Ah, America. When you’re good you’re very very good, but when you’re bad you’re horrid.
Across its expanse, the US features one state (Montana) where cows outnumber humans three to one. One, Kansas, could feed the entire world for two weeks with just a year’s supply of its wheat, and Texas is so massive you could fit the UK into it almost three times over?
Amid such vastness, it sometimes feels impossible for outsiders to find any sensible connection between the tanned bare feet in the Malibu surf, the blue suede shoes in Memphis, the Manolo Blahniks on 5th Avenue and the red glitter shoes leaving Kansas. The US, then, is known for many things. But it is its focus on ‘The American Dream’ that so defines it, both at home and abroad. The USA, the messaging goes, is a place where if you work hard enough, anything can happen.
As Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty illustrate, the US has a strong history of welcoming Scots, Irish, Italians, people from all countries seeking a better life for their families. What Scot on holiday hasn’t met a Chad who tells them, with pride and the thickest Southern accent known to man, he is actually Scottish, hailing from Edin-bow-row?
Today though, as the most divisive election in recent memory approaches, it doesn’t seem as though the American dream is met with quite the same enthusiasm anymore. For a country that still sees countless men, women and children risking life and limb to enter, it increasingly seems to have forgotten its own history as a nation of immigrants
But hey, this is about books, right? I’ve read a lot this year about the search for the American dream and, for me, these three stood out…
As I said in last month’s trailer, I’m entirely unqualified to speak to the controversy around whether Jeanine Cummins should have written this book in the first place. It’s obviously not her story to tell, but tell it she did, regardless. The book is everywhere, and she gave the world Lydia and Luca. The crux of it is, they’re who this book’s about, not the author.
It’s heart in mouth stuff, and from the first page, it’s dark. Gritty, tense, violent, grief-charged and faster than your mind can follow.
You’ll probably need to take a beat after the first three pages and ask yourself if you’re ok with the themes and with the pace. I’d recommend you register how you feel at that point and make a judgement call. Because it won’t slow down, the emotions won’t diminish and everything you’re feeling at that moment will only grow. Once you’re on that moving train, there’s no coming off, no turning back. It’s a hell of a story, but its not an easy one.
You’re going to be rooting for this brave wee boy and his absolute force of nature mum, who will do whatever it takes to get her little boy to safety. I don’t know a single mum, when faced with her set of circumstances, who’d do anything differently than Lydia. Luckily for us, we’re unlikely to experience that particular set of circumstances. There but by the grace of god…
The journey from beginning to end is horrendous, and your nerves are shot as you follow Lydia and her son on their unimaginably perilous border crossing. It also manages to pierce through every negative headline about refugees and migrants and, I feel, leave us asking some tough questions about who we are as a society, here in the UK as well as in the US.
It’s a cracking book – but it’s not for everyone. Please take stock after a few pages and work out if you’ll be able to deal with the emotions it will undoubtedly raise.
Clap When You Land
I can’t really remember Auf Weidersen, Pet, but I do know Jimmy Nail was in it and it was about guys doing building work in Germany so they could send money back home to their families. Nothing unusual, nothing new. And so it was in the Dominican Republic, too, where we find Camino.
Camino’s dad lives and works in New York, sends money home every month and comes back each summer. She loves him and misses him, but understands it’s the only way he can provide for her.
Life is tough in the Dominican Republic for Camino, who works hard and longs to see America. She lives with her aunt and it’s only thanks to the protection of her dad being respected in the community that she’s left alone by the local pimp, whose very existence threatens her with a life she’d do anything to avoid.
Over in New York, meanwhile, Yahaira does well at school, has a girlfriend, a bossy mum and a dad she loves; but things have been a bit strained with him because she’s rebelling against his strict vision for her life. He always goes on business trips in August; this time she thought about asking him to stay, for some reason.
What the girls don’t know is that their dad is one and the same man. And Mr Bigamy would have got away with it too, were it not for that pesky plane crash….
And thus, the fraught and complex worlds of two teenage girls explode beyond all recognition, courtesy not just of the news that they have each lost their precious Papi, but by the revelation they weren’t his only family. Each has a sister.
I loved how this story flipped between their perspectives the whole way through. It’s not just one sister talking here, or even two. Its America talking, it’s the dream talking, the one who made it and the one who didn’t, by accident of birth.
