God Spare the Girls, by Kelsey McKinney*****

Journalist Kelsey McKinney makes her debut as a novelist with God Save the Girls, and I have a hunch we’ll be seeing a lot more of her work. Lucky me, I read it free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and William Morrow for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Caroline and Abigail are the daughters of the charismatic head pastor at a megachurch in Hope, Texas. This opening paragraph had me at hello:

“For that whole brutal year, Caroline Nolan had begged God to make her life interesting. He sent a plague instead: grasshoppers emerged from the earth in late June, crawling across the dry grass, multiplying too quickly, staying long past their welcome. Now they carpeted the land she’d inherited with her sister, vibrated in the sun like a mirage. As Caroline drove the ranch’s half-mile driveway, she rolled over hundreds of them. She threw the car in park, stepped out into the yellowed grass beside the gravel drive, and crushed their leggy, squirming bodies beneath her sensible heels.”

Teenagers are people that are exploring their own identities, and there’s often some rebellion mixed into those years, but for Caroline and Abigail, there’s not a speck of wiggle room. They are constantly reminded that everything they do reflects upon their father. Forget profanity, street drugs, shoplifting, booze. These girls have even the most minute aspect of their appearances proscribed. Is that V-neck deep enough to show even a smidge of cleavage? Cover it up, or go change. How much leg? Why aren’t you wearing makeup? Not just your smile, but what kind of smile? How you sit. How you stand. And if these confines were not enough to drive any teen bonkers, they live in a fishbowl that every adult seems to own a key to. People come in and out of the family home all day and all evening, so showing up to watch television in your robe and fuzzy slippers in the family room is a risky prospect, too.

I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t have. I really couldn’t.

But these are girls raised to believe that the Almighty is always watching, and always knows your heart, and so they do their best to shed petty resentments, whereas others must be buried deep. Buried, that is, until a shocking revelation is made about their father’s extracurricular activities.

The story is primarily told through Caroline’s point of view; Abby is the most important secondary character, and she’s interesting, but we see her through Caroline’s lens. I admire the way that McKinney develops both of them, but more than anything, I admire her restraint. In recent years, fundamentalist and evangelical Christian preachers have gone from being rather shocking, daring novelists’ subjects to low-hanging fruit. As I read, I waited for the rest of it. Which girl was Daddy molesting? What else has he done? Has he embezzled? Does he have a male lover on the side somewhere–or Lordy, a boy? But McKinney doesn’t go to any of those places. She keeps the story streamlined, and in doing so not only stands out from the crowd, but is able to go deeper into Caroline’s character.

At the end, when Abigail prepares to marry the dull, dependable boy her parents like, the scene is downright menacing; their mother, Ruthie, is helping her into her dress, and she “wielded a hook like a sword,” and as everyone takes their positions, the walkie-talkies “hiss.”

There’s a good deal more I could tell you, but none of it would be as satisfying for you as reading this book yourself. Your decision boils down to text versus audio, and I advocate for the audio, because Catherine Taber is a badass reader, lending a certain breathless quality to key parts of the narrative. But if you’re visually oriented, you can’t go wrong with the printed word here, either.

Highly recommended.

Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

The Confidence Men, by Margalit Fox****

This stranger-than-fiction story of two World War I captives, one an English officer, the other Australian, that trick their way out of a Turkish prison camp via a long, elaborate con centered on a Ouija board is compelling and at times, funny as hell. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The beginning is grim; grim enough that I abandon this story twice before ordering the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons to help me get over the hump. There’s torture, deprivation, and every ugly thing that the notion of an enemy prison brings to mind. I am especially horrified because I thought this book was going to be funny! Reader, it is, but you have to get past the grim and at times, dull beginning to get to the amusing bits. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth percentiles, the shift occurs, and that’s when you can expect to enjoy yourself. You may want to skim a bit through this part; I do, and it works out well.

Harry Jones was an attorney before the Great War commenced; Cedric Hill was an Aussie auto mechanic. Once captured, the two have no chance at all making a conventional escape; the camp is too isolated for either of them to get anywhere, even if they were able to leave. Instead, what they have is nothing but time, and ultimately, that and their excellent imaginations and problem-solving skills, aided by some genuinely stupid captors, is what saves them.

