Review: The Removed by Brandon Hobson

Oh my, long time no blog. In my defense, I’ve been swamped with work, buying a home, and sorting through/packing up a house we have lived in for nearly ten years… As a result, I’m way behind schedule on my planned reading and blogging. Here’s hoping that gets better after we move in next week.

I find it much easier these days to listen to audiobooks while I’m doing stuff, rather than trying to find time to sit and read, so I decided to finish this book on audio. I’m very glad I did!

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

In the fifteen years since their teenage son, Ray-Ray, was killed in a police shooting, the Echota family has been suspended in private grief. The mother, Maria, increasingly struggles to manage the onset of Alzheimer’s in her husband, Ernest. Their adult daughter, Sonja, leads a life of solitude, punctuated only by spells of dizzying romantic obsession. And their son, Edgar, fled home long ago, turning to drugs to mute his feelings of alienation.

With the family’s annual bonfire approaching—an occasion marking both the Cherokee National Holiday and Ray-Ray’s death, and a rare moment in which they openly talk about his memory—Maria attempts to call the family together from their physical and emotional distances once more. But as the bonfire draws near, each of them feels a strange blurring of the boundary between normal life and the spirit world. Maria and Ernest take in a foster child who seems to almost miraculously keep Ernest’s mental fog at bay. Sonja becomes dangerously fixated on a man named Vin, despite—or perhaps because of—his ties to tragedy in her lifetime and lifetimes before. And in the wake of a suicide attempt, Edgar finds himself in the mysterious Darkening Land: a place between the living and the dead, where old atrocities echo.

I have seen a lot of not-great reviews floating around, and while I understand not every book is for everyone, I’m sort of flabbergasted by how many people couldn’t connect with The Removed. It’s so good.

My thoughts

I finished The Removed several days ago, and I’m still thinking about and processing it. The writing is fantastic: quietly lyrical and at times dreamlike, Hobson sort of snuck up on my with some powerful punches. The book starts 15 years ago, with the Echota family losing their oldest son, Ray-Ray, in a completely unwarranted police shooting. After that brief setup, the remainder of the story is told in 3 distinct POVs: Ray-Ray’s mother Maria, older sister Sonja, and younger brother Edgar, interspersed with chapters in the voice of Tsala, a Cherokee ancestor relating his terrible experiences around the Trail of Tears. So much pain and trauma, and yet Hobson has woven in love and hope to create a truly sublime reading experience.

The Removed is largely character-driven, with not a lot of real action taking place, and the characters are so well defined and developed. I especially loved Maria, dealing with the lingering grief of losing Ray-Ray, the ongoing pain of Edgar’s disappearance into meth, and her beloved husband’s decline with Alzheimer’s. She’s a stoic, terribly real-seeming character and I loved her chapters so much, especially when foster child Wyatt is with her. Sonja’s POV is lonely and somewhat perplexing, but I found her strangely relatable in her ways of dealing with pain. Edgar’s POV was to me a lot like a confusing, dark dream, and it was very affecting to be inside of his head. Tsala’s chapters were infuriating and heartbreaking. I’m truly impressed with how defined and unique these characters are, and it’s always refreshing when a male author does such a great job writing female characters.

Even without a lot of action, there is still a lot going on in The Removed—racism and violence toward marginalized people, family and relationships, grief and pain, addiction, mental health, reckoning with shameful history and colonialism—but it all flows together into a beautifully spiritual novel. I enjoyed being completely immersed in this story, though I did find myself skipping back to understand what was happening, or just to listen to a particularly powerful passage again.

“We are always restless, carrying the dreams of children and the elderly, the tired and sick, the poor, the wounded. The Removed.”

The audiobook is very good, with different narrators for each POV, each of them talented.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for my copy of this excellent novel in exchange for this honest review.


Review: The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly

My goodness, January has been a hell of a decade. Since I spent the first weeks of the month being absorbed in the news and ridiculous behavior of so many of my fellow Americans, my reading was not what it usually is. But I’m getting back in the swing of things with some great books, like The Last Garden—just the sort of historical fiction escapism I needed.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

Present day: Emma Lovett, who has dedicated her career to breathing new life into long-neglected gardens, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime: to restore the gardens of the famed Highbury House estate, designed in 1907 by her hero Venetia Smith. But as Emma dives deeper into the gardens’ past, she begins to uncover secrets that have long lain hidden.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer to industrialists, solicitors, and bankers looking to show off their wealth with sumptuous country houses. When she is hired to design the gardens of Highbury House, she is determined to make them a triumph, but the gardens—and the people she meets—promise to change her life forever.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton, on the other hand, is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is anxiously trying to cling to her pre-war life now that her home has been requisitioned and transformed into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. But when war threatens Highbury House’s treasured gardens, these three very different women are drawn together by a secret that will last for decades.

My thoughts

I love historical fiction with multiple timelines. It’s kind of my jam. This book has not one, not two, but three timelines, with not three, not four, but five different women all connected to a single mysterious winter garden at Highbury House in Scotland. One of those timelines is WWII, and all of those women are fascinating in their own distinct way, so this book was a perfect read for me.

The writing is very good, and it’s clear that a lot of research about requisitioned homes in WWII (and English gardens, of course) went in to the process. Each of the characters has a clear voice and their own unique story, from the ‘spinster’ gentleman’s daughter-turned-garden designer in 1907, to the widow, orphan, and cook in 1944, to the modern-day entrepreneur restoring the gardens. The addition of little romance to the drama in each timeline was welcome and well done, too.

The rich descriptions of the gardens, as they are first planned, then in their glory, and later restored, really transported me into the story. I especially loved Venetia and Diana’s stories, but all of these strong female characters were delightful to follow.

I highly recommend this book to fans of WWII-era and historical fiction in general, and I thank NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for my free copy in exchange for this honest review.