Cover Image: Groundskeeping


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Member Reviews

This is an engaging book that provides a wonderful set of people with whom the narrator relates while he tries to sort out his life. Wrestling with the many different 'pulls' that exert overt and subtle force on each of us as we travel through life fills our narrator's thoughts. The metaphor that comes to mind is cooking with spices. Many dishes share a number of spices but it is the unique few that help give each dish its identity. In this story our narrator reveals he past and current realities that are pulling him in many different directions, however he is unwilling to fully commit to follow any of them and seems to travel through life a bit like a dandelion seed, moving erratically as both breezes and winds exert pressure on it. I found the many character very real but I appreciated how the dialogue in the book captured the shallow way that communication and sharing thoughts happens today...everyone looking for "meta-messages" rather than listening to and responding to the actual words spoken. I also appreciated the way the author captured the frustration we often feel balancing our desire to have a future than is not too heavily shaped by our past; the process of sorting out what parts of our personal history we want to keep and how to free ourselves from other parts of our history. I also liked that how each character had enough development to be both knowable and complex enough to remain somewhat of a mystery. While set in small town Kentucky, I didn't feel that was a critical element to the story.

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Groundskeeping pictures an American quilt, a tattered southern patchwork of the familial fetters of identity, judgment, privilege, poverty, fears, and longings. The stitches are fragile, the pattern rambling, colors evolving, ever-changing.
Set in rural Kentucky at a local college, the lives of two young adults, Owen and Alma, are being stitched together into a crazy quilt narrative in which the reader is pulled back and forth between hope, disappointment and sorrow.
A story of two writers, one aspiring and floundering, one on the first leg of success and pondering; one the child of the Kentucky backwoods, one the child of comfortable, successful immigrants.
A story reaching into the thoughts, confusion and decisions of relationships.
A story worth the effort of actually reading and dwelling on all the words that stitch the quilt.

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Groundskeeping kept me reading. I truly felt that I was reading a biography of Lee Cole but have no idea how much was based on his life. I thought the writing was great, the descriptions were very accurate some funny, some sad. I didn't like the Alma but that didn't take away from the story. I especially loved the tree trimming experiences that Owen would recount, to me they were more interesting than the romance. Kentucky also figured in as a very strong character. I guess throughout the entire book I thought something catastrophic would happen but it never really does..

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Owen Callahan returns to Kentucky, moves in with his grandfather and disabled uncle, gets a job as a groundskeeper at Ashby College and takes a course in writing there. He meets Alma, a published writer awarded a fellowship at the college and develops an uneasy relationship with her.

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This book was sent to me electronically for review by Netgalley. Although I enjoyed the story and familiar places, the language used by some of the characters was a stumbling block. It had no use in this story. That being said, the author has woven a different kind of novel than is popular today. I enjoyed those parts trying to overlook the language.. I hope Cole writes other books like this one.

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When a book grabs you from the first page, you just KNOW it's going to be good. Groundskeeping was such a book. Owen and Alma are believable and at once recognizable. I feel like I can run into them at any moment. Their love story is one for the ages. With such dynamic writing and plot development, it's hard to believe this is Lee Cole's first novel. I look forward to many more books from him.

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How much you end up liking Groundskeeping is going to probably be dependent on how fond you are of the Sally Rooney-esqe writing style. There are no chapters in this book, no quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and it's told from the perspective of a twenty-something (Owen) who hasn't accomplished anything significant in his life, isn't entirely sure what he wants out of life, is pretty preoccupied with himself, and is pretty judgmental of those around him that don't align with his ideals. I'm not a big fan of this style of book, and it's likely showing. I tend to find Owen and the woman he falls for (Alma) obnoxious. Owen is living with his grandfather, trimming trees at a local college in his home state of Kentucky, and taking a writing class to pursue his aspirations when he meets Alma. She and her family are immigrants from what is now Bosnia, and lived a relatively charmed and cloistered life that led her to a writing fellowship at the college where Owen is working. The two form an immediate attraction that seems heavily based on each other's exotic appeal to each other, despite the fact that Alma is in a relationship with someone in Owen's class. The story revolves around this relationship, how they see the people close to them, and whether there's a future for them. I'm not opposed to character studies in general, and some of them can be quite fantastic, but Groundskeeping is definitely not my style, and felt pretentious to me.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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I am a child of the suburbs. My husband’s career took us into the inner city and middling-sized towns and small towns and resort towns. Once, I told a teenager at a resort town that it was a beautiful place to grow up. He scowled. I discovered his graduating class was 23 students. Ouch. Another small town had an annual ‘pumpkin roll;’ the road on the hill into downtown was lined with bales of hay, and people rolled their pumpkins down the hill.