The most impressive aspect of their scheme is that it takes place over a very long period of time. Not many con artists would be able to keep their story straight for so long. Jones and Hill have a great deal of self-discipline and organizational skill. Also, they’re afraid, and fear can improve one’s consistency and attention to detail. Once the meat of the story begins, it is absolutely riveting!

I flipped back and forth between my digital galley and the audio version. Both are equally good, but I would give a slight edge to the audio version, assuming the reader is primarily seeking entertainment. For a researcher, the print version is better for keeping details and sources straight.

Recommended to those that enjoy history and intelligent humor.

The Guncle, by Steven Rowley*****

How do you spell instant parenthood? It’s the last thing GUP—the appellation bestowed on Gay Uncle Patrick—expected, and the transition is hilariously rocky. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Patrick’s whole life appears to be on hold. He was on television for a good long while, and so both fame and fortune are his. He doesn’t actually have to do anything, and since the demise of his beloved partner, he hasn’t wanted to. Then one of his closest friends, Sarah, who had been his college roommate, dies, and everything changes.

Grant and Maisie, Sarah’s children, are six and nine years old respectively. When the memorial service concludes, Patrick is blindsided by Joe, Sarah’s husband. While she was on her deathbed, she made Joe promise that when she was gone, he’d go into rehab—but of course, someone has to take the children. Joe wants that someone to be Patrick.

The humor is ribald at times, but never over-the-top. Patrick knows nothing about children. Nothing! In a daze, he returns home with his charges in tow, and he has to learn on the job. Maisie is at a somewhat bossy age and is only too happy to tell him what to do and how to do it, and oh is it fun to watch. As the fog lifts, Patrick begins making small changes to create a more child-friendly space, but mostly, he embraces his unconventional situation. There’s a Christmas celebration in the middle of summer; there’s a party. And as he steps up to his new role, he realizes that he should return to work; he has heirs now, after all.

Aunt Clara arrives, and she demands the children return with her. She knows how to do this. She frowns on nearly every aspect of Patrick’s life. But Patrick is amazed to realize he is willing to fight to hang onto them.

Some may be surprised to find a book like this earning a five star rating; it’s not serious literature. It’s fun; it’s fluffy. But this reviewer rates each book on its excellence compared to others of its genre. As a humorous novel, it shines. As a feel-good book, it’s terrific. As beach reads go, what can be better?

Perhaps it’s indicative of Rowley’s skill that I have found myself writing review notes in his voice. This doesn’t happen often. But as for you? You should get this book and read it, because all of us need a mood elevator, and in that respect, it’s a bargain. Highly recommended!

The Santa Suit, by Mary Kay Andrews***-****

3.75 rounded up.

I love a good Christmas story, but so many of them are cloying or insipid. A friend recommended this one to me, and she wasn’t wrong. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.

Ivy is newly divorced, and she comes away from it with bruised feelings, but also money. Since she works from home, she has the choice to go anywhere, so she buys a farmhouse in a tiny town in North Carolina. She pays for it without ever seeing it in person, and it comes “as is.” At this point, I say, Welp, you’re in for it now, hon. And she is, sort of.

The realtor, Ezra, known locally as “The House Hunk,” has taken a shine to Ivy. He helps her with the heat; when she discovers that the old furniture is still there in the house, he and a friend cart it off for her, and when there’s a problem with her own furniture, he helps bring it all back in. And initially, she regards his attention as a nuisance, maybe even a stalker; but between the fine reputation he enjoys locally, and the number of times he helps her out of difficult situations, she gradually warms to him.

Ivy is a likable protagonist. She’s self-sufficient, but she isn’t cold. She sets about making friends right away. Her new bud, Phoebe, is in a state because she’s fallen in love with someone she met online, and has used a picture of someone else. Now the man Is coming to see her, and she’s panic-stricken. Other new friends include a local business person for whom she does some free, and very good, advertising, and a 96 year old man. Her dog, Punkin, goes everywhere with her, and she talks to him all the time, the way that some of us also do. When she needs assistance it’s because she doesn’t know the area, or because a job requires an extra set of hands, not because she is some helpless airhead. An engaging character indeed.

