The Janes, by Louisa Luna****+

 4 stars plus. Louisa Luna debuted in 2018 with the first book in this series, Two Girls Down. When I learned that Alice Vega was returning, I jumped on the galley without a moment’s hesitation. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 21, 2020.

Alice Vega is back home in Southern California, and she is hired as a consultant on a case for the local cops. Two dead girls have turned up, both recent immigrants with IUDs in their too-young bodies. All signs point to their having been victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation, yet there is no evidence of rape. What happened here, and where did the IUDs, which aren’t available in stores, come from? She is offered an astonishing amount of money for her services, and she decides to use some of it to hire her old partner, Max Caplan, who’s back on the Eastern seaboard entertaining job offers. When Vega crooks her little finger, Cap comes running.

Luna has a voice and style not like anyone else’s. One of the things that I love is the way she swaps the stereotypic gender roles of these two main characters. Cap is nurturing, and he loves kids. Vega isn’t a nurturer, and when huge stressors come down on her, she becomes angry and violent, but as a reader I love this because her rage is always spot on. Cap has sex when he’s in love, but Vega has sex to fulfill a biological need, and then wonders why the guy is still hanging around. Clean yourself up and get out of here, dude, I have things to do today. Run along. And while Vega’s vigilante justice would be a terrible thing in real life, in fiction it feels deeply satisfying.

In other words, Alice Vega makes my feminist heart sing.

Luna is better than most authors of the genre in that no matter how off the chain her protagonist is, I never disengage because of an unlikely plot element. We have corrupt cops; we have bureaucrats; we have secrets that would become public if Vega and Cap were prosecuted for crimes committed in the line of duty. My single twinge of regret comes when Cap sustains a head injury that renders him unconscious; wakes up dazed and confused, with some memory loss; and then shakes it off without tests or treatment of any kind. Vega reminds him to get an MRI when everything is over, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I wonder at times whether she meant to do more with it and then edited it back out.

Given that both stories, this one and the last, feature two female victims, I wonder if this will be her signature element throughout the series.

This story differs from the first in that it is darker, less funny, and ramps up to the high octane, pulse-pounding excitement of a true thriller at around 80%. The plot and characters are credible, but they lack the bounce and the zip that made the first book so memorable. Nevertheless, I love Alice Vega and eagerly await the next in the series.

Heartily recommended to those that love the genre and respect women.

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger*****

“God is a tornado.”

Odie and Albert are orphans, the only two Caucasian children at the hellish Lincoln School in Minnesota, which is primarily a boarding school for American Indian children. The year is 1932, and the Depression is in full swing. As things unravel, the two brothers sneak away, together with a mute Indian friend and a small girl whose parents have recently perished during a storm; the odyssey on which they embark raises questions for all of them about what they believe about themselves and the natures of God and man. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is the first of this author’s work that I have seen, and it’s clear that he is one gifted individual. At the same time, however, this is not easy to read. The first fifteen to twenty percent is brutal. There are triggers all over the place including sexual assault, child abuse, and both put together. I read only a few pages at a time because more would have wrecked my head, and I never let it be the last printed material my eyes saw before bed. Those that soldier through the beginning can be assured that the worst is over, although there are many other passages in which Odie, Albert and friends are tried severely. For me, though, it was worth it.

The get-away trip takes them down the mighty rivers of the North American interior. There’s a lot of rich historical detail along the way, and it will be especially interesting for those unaware of the culture that existed before anyone in America had food stamps, or subsidized housing, or a social worker, or compulsory education.  There was no safety net of any kind; people existed at each other’s mercy. The travelers meet all sorts of interesting people, but when others get too close or ask too many questions, they leave rather than be identified. Albert points out that others are often untrustworthy, and that those we love are often taken from us; he says that if God is a shepherd, He must be the sort that eats his flock. But a man that hires them to do farm labor says that God is in the land, the air, the trees, and in each person.

Ultimately the journey is a search for home, for family, and for a role in the world. The original destination is St. Louis, Missouri, where Odie and Albert’s families live, but as they make their way toward it, they find out that there is more than one kind of family, and more than one kind of home.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and have robust literacy skills.

The Secret Guests, by Benjamin Black****

It’s World War II, and the Blitz has begun. The Royals are torn, wanting to remain with their subjects and share their misery, but not wanting the risk the well beings of their daughters. It’s decided that the girls must be moved, but with the shipping lanes and skies fraught with peril, where can they go and be safe? Ah, a fine idea: they’ll send them to a cousin in Ireland.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As historical fiction goes, this is lightweight material, based on almost no historical event other than the war itself. However, as general fiction goes it’s terrific, immensely entertaining and droll as heck. I figure it’s 3.5 stars for historical fiction, 4.5 stars as general fiction; thus my 4 star rating.

