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Sugarland Paperback – May 7, 2016
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From KIRKUS REVIEWS (starred review):
In Conway's (Thieving Forest, 2014, etc.) latest novel, a young jazz pianist encounters kidnapping, rumrunning, and gunplay in 1920s Chicago.
In 1921, Eve Louise Riser is living her dream, getting by on her own andhopping trains from town to town as the pianist in the StoptimeSyncopaters trio. Still in her early 20s, Eve "had four songs publishedalready under the name E. R. King." But everything changes for the worse one night when she stumbles back to her railroad car with the band'sgood-looking saxophone player and they're accosted by a mysterious thug. Soon Eve faces "one hard turn after another" in Chicago, as she and her sister, Eulalie, nicknamed "Chickie," find themselves mixed up withgunrunners, mobsters, and a cross-dressing bootlegger. At one point, asudden hail of bullets strikes Eve and kills the stranger beside her.
Eve is an African-American in a racist town, and the ubiquity ofdiscrimination (and lynchings in the nearby countryside) shows her how"fear turns to something you can smell or taste." Readers meet a cast of dozens, among them pretty-boy Gavin Johnson, the aforementioned saxplayer, who slips Eve a wad of cash and puts her on a train to escape amurder rap; Nathan Cobb, an ex-musician with a temper and a rolodex ofshady connections; and a mysterious scar-faced gangster known as Victor"The Walnut" Rausch.
Impressively, each character stands out clearly and does real work to move the story forward. The author marvelously keepsevents gliding along without sacrificing either detail or atmosphere.She deftly evokes the neon streets of Chicago, where "soon there'd bemore motorcars than horses," in a few spare strokes ("on the corner some kids were playing instruments in the rain--a washtub with a string, adrum made of hubcaps"). Conway is a straightforward writer but not onethat disdains eloquence; there are some deft phrases here (Eve's mother"drank too much and took in laundry. In that order") and real suspensefor anyone who likes a good mystery.
From AKRON BEACON JOURNAL:
Eve Riser, atalented jazz pianist, is on the brink of a new romance with a saxophone player when she witnesses a white farmer being accidentally killed by a black man. Forced into helping doctor the evidence, she also is charged with delivering money to Rudy Hardy, a white man in Chicago. Eve isn't sorry to go, because she'll be able to look up her beloved stepsister Chickie, a jazz singer. She is surprised to find that Chickie is pregnant.
When Eve tries to deliver the money, she sees Rudy Hardy shot dead before her eyes, and she herself is badly wounded. Lena, Rudy's sister, is a nurse, and she takes care of Eve, hoping to find out why Rudy was killed. Eve wants to know what became of the money --and of Chickie, who has disappeared.
The author excels at portraying the indignation Eve feels when a white man on a streetcar tells her that she shouldn't be sitting next to Lena, a white woman. Lena, in turn, feels invisible when Eve is talking to a fellow musician who refuses to shake Lena's hand. Also excellent is Conway's description of the indescribable: the feel and spirit of early Chicago-style hot jazz.
From SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS:
San Francisco author Martha Conway, whose brilliant 2014 novel, "Thieving Forest," was set in the wilds of 19th-century Ohio, returns with a "jazz age mystery" that begins in 1920s Chicago. It's the story of Eve Louise Riser, a young African-American songwriter and pianist making her way in the city's speakeasies. Everything changes when she witnesses a murder; suddenly, Eve finds herself the target of gangsters and gunrunners. Conway's a wonderful writer, and she sustains the reader's interest throughout this gripping mystery informed by the era's shameful treatment of women and minorities.
"An absorbing whodunit full of gangsters and glitz" (Kirkus Reviews)
About the Author
Martha Conway's first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her historical novel THIEVING FOREST won numerous prizes including the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. Her short stories have been published in the Iowa Review, the Carolina Quarterly, the Massachusetts Review, the Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Epoch, and other journals. She teaches creative writing for Stanford University's Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in San Francisco.
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Top Customer Reviews
Set in Chicago’s fabled South Side, author Martha Conway creates a mix of characters, black and white, brought together by the clubs, jazz, and booze. There is a wild abandon in this time and place where the music is another character—we hear it between the lines, its own score, keeping time with the plot. We learn about the history of jazz through the experiences of Henry James, Eve Riser, and Nathan Cobb, how it rose up out of a Southern culture, played in black churches during the night hours, and how it was both music and a voice, telling a story. As Henry says, “You have to play it like it’s your way out.”
Conway depicts the lawlessness of the era, where cops are on the take, and the only protection against gang vendetta was the loyalty of friends. Which friends are loyal or false is what determines the twists and turns of Conway’s fast paced plot.
It is Conway herself who takes an artistic risk: as a white woman author who takes the point of view of the main character, Eve Riser, a young, black piano player from Pittsburg. She does so convincingly, and introduces us to Eve, a woman of innocence and courage, who quickly sees the dangers that surround her in Chicago. This is a book that takes us to the heart of jazz. Highly recommended as historical fiction and a page-turning mystery.
Among other things, this wonderful book is about women struggling for survival in a man’s world and the relationships that form between them as they work together, and although these particular women live in Chicago in the 1920’s, this is a universal story. As they battle various challenges, they experiment with the boundaries of female convention, and I loved the descriptions of Lena’s experiments in cross-dressing and the wild allure of jazz. Every one of these female characters is fully realized and utterly compelling. If you liked The Help or Little Women or any book with an ensembles of sympathetic and fascinating women characters, I highly recommend this one. And by the way, Conway's previous book, Thieving Forest, is also a truly fantastic example of this genre.
So often when choosing books you have to choose between the engrossing thriller and the weighty historical novel that everyone says you “should” read (the literary equivalent of steamed broccoli). But with Sugarland you can have both: historical illumination AND a gripping tale. I loved this book.