My rating reflects a couple of sloppy bits that the author and editor should have caught and dealt with immediately. They’re small, but they interrupt the magic, because they cause me to think about the two slackers rather than the story and characters. The first is when she offers Ezra coffee, but warns him that all she has is instant. Two paragraphs later, she is brewing the coffee. Oh, come on! Clean it up. A bit later, after Ezra and a friend have schlepped furniture in from the truck, he asks if she’s been out to play in the snow, and she tells him she doesn’t want to spoil its beauty. “It’s so beautiful, all that clean, untouched white.” And so I wonder: did they teleport the furniture indoors? Because otherwise, surely that snow would have been touched in a whole lot of places.

There are a couple of other inconsistencies, albeit smaller ones, and I am using a fair amount of ink to discuss problems that may seem trivial, but this is no debut author, this is a successful writer with a host of books in her repertoire, and she should know better.

The plot, on the other hand, is excellent. There was one development that I thought was obvious, but when I finished my eyeroll, I was surprised to see that she didn’t take it where I expected, and instead did something much better. I particularly like the way the romance unfolds, and the way that Ivy helps Phoebe out of her dilemma. There are other threads—involving a Santa suit, of course—that are equally delightful.

So, in spite of my complaints, I do recommend this charming, fluffy tale to you. It’s a mood elevator, and we can all use some of that. It’s for sale now.

The Ride of Her Life, by Elizabeth Letts*****

Elizabeth Letts has become one of my drop-everything authors. Instead of writing about the same historical figures that everybody else writes about, she finds noteworthy women that have fallen through the cracks of history. The Ride of Her Life chronicles the latter years of Annie Wilkins, a senior citizen that given not long to live, and not much to lose, decides to embark on a cross-country journey on horseback so that she can see the Pacific Ocean before she dies. I was invited to read and review this remarkable novel by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It’s for sale now.

Annie Wilkins lives in rural Maine, and is endeavoring to continue to run the family farm. It hasn’t gone well. Between a series of events beyond her control and an aging body, she falls behind, and then more so, until the bank gives notice of foreclosure. At the same time her lungs aren’t doing well; the doctor gives her two or three years to live, but only if she does so restfully. She is offered a place at the county home, which is essentially a charity lodging for the indigent.

Under similar circumstances and with no family to fall back on, most of us would have sold the farm and gone to rest in the county poorhouse, but Annie is not like most people. She sells up, and she plans her next move carefully. She packs up the things she and her dog will need for their trip, and since the purchase and maintenance of a car are beyond her means, she buys a good horse. That’s it. She packs up her maps and gets on the horse. (The dog alternates between walking and riding.)

Part of the joy in reading of her adventures is the window it provides into the United States in 1954, before most of us were born. For those outside of cities, horseback travel is still not unusual; Annie’s greatest challenge, of course, is her lack of awareness about highway safety. Her initial plan is to ride alongside the road when possible, and on the shoulder when it isn’t, but there are a host of dangers out there, and almost everything that can happen to her, does. But people are essentially goodhearted, and in every instance, someone kind and decent comes along and does right by her and her critters.

In the polarized time in which we live, this is exactly the story we need. I suspect that if Annie were to do the same thing today, there would still be people that would come along, and without inquiring who she voted for in the most recent election or whether she has received a vaccine, would feed her, or offer up their guest room for a night or two, or would drive her to the hospital. Those people were there then; their descendants are here still. We have not changed all that much.

Letts has told an engaging story, but part of my mad respect for her has to do with her attention to detail. The very best historical fiction is essentially true, with dialogue added for interest, and Letts writes the best, no doubt about it. Her endnotes are impressive, and she tells us that she drove more than 10,000 miles while researching her book.

Because I had fallen behind with my reviews, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and alternated it with my digital galley. Both are outstanding; you can’t go wrong either way. Highly recommended!

