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Neil Gaiman meets Flannery O’Connor
Here’ s a review of Brambleman by G.D. Brennan, a Chicago author who gives it five stars. I’m flattered, of course, and I’m especially gratified when a reader gets out of the book what I was certain I put into it. Brennan’s observation echoes my feelings. When I was pitching the book, I said, “Imagine Neil Gaiman and Joseph Heller collaborating on To KIll a Mockingbird.” Close enough, G.D. To see the original review (and buy the book, which is such a deal at $6.99–two bucks of the regular price), click here.
G.D. Brenna writes:
Imagine Neil Gaiman and Flannery O’Connor collaborating on a story about the legacy of a true-life ethnic cleansing in rural Georgia. Better yet, imagine that story being told by someone with both of those authors’ greatest skills–Gaiman’s deft and believable blending of the supernatural and the realistic, O’Connor’s sharp eye for the South’s gritty underbelly–and a wicked sense of humor that easily surpasses either of those authors. Imagine that, and you’ll have a chance of picturing “Brambleman.” (Of course, you probably still won’t come close, because Grant’s skills are such that this story unfolds unpredictably, with a number of delightful turns of fate that keep the reader guessing, and enthralled.)
The story begins with a struggling author, Charlie Sherman, getting kicked out of his house after his wife caught him behaving like (as he later puts it) “Onan the Barbarian.” He ends up living in the basement of a dementia-addled woman, reworking the unpublished manuscript of her late husband, a scholar who’d been exploring the expulsion of African-Americans from Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912. Shades of “Sunset Boulevard” and “Misery,” perhaps, but what might have been a self-contained and derivative story arc for a less ambitious author ends up as just the opening of a full, rich and epic work, part history lesson, part satire about race and class in 21st century America, part exploration of the nature of faith and God and good and evil.
I usually hate, hate, HATE books whose protagonist is an author. But Grant did an awesome job with his–he’s unafraid to make Charlie look too good or too bad, unafraid to show both the ridiculous fantasies (a hot hookup with the cute coffee shop barista, and maybe a friend of hers as well) and the pathetic realities (attempting to conceal from said barista that one is broke and living in a van) that can plague the undiscovered author. (Hopefully he won’t stay that way; there’s so much to love about this book that I really hope it finds a wider audience. Describing lynchings and mob justice in Georgia in 1912, for instance, one character observes that “black subjects were lucky if they were considered innocent until proven arrested.”) I’ve reviewed several books by up-and-coming authors that left me dreading the reading, but this one kept me eager for more; I often found myself standing on the “L” platform in the cold Chicago winter, grasping my Kindle in gloved hands and turning pages with my nose so I could finish a chapter. It was just that compelling. And not only is it relentlessly readable, it’s probably the best entertainment value you’ll find this year. What more can you ask for?
Brambleman “leaves you emotionally spent and infinitely wiser”
Maria Miaoulis at Reading for Pleasure has given Brambleman five stars. In her review, Maria writes:
… (Grant) keeps the suspense building throughout the entire book. There’s no way to guess how it will end since you never know what each turn of the page will bring. The main character’s plight is just a never-ending series of misfortunate events, all seemingly designed to stop him from righting the wrongs done to others so long ago. Somehow though he finds the wherewithal to keep going, and you can’t help but cheer him on and hope for a “happy ending” after all he’s been through.
The supernatural element adds further drama since you can’t tell whether Charles is working for a vengeful God or has unknowingly made a pact with the devil. Yet the twist doesn’t make the plot any less believable. On the contrary, the story is painfully realistic, especially in its depiction of racism. Here, Grant does an excellent job portraying each character’s struggle as they try to reconcile an ugly past with a progressive world’s changing state of affairs.
All in all, “Brambleman” is a lively and passionate read that leaves you emotionally spent and infinitely wiser by the end, the very hallmark of a compelling book. I highly recommend it to all.
By the way, her plot summary is the best one I’ve seen in any review. Check it out.
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Review: “Welcome to Cumming”
This most interesting Amazon.com review of Brambleman comes from Meg Gerrish under the heading “Welcome to Cumming”:
As my grandfather brought me from the airport to the new home where he and my grandmother would live out their retirement years, on a hilltop overlooking Lake Lanier, he said with much scorn, “Welcome to Cumming. This is where they hung two Negroes for still being in town when the sun went down.” When the murders occurred, I don’t know, I was just 13. He stated that welcome in 1966.
So when I heard about this book and that Forsyth County had a grave history of ethnic cleansing beyond the murder of those two men, I was interested. The writer does a great job of weaving real history (changing the names) into the fantastical, fictional life of a character named Charlie Sherman, who despaired of life until Trouble found him. And on the back of rising success, he despaired some more.
Although I have no knowledge about the author’s pursuits for publication, I can imagine publishers loved the manuscript while also stewing over how to classify it — the genre, the genre, where does this fit? — but it was a great read, easily visualized with entertaining dialogue and at the upper tier, the most important part of the story, delivered a part of the American experience that should not be swept away. Even with this kind of hate permeating part of our history, it should have no place in America’s today and tomorrow.
I don’t know if my grandfather ever knew about ethnic cleansing in the town where he settled (in America!), but he knew enough to be discouraged of the locals. He lived in Cumming because that’s where my grandmother wanted to be, next to where her sisters had also set up for retirement. It was a lovely place in the late 1960s. But not always.
See Brambleman‘s Amazon.com page.