So, when the main character in Groundskeeping told about the annual Halloween event of soaking a bale of hay in kerosene, lighting it on fire, and rolling it down the hill into downtown, I perfectly understood his hometown.

“I’ve always had the same predicament. When I’m home, in Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I’m away, I’m homesick for a place that never was.” These were Owen’s first words to Alma when they met at a party. She tells him she is from “a country that no longer exists,” her Muslin family refugees from Bosnia.

Alma is a visiting writer on fellowship at Ashby College. She went to an ivy league school. Her family is well off. After college, Own had faltered, became addicted to opioids, and recovered, and now is working at the college so he could take one free writing class a semester. Owen is a groundskeeper living with his elderly grandfather, who watches John Wayne movies, and his disabled, disgruntled, Trumpite uncle. His parents are divorced, his mother a evangelical Christian married to a Trump voter and his father caring for a wife dying of cancer. Owen longs to escapee the Bible Belt and everything it stands for.

They could not be more different. They become lovers. But life is not a novel or a movie. Sometimes there is no happily ever after. Not when it’s a choice between love and career.

I wasn’t sure how I would respond to a novel about young people finding themselves. I am over forty years beyond that age. But the fine writing and characterization was captivating, the sense of place and time is vivid. Owen’s story is about turning out different from your family, escaping the fate of your peers. Alma’s family history is filled with horror and tragedy, and finding the American Dream.

Author Lee Cole captures America in the age of Trump, opioid addiction, and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The morning after the election that brought Trump into office, Rodin’s The Thinker was found spray painted with swastikas. Owen thinks, “from here on out. We would be crass and ugly, and nothing would be hidden.” His coworker Rando announces that he has “always voted for the anti-establishment candidate…Anybody who’s gonna shake the system up.” He believes that the votes aren’t even counted, that “its all decided behind closed doors by the big banks and the one-percenters.”

Owen’s hometown peers have crashed and burned into addiction, jail, and early death. He takes Alma to Cracker Barrel, explaining its country food and farm decor’s familiarity to working class people, noting that the waitress “had the look of someone on the precipice of ruin.” Visiting Owen’s mom, Alma must contend with the penchant for pork, the separate bedrooms for her and Owen, his mom’s preference for his last girlfriend who she is still in contact with, and her rejection of evolution. Later, Alma muses,” why would an intelligent designer make a universe that resulted in all this? In genocide and capitalism and Taco Bell?”

The question is if their love affair can span their differences, and if their careers are more important. Cole makes us care about these characters.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

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If you’re looking for literary fiction - you’ve found it. Groundskeeping is cerebral and heavily rooted in modern academia. Be prepared for no quotation marks. It was tough at first but eventually understanding dawned that it was meant to be read like a journal.

I can’t say I enjoyed it - a lot of the conversation felt so familiar it didn’t feel like reading fiction but rather sitting in my own discomfort. There’s something to be said for relating to a character but my deep dislike for the MC and the rambling nature of the book had me struggling. I was hoping for redemption but found none, so I’ll settle for the examination of how the modern, young liberal is imperiled by his sense of idealism and destined to lack connection if not willing to step down from his high horse.

Despite my overall sense of guilty nausea while reading that left me with a horrible taste in my mouth, the characters could walk straight off the page and materialize in front of me and I would not be surprised. The writing was impressive and well done, and I can easily see why awards are in order for the book in that sense.

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This dazzling debut gets to the heart of being a young adult grappling with identity, family, & culture. Two young writers navigate the complexities of love while coming to terms with emerging beliefs & desires.

…for an authentic love story free of tired romance tropes.

• Set on a small college campus in Kentucky
• Tender love story w/closely observed interactions
• Class & identity in America during Trump election

• Owen Callahan: aspiring writer; dissatisfied with life unsure of what he wants; searching for place in a world where his ideals are in conflict with his Trump-supporting Kentucky family.
• Alma Hazdic: Ivy League educated young successful writer; daughter of liberal Bosnian immigrants; culturally Muslim.