Despite the themes, this is a quick read, and it packs a punch. There is so much emotion and nuance threaded throughout around family, betrayal, grief, loss, heartbreak and abandonment, stripping away at the American dream and laying it bare. It’s only after you’ve stepped away from the book that you start to understand more and more of what you’ve read. The words don’t stop after the end, much like they tell you the calories don’t stop being burned at the end of a HIIT class. Not sure if I believe that one; but take my word for it, this book will get its hooks into you.
An eleven-year-old is harassed, leered at and proposed to constantly by a man in his late 20s. You phone the police, right? Sadly, its not an option for Ana whose beauty makes her a target in a Dominican Republic town fraught with political conflict and danger. So, her mum does the unfathomable opposite and encourages Juan’s return. He is, after all, not just a local businessman. He’s a local businessman heading to America.
Ana’s mum feels keeping her safe means getting her out of the Dominican Republic, so at 15, her family accept Juan’s latest marriage proposal on Ana’s behalf, and she is taken to New York away from everything she knows and loves. She’s terrified and heartbroken, for this was not her American Dream. This was her mother’s.
Ana doesn’t speak a word of English. She’s not allowed to leave the apartment or answer the door and is trapped in a place she didn’t want to be. Her husband takes advantage of the political unrest and returns frequently to the Dominican Republic to exploit the situation financially. Ana bravely starts to carve out a tiny life for herself in his absence; she sews to secretly make her own money, learns English and starts to think America might not be so bad. But then Juan returns home again, and with him, the beatings.
This story can be read in two ways. One the face of it, it is about a young girl basically abducted by a paedophile who drags her to America where he abuses her and ruins her life. But there’s also another way of looking at it – no matter what life throws at her, no matter how hard life is, Ana charts a course for her own future. It’s a coming of age tale of a survivor who makes her own American Dream.
This isn’t an easy read – there should be a trigger warning for rape and domestic violence – but if you’re able to, then please do read it. Angie Cruz is a magician, creating something light and inspiring from a story dark and tragic. Dominicana lost out on the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I was truly gutted. Out of all the nominees, for me, this one shouted the loudest. Is is an essential read.
The Flock Book Club in November – time for romance
While all the cool kids at school read the Point Horror or Goosebumps novels, I was sitting all up in my room like Brandy, devouring the saccharine happy-ever-afters of Point Romance. Life seemed so gloomy outside, but my stomach glowed when the hottest guy in school saw the geek in the library for the cool girl she really was. Life never imitated art, of course, but still I hoped and still I read.
Then, at some point, I turned to thriller and general contemporary fiction as my genre of choice and haven’t so much as sniffed at a romance since. Until Corona hit.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t activity seek out romances. I just bought and read a lot of books so, statistically, I was bound to come across something heart-shaped. And so it came to pass that Sarah Thoms, she of a cynical cold heart, was placed at a log burning stove with a hot chocolate in one hand, a blanket on her knee, and a steady stream of romance novels in the other. And I haven’t been sick yet. Next month, I’ll be discussing three of my favourites:
Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid
By the same author who brought us Daisy Jones and the Six, this dreamy novel is set in old Hollywood amidst the glitz, the glamour – and the directors who viewed their starlets as nothing more than 2D Barbie dolls who did what they were told until they were too old (30) and had to be chucked in the bin. Amidst all this lies a love story so pure and lovely and classy and decadent, you’ll want to swipe on some red lipstick, grab a saucer of champagne and a couple of squares of decent dark chocolate whilst calling everyone darling. IT IS DIVINE.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown
I guarantee you’ll want to immediately read the follow up, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, so you may as well buy them both together. In short, these books are hot. This is romance and sex exactly as many women like it, rather than how you think a bloke will like it. Which is why you shouldn’t read it on the bus, or in the queue at the chemist waiting for your flu jag, or in front of your granny, because I guarantee it will be very awkward. Trust me on these. Consent is sexy, emotionally available men are sexy, describing women exactly as we are is sexy. More of this, please.
Red, White and Royal Blue
Cute as a button, this has Netflix special written all over it from the off. You’ve got Buckingham Palace, the White House, the classic I hate him (but don’t yet realise it’s because I fancy the pants off him) trope and an excellent supporting cast. I see Taron Egerton or Nicholas Hoult playing opposite Liam Hemsworth or that guy who played Peter Kavinsky in To All The Guys I Loved Before. Think serious transatlantic cheekbones, brooding and smouldering, and a storyline so sweet, it’ll give you a toothache. *Looks to camera with a wink.
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