Between Heaven and Here

By Susan Straight

(McSweeney’s, $24, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Susan Straight is a native Californian, a member of an extended family that numbers more than 200 relatives, and a prolific author. Her seven novels, all published since 1990, include the wonderfully titled “I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots” (1992), “Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights” (1994) and “Take One Candle Light A Room” (2010). She also writes short stories, which have been published in Zoetrope All-Story, McSweeneys, O Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories and other periodicals. “The Golden Gopher,” published in Los Angeles Noir, won the Edgar Award in 2007. She also has written essays for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, The Believer, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle and other magazines. She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.

What is this book about?

It has a murder, and some mysterious elements, but “Between Heaven and Here” is not a standard murder mystery. Instead, it is the story of the life and death of beautiful Glorette Picard of Rio Seco, Calif., whose life story is linked to the history of the town, a place so hard and dry in summer that the ground must be soaked before a grave can be dug. Gloria was gorgeous and loved by many, but she was a drug addict who worked as a prostitute. When one of her longtime admirers finds her body in a shopping cart, he arranges for her burial without involving the police – not a wise move. An uncle seeks vengeance for her murder, her brilliant son seeks to free himself from family history and the town finds itself entangled in Gloria’s heartbreaking story. This book is the third in Straight’s Rio Seco trilogy, following  “A Million Nightingales” and “Take One Candle Light a Room.”

Why you’ll like it:

Straight is a gifted storyteller, and while she is white, she has the ability to write believably and without condescension about black people caught up in unfortunate circumstances. This book is winning praise for its ability to address thorny issues of race and class while transcending them to offer a realistic yet touching story. Straight also gets kudos for her gift for descriptive writing and a deep understanding of human hearts.

What others are saying:

“Who is Glorette Picard? …Her murder serves as the plot’s catalyst, but the beguilement comes from learning about Glorette’s family—her son, who struggles to break the bonds of his mother’s life, and the uncle willing to kill again to avenge her death—and the family’ friends who suffer from their own demons. Straight creates multidimensional characters who are neither villain nor hero,” says Library Journal.

“…the third installment of her trilogy concerns the reactions and memories that a prostitute’s death stirs up in the tightknit black community in Rio Seco, Calif. Glorette has become a streetwalker and a drug addict who has dangerously neglected her brilliant son, Victor. …Sidney has remained in love with Glorette, although it has been 20 years since she was an innocent, preternaturally beautiful girl growing up in orange groves that belonged to her “uncle,” Enrique Antoine, and her father, Gustave–the men’s binding relationship, their establishment of Rio Seco as a refuge for young women escaping a brutal white rapist in Louisiana, and the method by which Enrique gained ownership of the land are haunting subplots … In less than 250 pages, Straight develops a lot of characters in surprising depth…Straight (who is white but eschews the self-congratulating, cliché-laden condescension of books like “The Help”) employs glorious language and a riveting eye for detail to create a fully realized, totally believable world,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review:  “The mysterious murder of a hooker kicks off this exquisitely wrought final installment of Straight’s trilogy….Straight plunges readers into a whirlwind of dialects, drugs, derelict homes, and delinquent locals as she weaves together the story of Glorette’s life and death, while addressing weighty and timely issues like race, language, and the socioeconomically disenfranchised. Straight deftly avoids clichés and easy outs, and her refusal to vilify or sanctify the numerous members of her cast allows the experiences of each to resonate powerfully.”

“Susan Straight has remarkable range as a writer. Her voice can be elegant in the rhythms and vocabulary of her narrative, yet also blunt and raw in dialogue… Her work is so intensely alive in its movement, action, and in the speech of her characters that reading it is almost like being caught in the center of a storm: exhausting but exhilarating at the same time,” says The Rumpus.

When is it available?

It’s on the new book shelf now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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