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This book is a tender coming of age love story between two aspiring writers, one from Bosnia, the other from Kentucky. Simmering with cultural differences and political viewpoints, this was a slow but steady read. Interesting and memorable people graced the pages making it a good read. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC in the form of a Kindle book in exchange for an honest review.

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What a gorgeous novel!

While Cole does an excellent job at charting the relationship between Owen and Alma, what I was most impressed with was the complexities he adds to their front-facing identities. While Alma is an immigrant, she is more well-off than Owen and his family, and has grown up, in a sense, more cultured. Owen, who is from the American South, comes from a conservative, Trump-leaning family, and has struggled himself with substance abuse and homelessness.

At first, I was a little hesitant with the heavy-ish poverty gaze of the book (there were so many details that, at the time, I thought were almost exploitative -- McDonalds for every meal, eating cornbread with milk and pepper; it felt like too much). But, the more I read, the more I felt I understood how familiar this world is to the author, and that perhaps that discomfort speaks more about the reader than anything else, and is even intentional.

Regardless, this is a vivid, beautiful world, and the novel is renders the heartbreaks so well. Kudos to Cole!

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I thought this book started out good but then got kinda boring. I didn’t feel any connection to the characters and could have done without the anti Trump comments.
I’m sure it will appeal to others but it just didn’t for me.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the early copy

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5 stars 🌟 🌟🌟🌟🌟
Really enjoyed! Will definitely be recommending this on my Instagram bookstagram account.

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Groundskeeping is an excellent debut from Lee Cole. I was immediately caught up in the love story between Owen and Alma, but Groundskeeping is more than just that. Cole paints a complex picture of the American South, complete with the intricacies of class and politics. The subjects he tackles here--Trump-era politics, immigration and identity--could have easily led to stereotypical characters, but Cole's characters are anything but; they are nuanced and complex.

I also loved the way Cole presented the musings of Owen as a writer--at times I almost felt like I was reading a book within a book. It was cheeky and executed perfectly. And the last line of the novel? Killer.

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This book was not quite what I expected, but I enjoyed it despite that. It was hard to read at times when there was so much that the author added to telling the story. Lots of details that I thought wern’t always necessary.
But I loved the way that it ended!

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This is a nicely observed novel about writing, class and transitioning into adulthood. It’s good at dialogue and capturing character, but on the obvious side when it comes to lapses of moral judgment. The telegraphing on these sits awkwardly with the more tentative development of the central character’s emotional growth. Nevertheless, a memorable debut, despite some predictably.

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I agree with the praises given to this book. It's sort of a more grown-up "Catcher in the Rye" with the author's past clearly coming through in this novel. A wonderful love story about how opposites can attract and make each other better, this novel told me alot about Kentucky and the mindset of people who are born there. Great writing and intriguing interactions with all the characters, even the ones I didn't particularly like, make this a wonderful debut novel. I look forward to more by Lee Cole.

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I received this book as an ARC and this is my review. This coming of age story is about the somewhat crazy but interesting life of Owen - the groundskeeper/writer. The characters are unusual and filled with so many faults - always a good thing! Readers who enjoy wacky situations will appreciate this book.

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Groundskeeping centers on how racism and bigotry in today's America impacts individuals. Centered in 2016 Kentucky, the love story is narrated by Owen who is the first in his family to graduate from college. It when he returns home to rural Kentucky after losing his job in Colorado and ending up homeless. His Trump-supporting grandfather lets Owen camp out in his basement until he can "get back on his feet" and live with him and his disabled uncle.

Alma escaped from Bosnia with her family as a child, immigrating to America penniless and knowing no English. Ivy-League educated, she is the daughter of two doctors, culturally Muslin and progressively liberal. As the novel begins, Alma is the new writer-in-residence at the small rural college where Owen hires on as a groundskeeper because the salary includes taking one class a semester for free.

Set against the backdrop of the 2016 Election, the book focuses on the relationship between Owen and Alma as they navigate the differences in their class and identity, rather than about how those characters deal with their families' vastly different beliefs. As others have said, this is not a neat and tidy love story, but a messy, thought-provoking and important coming-of-age story.

Thank you NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing for an ARC copy. Three and half stars.

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