Our protagonist is Garda Strafford-With-An-R, a marginally competent Irish detective who resembles Stan Laurel, tasked with the security the estate where the girls will be housed. Secondary characters are Celia Nashe, a British cop equivalent to a Secret Service agent, who is assigned to serve as personal security for the princesses; an arrogant, sleazy ambassador named Laschelles; and Strafford’s boss Hegarty, who resembles Oliver Hardy. We also have clueless but entitled Sir William, the girls’ host; two bored princesses that get up to things when nobody’s looking; some household servants that know more than they are supposed to; and a few local people that also know too much.

The fact is that I’m entirely burned out on World War II fiction, and that fact nearly prevents me from requesting this galley. But the spin—Ireland, which remained neutral and flirted with taking the side of Germany, what with its enmity toward the British—proves irresistible. The greatest surprise is how much wit is employed and how fast the story moves. I have never read Black’s work before, and this guy is hilarious. He shifts the point of view often, always from the third person omniscient but varying several times within a single chapter, so we get snippets of the person that’s bored, the person that’s nosy, the person that’s confused and so forth. The word smithery is so original and clever that I cannot put my highlighter down. Highlighting is pointless when I highlight close to half of the text, but I can’t help myself. And best of all, the cliched ending that I think I can see a mile away isn’t happening.

Those of us in the States have a three day weekend right around the corner, and the weather will be too miserable to want to go anywhere. This novel might be just the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation soon, this would also be a fine beach read. But the humor will be a terrific pick-me-up for those stranded indoors with a case of the grumps. I recommend this book to you, and I would read this author’s work again in a heartbeat.

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves***-****

This mystery opens a brand new series by Ann Cleeves. I haven’t read this author before, but when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review, I hopped on board. This book is for sale now.

Detective Matthew Venn is called upon to investigate the murder of a man found on the beach. His queries force him to return to the strict evangelical Christian community in which he was raised. The Brethren cast him out because he is gay, and so returning in a professional capacity brings back all sorts of memories and feelings.

The last person to see the victim prior to his death may have been 30-year-old Lucy, a woman with Downs Syndrome. This character is engaging as is her adoring father. Lucy rode the bus to The Woodshop each day with this man, and this produces some consternation when her father learns of it. As a mother, I can appreciate his concern.

This is a solidly constructed mystery fashioned by a pro, and yet for some reason I had difficulty engaging with the protagonist. I’m rounding my rating up to 4 stars because I have a hunch that if I had read the printed galley provided me, I might have understood it better and therefore might have found it more interesting. I fell behind in my reading and reviewing over the summer and obtained audio books of a few titles whose publication dates had passed, figuring to catch up. It took me a long time to figure out that The Woodyard was actually not a lumberyard or hardware store, and so some of the plot left me scratching my head. If I’d read with my eyes instead of my ears, I might have caught on sooner. Once I figured out all the pieces, I could follow what was happening and recognized the red herrings as they passed by. The ending was reasonable and the whodunit surprised me.

This is a decent work of crime fiction and I recommend it to the author’s faithful readers.

Potions Are for Pushovers, by Tamara Berry*****

I loved Berry’s first Eleanor Wilde mystery, Seances Are for Suckers, and so I looked forward to this one. Ellie, our protagonist, makes a living as a sham medium and pusher of herbal potions. She arrived in this tiny English town in the last book, hired by the wealthy Nicholas Hartford to scam his family, but they fell in love and so she stayed here. Business is on hold, however, until the murder of the local battle ax has been solved; until Ellie can sell her potions again, she can’t make a living, and the heat is on.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The glory of satire is that the most tired, trite elements of a mystery can be trotted out and placed on full display, the more overdone the better. Add into it an overflowing supply of snark, swift pacing, a hint of confusion and the very teensiest, briefest moment of sentimentality and the result is, well, magical.

At the same time that Sarah is murdered, pets begin to disappear. A grisly surprise is left in Ellie’s herb garden, and her cat Beast, a menace if ever there was one, is nowhere to be seen. Cats, pigs…what’s next?  Her sometimes-friend the local constable is irritated that Ellie doesn’t pass along the finer details of what she learns, but she points out to him that witches and law enforcement have a problematic history. Crackle crackle, she says. Burn burn.

The best new element is Lenore, a pesky but gifted adolescent that wants to job shadow Ellie. Together with partner Rachel, she embarks upon local werewolf research, and this thread makes me guffaw out loud multiple times. (At one point Lenore decides she’d rather be called Lenny because it sounds more like a gumshoe; my reading notes suggest that Rachel should then become Squiggy. Boomers will understand this reference if nobody else does.)

My affection for Ellie increases when she eats an entire chocolate cake. I’d been watching that cake since she received it, waiting for the typical cozy plot point to play out. Most authors would either have Ellie serve or gift the cake to another recipient, or have it smashed in some sort of hilarious accident before she got a single bite. Berry, however, is not your typical cozy mystery writer. It’s the slightly edgy bits that make this series so successful.