Let’s Do Dinner, by Antoni Porowski

I’ve got a soft spot for cookbooks. Some are useful, and some are less practical, but fun to read anyway. Fans of Antoni’s television programs can hardly go wrong with Let’s Do Dinner, but his work is new to me. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The promotional blurb for this cookbook tells us that some of these recipes will be decadent, whereas others are designed for weekday dining. Apart from a couple of nice egg dishes (omelet, scramble,) I don’t see anything here that I would make. Some involve great loads of dishes, and others involve unusual flavor combinations, and I am a coward. That being said, I am plainly not his target audience. I suspect that his cooking tips are geared toward the young and childless; I, on the other hand, am a Grammy. For me, this cookbook is more of a three star read—the sort of thing I’d browse through, but wouldn’t spend money on. However, for twenty-and-thirty-somethings, I suspect the appeal will be greater, perhaps a four star read, and for his loyal fans, five stars.

I recommend this cookbook to Antoni’s fans, and to the young and adventurous cook that wants to try new things.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead*****

Ray Carney has a foot in both worlds, and he isn’t given to thinking too deeply about that. As the son of a badass criminal, he considers that he has turned out quite respectably; yet, when Cousin Freddie occasionally brings a consignment piece of jewelry to his store, he doesn’t ask many questions about its history. Thus begins a slow, steady slide, from being a mostly-straight retailer, to a mostly-crooked fence. But oh, what a glorious story it makes!

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

The first time I read Colson Whitehead was when The Underground Railroad was published five years ago. It was unquestionably a work of genius, but it was also a fair amount of work to read. Then The Nickel Boys came out, and when I finally found a copy, it was well written yet so harsh, and at a difficult time for me personally, that I thanked my lucky stars that it wasn’t a review copy, and I gave myself permission to abandon it. So thus far, my admiration for this author has been tempered by the awareness that I would need to roll up my sleeves, or to brace myself, or both.

Harlem Shuffle contains none of that. It’s told in linear fashion, beginning in the late 1950s and ending in the late 1960s. The writing is first rate, as one might anticipate, but it’s also an unmitigated pleasure to read.

Our protagonist, Carney, has married up. His beautiful wife Elizabeth comes from a family with lighter skin, higher social position, and a good deal more money. Elizabeth loves him, but she has expectations. As his young family grows to include a son and daughter, the pressure increases. But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just about Carney supporting his family:

“If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around. Dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had. The sickness drawing every moment into its service…Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them…His intent was bent but he was mostly straight, deep down.”

Freddie comes to Carney with a plan: he and his confederates intend to rob the Hotel Theresa, which is the pride of Harlem, the place to stay for Negro patrons of breeding and taste. It was almost sacrilege; and yet, it would also be a fantastic take. Would Ray Carney put out some feelers to find out who could move the sorts of valuable baubles that might be found in the hotel safe? Ray tells him of course not. No no no no no. A thousand times no! And then, he commences doing exactly that.

There are several aspects of this tale that make it exceptional. Whitehead resists the amateurish urge to fall back on pop culture of the period, instead imparting the culture and the pressures of the time more subtly. Racism against Negroes (the acceptable term of the time) by Caucasians; racism by light-skinned Negroes against darker ones, such as Carney; cop violence against all of them; the difficulty faced by Harlem merchants that want to carry first-class products but must first persuade snooty Caucasian company representatives; protection rackets endemic to Harlem, run by Negro criminals as well as cops, so that envelopes had to be passed to multiple representatives every month; and a plethora of other obstacles, stewed into the plot seamlessly, never resembling a manifesto. There’s Whitehead’s matchless ability to craft his characters, introducing each with a sketch so resonant that I had to reread them before moving on; highlight them; then go back and read them a third time after I’d finished the book. My favorite secondary character is Pepper, an older thug so terrifying that even the cops wince when they’re near him. And then there are brief shifts in point of view, and again, my favorite of these is Pepper’s.

Carney isn’t a brilliant decision maker, but he is an underdog, and he’s a survivor as well, and both of these things make me cheer him on. I haven’t had so much fun in a long damn time. When events escalate, Carney finds himself rolling a corpse into a fine carpet, and I can only hope that he chose a relatively cheap rug, because otherwise, what a waste! Those that love the genre mustn’t miss this book, filled with everything anyone could ever want in a noir-style crime novel. Do it, do it, do it!

Bare Minimum Dinners, by Jenna Helwig****

What a good idea! Helwig’s approachable, practical guide is one of the most useful cookbooks I’ve seen in recent years. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

One of the drawbacks to growing up with easily available readymade meals, as most Americans have done, is that nobody has to learn to cook anymore. It’s optional, the way that baking elaborate meals and desserts used to be. But it’s always more expensive to order take-out food than to make it yourself; it has to be, since you are essentially paying them for not just ingredients, but also the labor costs, utility and rent, and other expenses associated with producing it. The meal that you pull out of your freezer is a bit cheaper, and so is the ubiquitous ramen, but neither is useful nutritionally. A lot of people have become born-again cooks over the course of the pandemic, and after all we have been through, it’s nice that at least some of us have benefited in small ways.

Most cookbooks—and I love the things, even the useless ones—aren’t especially helpful. They call for elaborate preparation; tools you probably don’t own; unusual ingredients that have to be hunted down; and then in some cases, produce far more food than a single person or couple can make use of. Helwig’s is different. Her recipes call for ordinary, inexpensive ingredients, and most of them require only basic kitchen equipment. Right up front she explains what pans, machinery, cutlery and other tools she recommends we buy, and although this chapter looks like the one that a lot of people will skip on their way to find a recipe for tonight’s dinner, I recommend you read it when you purchase the book. This reviewer is a Boomer, and I was thirty before I had a microwave oven. I know how to cook and am fairly good at it. Nevertheless, reading this chapter persuaded me to add one more item to my collection. Her practicality is undeniable.

The recipes that look the most tempting to me also require the largest number of dishes to be washed. That’s the way it goes, right? Chilaquiles; Apple Dutch Baby; Mushroom and Gruyere Quesadillas; yum! But she also has an entire chapter titled “Bare Minimum Cleanup” which faithfully adheres to a rule of one pot or pan, period. Because some nights we don’t care to be creative. We just want to grab the food, fix it, and get dinner out of the way so we can move forward with our evening. Helwig gets that.

The sole complaint that prevents my fifth star for jumping on board is that there are certain ingredients and flavors that appear too frequently. Not everybody loves cabbage, for example. Helwig rhapsodizes about its taste, low price, and versatility, and whereas the latter two claims are obviously true, the first is subject to the cook’s preferences. As for me, I do like cabbage once in awhile, but I don’t want it all the time. There are also a few other places where I would have preferred some more versatility.

Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and every recipe in this cookbook has more appeal than that freezer-burnt burrito you bought last March. If you are a newbie with a limited income and not much kitchen experience, you should get this book now. If you are more seasoned, you might want it anyway. And as a bonus feature, I notice that although almost every cookbook is frustrating to read digitally, this one is better than most. If you can get it in print, I still advise doing so, but if your budget only runs to digital versions, that shouldn’t stop you. Someday you’ll wonder how you got by without it.

Another Kind of Eden, by James Lee Burke****

James Lee Burke is a living legend, a novelist who’s won just about every prize there is, and whose published work has spanned more than fifty years.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden is a prequel to Burke’s Holland family trilogy. The time is the 1960s, and protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard is in Colorado working a summer job. He falls in love with a waitress named JoAnne, but there are obstacles to their happiness everywhere he looks. There’s a charismatic professor that won’t leave her alone, a bus full of drugged-out young people that have fallen under his influence, and of course, there’s corruption among the local wealthy residents, which is a signature feature in Burke’s work. Aaron is a Vietnam veteran, and he has residual guilt and grief that get in his way as well. He’s got some sort of an associative disorder, though I am not sure that’s the term used; at any rate, he blacks out parts of his life and cannot remember them. He also has anger issues, and he melts down from time to time; there’s an incident involving a gun that he forces a man to point at him that I will never get entirely out of my head, and kind of wish I hadn’t read.

I had a hard time rating this novel. If I stack it up against the author’s other titles, it is a disappointment; a lot of the plot elements and other devices feel recycled from his other work, dressed up a bit differently. But if I pretend that this is written by some unknown author, then I have to admit it’s not badly written at all. By the standards of Burke’s other work, it’s a three star book; compared to most other writers, it’s somewhere on the continuum between four and five. Since I have to come up with something, I decided to call it four stars.

All that being said, if you have never read anything by this luminary, I advise you to start with one of his earlier books–almost any of them, actually.