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Brambleman is “highly addicting”
Rave review from a blogger who used to live on the Forsyth County line.
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Brambleman, the Forsyth County Saga, gets five stars from a LibraryThing reader (I don’t know her, but I hope to meet her someday):
This book took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. I flew through it despite its length. I loved it…all of it, and there isn’t much more to say than that. I highly recommend it, especially to those people who are from the south, with parents or grandparents from the “old school.” It really opened my eyes to how much things have changed here in the south.
Overall rankings (out of 5.0 stars): Goodreads-4.5, LibrraryThing-4.36, Amazon.com-4.5
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Five stars for Brambleman from Liza on Goodreads. Here’s an excerpt from her review:
“Another excellent story by Mr. Grant. It took me a while to get through it but it was worth it. The cast of characters were vast. It was two books in one. … I might have finished it sooner if I had an actual eReader instead of my phone lol.”
What really got to me was a comment she made on her progress report, when she was on page 109, about a quarter of the way through: “one of those reads where you don’t want to miss a word.”
The great reviews and high ratings keep pouring in. Brambleman’s overall rating on Goodreads is 4.44 right now, with the majority of readers giving it 5 stars; nearly 90 percent give it either 4 or 5 stars. It’s hit the magic number of 10 reviews on Amazon.com, where the book enjoys a 4.6-star rating, with no one yet giving it less than 4. It’s holding a 4.5 star rating at LibraryThing, as well.
I think the book is on the verge of finding its audience. Barnes and Noble stores have started stocking it. I’ll be meeting with a book club to discuss it in Septermber (Shout out to Ann!) and I’m hoping it will land on the cover of Publishers’ Weekly next month (keep your fingers crossed),
Five Stars from Forsyth County
A five-star review for Brambleman from Forsyth County reader Marcy Theobald (originally posted on Goodreads):
“I REALLY enjoyed this book. Very much a page-turner. I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter, and the next, and the next…
Jonathan Grant’s Brambleman is historical fiction, taking place in Forsyth County in my backyard of Cumming, GA. It was interesting, to say the least, learning about what’s happened here in the county I’ve lived in for almost 15 years. More accurately, I was appalled to learn that Oprah’s visit here in the late 80’s was the tip of Forsyth’s history-making iceberg. Lynching was an acceptable practice here in the early-to-mid 1900’s, served by the hands of whites who didn’t appreciate the hard working blacks in their community doing jobs better than them, without complaint and for less money. Moreover, they didn’t like that blacks owned property, so Forsyth’s whites ran them off their lands and out of the county and took over black-owned land as their own.
This is not to say that blacks were completely innocent, but when made a criminal, Forsyth’s white residents took it upon themselves to serve justice their way when they could get away with it, which was apparently often and bloody.
Grant interweaves Forsyth’s true history with the fictional story of a man, Charlie, who is newly separated from his wife, whose family resides in Forsyth County on land now (in our decade) worth millions. This novel contains a bit of magic — think George Bailey and his angel savior in It’s A Wonderful Life, but with a much darker slant — that comes and goes with a character Charlie names Trouble. Trouble helps Charlie find a job and place to live, both with an elderly woman whose late husband wrote a hefty historic digest revealing Forsyth county’s nasty little secrets but died shortly after finishing it and not coincidentally one week after participating in the Forsyth march (on the side of justice) in the late 80’s. Charlie’s job is to edit and publish the tome, which ends up uncovering lots of nastiness about his backwoods in-laws, ‘the varmints’. And this is just the beginning of our journey.
Grant’s Brambleman is a history lesson, an awakening (yes, blacks still have it tough), and a wild ride of a story. I thoroughly enjoyed the ending, and if you appreciate endings wrapped up in nice, neat packages, you’ll enjoy it, as well.”
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Atlanta book reviewer Idgie at Dew on the Kudzu has posted her take on Brambleman:
This book has great amounts of historical information in it, which will appeal to many, and that little element of supernatural, which turns it into a nice fictional book with surprises throughout. A little bit of something for everyone!
Check out her full review.
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Elizabeth A. White has postedreview of Brambleman. Hers is the first cohesive, independent report of the book, and I’m happy to report that she read what I wrote. (For many writers and reviewers, this isn’t always the case.)
In summing up, she writes:
Like his first novel, Chain Gang Elementary, Jonathan Grant’s highly ambitious and engaging second novel, Brambleman, once again took me somewhere I wasn’t quite expecting. Though the book presents a tremendous amount of historical information about the events of 1912, by constructing the story around the premise Charlie is himself working on a text about the events – a book within the book – it all flows naturally. Indeed, as he did in Chain Gang Elementary Grant demonstrates once again that he is particularly adept at weaving hard-edged sociopolitical topics into the fabric of his fictional narrative without being heavy-handed, never sacrificing his storytelling to “just the facts.”
Brambleman goes far beyond “just the facts” actually, as there is a decidedly supernatural element to the tale, one that becomes more pronounced as the story unfolds. In fact, before you know it Grant has taken what initially appeared to be the simple story of a down on his luck writer and turned it into a reflection on personal spirituality, vengeance, and destiny. Because of the topics it touches on, both fact and fiction, Brambleman is not exactly a “beach read” kind of book. What Brambleman is, however, is an extremely well-written book that will both entertain and inform. And you can’t really ask for more than that now, can you?
You can read her entire review here.
You can read her review of Chain Gang Elementary here.