us away, as if, at any moment, a cop or spirit or storm could come and trap us here in a pile of bruises or thick mud or regret.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The book resonates with a regret that Minister can’t quite articulate, although his observations of the world around him are acute. This is a rational man trying to deal with an irrational world, and his coping style is one of dissociation, to the detriment of himself and those he loves.

Mass graves didn’t surprise us. We believed in horror, and horrible men.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The style is elliptical at times, where the meanings of the interactions must be guessed at. Minister will tell you, in this first person account, of his interactions, of the facts, of what may be seen, but not always what is meant.

But I suspected it wasn’t just one thing, one argument, one slight, one memory, one word. We’re human beings. It rarely is one thing.

Stacy D Flood, The Salt Fields

The other characters are deftly drawn: the disillusioned former soldier, the hyperactive man-of-the-world, and the elegant woman with an agenda. The protagonist only spends a short time with them, but they affect the remainder of his life in a way that’s surprising, given the tragedies that he endured before he met them.

An affecting, wistful, and tragic story of a life of alienation and of the consequences of choice, The Salt Fields may haunt you with its ghosts.


Sins of the past

The Jade Tiger by E.W. Cooper

r/suggestmeabook: I want a Prohibition era mystery with a woman who’s trying to escape her past.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 276

Publisher: Lanternfish Press

Review copy courtesy of BookSirens

From the publisher: NEW YORK, OCTOBER 1928. The Big Apple teems with the glitter of Bright Young Things, Prohibition, and scofflaws-the perfect place for Penelope Harris to start her life over.

Reading the blurb, I thought the book would be more of a historical fiction, but if I’d paid attention to the cover, I’d have realized it was more of a mystery with a historical setting. The period was nicely evoked, though, with judiciously chosen details about New York City just as prohibition started, much about the alcohol itself, but also of the clothes, attitudes, and decor.

This was one of those books that was almost really good, but missed on a few fronts. First, the main characters, Penelope and Lund, were not as fully developed as I would have preferred. I was mostly supposed to empathize with them for extrinsic factors, such as Penelope’s attempts to avoid the press because they kept exposing her to public scrutiny, rather than really learning about their motivations.

Guests passed the windows in groups, laughing, talking. He wondered if he would see Penelope there, in a moment or two. Dancing past on another man’s arm. The quick pull of regret made him certain it had been a mistake.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The second problem I had with the story was the unnecessary switches of points of view. As I’ve said before, multiple points of view are tricky. For example, there was really little reason to include the point of view of the police officer McCain. I can only think of one scene in retrospect that couldn’t have been shown from one of the other protagonists, an argument between McCain and his supervisor about the course of the investigation, but that didn’t add enough to the book to justify the jarring nature of that additional POV.

A small clutch of guests stood near the radio without turning to take note, their laughter a little too loud, their drinking just a little too messy. That’s where Renee would be, all right—in the middle of everything, at the center of the music, where the chaos always began.

E.W. Cooper, The Jade Tiger

The mystery itself was more of a justification to expose the “Big Secret” that Penelope is trying to conceal than a traditional murder mystery. The “Big Secret,” when completely disclosed, is a bit anticlimactic because of the multiple retellings, diminishing the impact as each additional detail is exposed.

Last, too much of the characterization deals with things told rather than shown. Most characters are described by summarized stories of their past, rather than seeing them act in the present.

However, the plotting is good, and the writing evokes the period well, so I would expect to see books I’d like better from E.W. Cooper in the future.