The series is written for adults, but teachers and parents looking for engaging reading for their own gifted adolescent should be fine here. There are no torrid sex scenes, no use of vivid profanity.

Sadly, my own review copy disappeared with no trace from my kindle, so I can’t access juicy quotes; happily. I did use the Goodreads update system, which provided me with the particulars listed above.

There are few authors that can make me laugh out loud every single time I read their work, and that alone makes this writer more valuable to me than most. I await the next Eleanor Wilde book with gleeful anticipation, and whether you have read the first book in this series or not, I recommend this one to you wholeheartedly.

A Book of Bones, by John Connolly*****

   ‘Do you mind if I ask what it is you do?’

   The correct reply should have been ‘yes’ for a second time, but he didn’t want to appear rude. It would make her feel bad, and he wouldn’t feel much better.

   ‘I hunt,’ said Parker. He was surprised to hear the words emerge, as though spoken by another in his stead.

‘Oh.’ Her disapproval was obvious.

‘But not animals,’ he added, as the voice decided to make the situation yet more complicated.

‘Oh,’ she said again.

He could almost hear the cogs turning.

‘So, you hunt…people?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘The wheels came down, and the plane hit the ground with a jolt that caused someone at the back to yelp in the manner of a wounded dog.

‘Like a bounty hunter?’ asked the woman.

‘Like a bounty hunter.’

‘So that’s what you are?’

‘No.’

‘Oh,’ she said for the third time.

I love Charlie Parker books, and it’s unusual for me to miss a pub date, which I did and I’m sorry. I was distracted and curious about another horror novel that came out at the same time, which was my mistake because that one wasn’t as good as this one. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the galley, and I have learned my lesson: life is short. Read Charlie Parker first.

A body has been found in a junkyard in the American Southwest. Could it belong to Parker’s evil nemesis, Rebecca Mors? Sadly, it does not. Mors and her top stooge, Quayle are across the water, and as usual they’re up to no good. Soon Parker and his massively engaging assistants, Angel and Louis will be there too, and yes: they’re hunting. They are being paid to assist the FBI, but since their work takes them overseas, it must be unofficial. This aspect, together with the story’s supernatural elements and Connolly’s expert plotting, pacing, word smithery and character development combine to make a story so spellbinding that I never once found myself questioning whether one aspect or another is credible. Whilst reading it I was engrossed, and what’s more I was cranky when interrupted.

Key elements of our tale are Parker’s daughters—one living, one dead—and a sentient book, a living malign entity that has appeared in previous Parker stories but is at its hellish worst here. The complex plot surrounding it is so full of twists and turns, shifting alliances and above all, dead bodies that at one point Parker reflects that it looks like “the plot of a very violent soap opera.”

The author’s note at the end tells us that his editors tried to get him to edit the book down, and he balked. Whereas there are some historical tidbits that could probably be eliminated or made briefer, I like it the way it is. Why would I want a Connolly book to end sooner? However, the reader will as usual need a hefty vocabulary and greater than average stamina to enjoy this work. It may not be a good choice for those whose mother tongue is not English.

Can you appreciate this story, seventeenth in the series, without reading any of the previous entries? You will find yourself at a distinct disadvantage, but it’s not necessary to go all the way back to #1, either. I began at the fourteenth and have no regrets.

Highly recommended.

The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor**

It’s a rare book that I find abrasive right out of the gate, especially since there are no controversial social messages here, just a mystery that I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thanks go to Crown Publishing and Net Galley for the review copy, which I received free and early in 2017. I should have written a review long ago, of course, but I found it hard to reconcile my antipathy for this story—a debut, no less—with the nearly unanimous adulation expressed by other reviewers. I am still a bit bewildered, but there it is.

This is a book that tries too hard. There are too many cutesy nicknames, and the structure of the plot feels gimmicky and formulaic, as well as mighty unlikely. Of course, most mysteries have aspects that are unlikely because most real-life murders and other mysterious doings have logical, obvious, dull explanations. We agree to pretend the murder mystery is plausible in exchange for being entertained. The problem is that I wasn’t, and so I couldn’t.

Two other factors that contributed to my grumpiness were the overwhelmingly male list of characters, and the cultural collision between British fiction and my brain. I’ve read and enjoyed some British fiction; if not, I wouldn’t have requested this galley. But here the culture and jargon are thick on the ground, and the inner narrative feels endless.

I no longer have to be concerned that I will crush this author’s hopes and dreams; Tudor’s debut is a huge success both in terms of sales and the corresponding enthusiasm of its readership. This author has gone on to publish more books, and I have had the good sense not to request those this time. Ultimately this came down to taste more than anything else, but I have to call ‘em as I see them, and I found nothing to love, apart from a compelling jacket and an attention-getting title.

Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

Best Overall Fiction 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood