Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The book cover shows two boys running in silhouette against a dark foreground and blue sky with clouds, between two leafy trees.

by Aimee Z.

In a small, forgotten Mississippi town, a vicious crime and a missing girl are like déjà vu for hapless farmer and hermit, Larry Ott. Decades before, the man the whole town still calls ‘Scary Larry,’ took local girl Cindy Walker on his first and only date. The girl never came home, and her body was never found.

Blame fell on Larry Ott, and he became a pariah to everyone, including his parents. But the one person Larry could not bear to lose was his best friend from childhood, Silas Jones. Silas “32” Jones, a black man, once dirt poor, worked hard over the years to earn the respectability he covets as the town’s lawman.

Now another girl – a politician’s daughter – has gone missing. Once more, the town is certain Larry did it. The last thing Silas needs is anything to do with Larry Ott – until he responds to the 911 call: Larry Ott’s been shot by an intruder and is now in intensive care. It doesn’t look good.

Silas’s struggle to do the right thing is what makes this book a small gem. Readers will settle in to assume that this is another insignificant southern town, bristling with economic despair and racism, but they’ll be wrong. Sure, Franklin creates an oppressive atmosphere where heat and kudzu vines flourish, and neighbors get back at neighbors with the occasional cottonmouth snake in the mailbox. Urban legends, racism, ignorance, child abuse, and the small-town need for a whipping boy abound. We need a hero, and refreshingly, Franklin has given that role to Silas.

At the same time, any connection to Larry Ott could put Silas back on that precipice of racism. But as he investigates and pursues the perpetrator, unearthing the bones of an old crime, Silas’s conflicted emotions press to a breaking point. Will he admit to the complicated part he once played in the harrowing life he shared with Larry Ott? If only he could forget turning his back on Larry when Larry needed him most.

Part thriller, part literary fiction, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is still a book I want to press into everyone’s hands. I think it should also be part of the high school curriculum. An eloquent and tender story, it will shape any reader’s collective consciousness regarding race and what it means to be a friend. 

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is also available from HCLS as an ebook from Libby/Overdrive, and in audiobook format on CD.

Aimee Z. is part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.

Author event with Kekla Magoon

Photo of author Kekla Magoon, who has a wide smile, rectangular glasses, and short hair with lots of curls. She's wearing a deep V-neck in a black and white print, pictured with a green yard behind her.

One of this year’s Battle of the Books titles is The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon. The author is visiting virtually on April 14 for a 30-minute live Q&A! You may type your questions in advance within registration or hold them for the event.

The Season of Styx Malone tells the funny, poignant story about one amazing summer in small-town Indiana, when Caleb and Bobby Gene make friends with the slightly older, way cooler Styx Malone. Let’s be clear: Styx Malone is definitely too cool for school! He knows things… like about elevator trading, where you can essentially make something out of nothing. These boys are going to make a bag of fireworks (obtained by temporarily trading their baby sister) into a green moped. All these brothers want is to see the big city of Indianapolis, but their (maybe overly) protective father wants them to stay close to home in Sutton. The desire for adventure wars against the need for safety throughout the family’s interactions.

The boys follow foster child Styx into one “interesting” choice after another, hoping to achieve their dream of having independent mobility via the green moped, affectionately nicknamed Grasshopper. When things take a turn for the worse, everyone has to reconsider what a happy ending will look like. As Caleb and Bobby Gene lobby for adopting Styx, it turns out that adults can sometimes make good things happen. It’s a delightful book full of good humor from the point of view of three bored friends longing for more from summer than watering holes and doing chores (Mom was not happy about the baby sister trading).

Kekla Magoon is the author of many novels and nonfiction books for young readers, including The Season of Styx MaloneThe Rock and the RiverHow It Went Down, and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventure series

She has received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, the Walter Award Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and been longlisted for the National Book Award. 

Kekla conducts school and library visits nationwide and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. She holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves as faculty. Visit her online at keklamagoon.com.

Cover art has an illustration of a Black teenager in a slightly off-center ball cap, adjusting his mirrored sunglasses. In the glasses, you can see two other Black kids. The title of the book appear in script on the orange hat.

The book is also available as an ebook, on CD, and as an eAudiobook.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The cover shows the title and author's name against a background of brightly colored, wavy stripes in blues, greens, yellows, purples, oranges, and reds.

By Jean B.

The summer camp directories are out, and though summer will still be COVID-impacted, these camp listings have me thinking about the freedom and fun of summers past. Do you have any cherished (or miserable?!) summer camp memories? Do you think of s’mores or lakes or mosquitoes? While there are all kinds of camps and camp memories, one universal camp experience, it seems, is the intensity of friendships that form in that time-bounded space. When kids are briefly brought together from various places and situations and thrown into the intimate, shared life of a camp routine, something special happens.  

That powerful camp-created bond lies at the core of Meg Wolitzer’s engrossing novel, The Interestings. Six teenagers become friends at Spirit of the Woods camp in the summer of 1974, and the relationships they form with one another shape the rest of their lives. Spirit of the Woods is an arts camp, a place designed to foster talent and passion. Julie Jacobsen isn’t sure she belongs in this place but is thrilled when the self-named clique “The Interestings” enfolds her into their circle of specialness.

As the six kids grow, age, and build their lives and careers, Jules continues to measure her life against those of her camp friends and to use their experiences as a guide to what makes a life successful. Their diverse talents – so glittering in their camp days – play out in many ways in adulthood, and though the bonds of friendship provide a lifeline through crises, they also drive wedges as Jules’ and her friends’ fortunes diverge.  Through Jules’ eyes, readers can consider the question: what would you do for a friend?  

This beautifully written story made me think about my own friendships and how they’ve evolved over time. It swept me into the juicy world of these characters’ lives and relationships but also gave me lots to chew on – it’s both ice cream and salad, a perfect summer feast!  If you’re looking for something fun and, well, interesting, check out Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

 Available in print and audio CD, or as an ebook and eaudio on Libby/OverDrive.

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Virtual Visit with Lisa See

On a sea blue background, two Korean women stand ready to dive. The title and author information interweaves with line drawings of water grass and squids.

On Tuesday, October 6 at 11 am, 2020 One Maryland One Book author Lisa See visits virtually to discuss her book The Island of Sea Women. She will be in conversation with Laura Yoo, Professor of English at Howard Community College and a board member of Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Register to receive a link to this free event.

Spanning generations, and set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and the broader geopolitics of the Cold War, The Island of Sea Women takes place on the island of Jeju. It focuses on haenyeo – female divers, who cooperated to create a matrifocal society. These women were the primary earners in their families, while their husbands took on more domestic roles. However, the complexity of the narrative captures the broader theme of nearly 70 years of friendship.

See writes, “No one picks a friend for us; we come together by choice,” and such was the case for Young-sook, the daughter of the chief haenyeo, and Mi-ja, an orphan whose father was a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook’s family, in spite of being wary of Mi-ja’s stained reputation, practically adopts her, and their friendship is a beautiful and rare sort. It is, “not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son; we tie ourselves together through moments. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.” Such deeply shared moments, secrets, and experiences define the nature of their friendship.

As the girls reach adulthood, the prospect of their respective arranged marriages begins to strain their friendship. Mi-ja looks to marry the wealthy and handsome son of a Japanese collaborator, who resides in the city, while Young-sook has an understanding with a neighbor boy, Jun-bu. Yet, their friendship further solidifies through the shared experiences of their “leaving-home water-work” in Russia’s Vladivostok and motherhood.

The looming backdrop of the Korean Crisis and the 4.3 Incident (the massacre of thousands of Koreans on April 3, 1948 in response to a communist rebellion) at the hands of the new Korean government brought into power by the United States results in crimes against humanity and atrocities being committed against the innocent. The novel’s major dilemma revolves around Young-sook’s struggle with the traumatic and rather graphic barbarity of the 4.3 Incident and her subsequent rejection of Mi-ja’s friendship. 

While the novel deals with several themes, the overarching theme of friendship intersects and interacts with some of the other themes like male hegemony in Korean society, motherhood, religion and spirituality, war, injustice and finally, loss, betrayal and forgiveness. This book has much to teach about female companionship, trust, and, more importantly, the necessity to hear a friend without judgment. 

Review by Rohini G., who is an Adult Curriculum Specialist with Howard County Library System and is a member of the selection committee for One Maryland One Book

If you wish to discuss the novel, several HCLS Book Discussion groups have chosen it for upcoming meeting. Register to receive a Zoom link.

Stories of the World on Monday, Oct 5 at 7 pm

Books on Tap on Wednesday, Oct 7 at 6 pm

The Thursday Next Book Club on Thursday, Oct 8 at 7 pm

ELK Excellent Reads on Tuesday, Nov 10 at 12:30 pm