Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Alice + Freda Forever

I am a Cybils second round judge. I am currently reading the all the nominated books in a fun "armchair readalong" way with the first round judges. My reviews and opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the work of the committee.

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis Alexis Coe

Man, I love Zest in general and when I heard they were doing a New Adult line, my thoughts were “huh? really?” because I wasn’t sure how it would fit. Then I saw that their first New Adult book was a historical true crime about 19th century lesbian murder in Memphis. Because, of course, it’s Zest and that’s how they roll and that’s why I love them.

Sadly, I did not love this book, as much as I wanted to. It’s exciting and compelling, but has some fatal flaws.

Alice and Freda were school friends. In the late 1800s, it was common for young women to form very intense friendships, hold hands, declare their love for each other. For Alice and Freda though, it went much deeper than mere “chumming.” They were actually in love, and Alice was going to pretend to be a man so they could get married and Alice would work to support the family. But when Freda’s sister discovered the plot, she forbade Freda to contact Alice again. She then told Alice’s family who agreed to keep the girls apart. Freda moved on, but Alice could not, would not. So Alice slit Freda’s throat in the middle of a street in broad daylight. A sensational murder trial followed, with Alice’s family pleading insanity, because what other explanation was there for same-sex love?

Coe tells this story very well. It’s gripping and readable, opening with the murder and then jumping back to detail their relationship. Their relationship had many issues, Freda was a flirt, Alice was jealous and possessive, and Freda had moved upriver from Memphis. She also does a great job explaining the trial and differences in the legal system between then and now and I love the way she subtly emphasizes that Alice’s family was rich (not mega rich, not high society, but definitely not poor) and white and how that changed things. How Alice’s Memphis was not the same Memphis many other people lived in. Overall the story is a great one to know about and I couldn't put it down--I read it one sitting.

But, it still had some problems.

For one, it kept referring to Eastern Tennessee like that’s where Memphis is. (Such as when Alice’s father hires two of the most prominent, expensive attorneys in Eastern Tennessee.) At one point it talks about “nearby Knoxville.” Um, look at a map. Memphis is as far West as you can get in Tennessee and Knoxville is 400 miles away. If something as basic as the location of Memphis is incorrect, what else is, too?

But, my major problem is that it’s illustrated. As I’ve said before I don’t agree with using drawings of historical photographs instead of the actual photographs. And this book even illustrates historical DOCUMENTS, like newspaper headline and articles, and the Register of Deaths. Worst of all, all of the letters between Alice and Freda are illustrated in handwriting. Not their handwriting, or even time-period authentic handwriting, and some of it is VERY hard to read. Yeesh, just type it out.

Some of the pictures are great and there’s no way there’s a photograph (my favorite is this stark on of Alice lying in her jail cell where she’s lightly sketched in white, surrounded by this heavy, dark grey) and that’s fine. BUT. Don’t illustrate a newspaper headline. Just use the original. And, if you’re going to use letters as part of your narrative and evidence, make sure they’re readable.

So, on the whole, this is not one I’ll be looking for on the award lists this year (sadly) and I’ll be very disappointed if it is on the lists, BUT, it is one I’ll recommend to readers and share widely.

Book Provided by... my local library

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