The Night Ship, by Jess Kidd****

Jess Kidd can write. I read and reviewed her debut novel, Himself, which I loved so much that I bought a copy to give as a gift; I called it “Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny.” I have read and reviewed her others as well:  Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (The Hoarder in Britain,) and Things in Jars. Her most recent novel, The Night Ship, is technically as good or better than any before, but I love it less, largely because of the expectations I brought to it, based on the other three before it. I’ll explain that momentarily.

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

The Night Ship is based on a true story, the sinking of the famous ship, the Batavia, in 1629. Our protagonist is Mayken, a child whose mother has died; she is being sent to her father in the company of her elderly nurse maid.  When the ship goes down, she is marooned on an island near Australia.

Over three hundred years later in 1989, a boy named Gil has also lost his mother, and is sent to live on the same island with his cantankerous grandfather. There isn’t much to do there, and he finds his imagination is captured by the tales of a shipwreck that occurred here hundreds of years ago.

The way that Kidd braids the stories of these two children into one well crafted novel is admirable. They are separate, and yet together, and the nearer we get to the conclusion, the more commonalities reveal themselves. Clearly, Kidd is at the height of her craft—so far, at least. Goodness knows what else she’s got up her sleeve. Her eccentricity and her appreciation of working class struggle sets her in a class beyond most authors.

And yet. When I read her debut novel, she captured my whole heart. I couldn’t stop talking about it, the way her adroit word smithery combined with a hilarious tale of sheer, spun magic. It remains a favorite of mine some five years and hundreds of novels later. And when the next, Mr. Flood, came out it wasn’t quite as magical, yet really, nothing else could be, and it was still vastly superior to what anyone else was writing, and I adored it. And the next one after it, while not as humorous, was wonderfully dark, and the ending made me smile. The author’s message was rock solid.

Every single one of her previous novels had an uplifting quality, and when I read the last page, I was smiling. And so I began to feel that I could count on Kidd to raise my spirits. In fact, I rationed this story out to myself, and when, given my penchant for reading multiple books at a time, I found myself buried in dark works—in one, I was freezing and bloody in the Ardennes Forest during World War II; in another, the devil had possessed a psychiatrist in a high security asylum; add into the mix a bio of a falsely accused prisoner in the U.S. that lost his entire youth before he was exonerated, and another young man being ‘re-educated’ in a North Korean prison camp; I figured I needed a good dose of Jess Kidd right now. Now. This instant!

And so I got her book, and then the ship went down.

So, I didn’t get what I wanted from this novel, but it had more to do with my own expectations than with any defect in the quality of her writing. Still, I cannot help feeling a trifle disappointed.

If you’re ready to go dark, this is your book. If you just love good writing, this is your book, too. But if you need a feel-good book to lighten your heart, get her debut novel.

Back to the Garden, by Laurie R. King*****

Laurie R. King is best known for her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes historical detective novels, but I have long preferred her contemporary mysteries. Back to the Garden is her latest of these, and it is excellent. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Raquel Liang, a detective based in San Francisco. When a long-dead body is found in the garden of the Gardener Estate—a famous mansion and grounds that sound faintly reminiscent of Hearst Castle—Liang, who is working on a task force to find and identify victims of serial killer Michael Johnston, becomes involved in the case.

Rob Gardener is the heir to the estate, and he had clashed often and bitterly with his grandfather before his demise in the 1970s. Upon learning of his windfall, Gardener turned the manse into a commune, with murals on the walls of what were once imposing, grandiose rooms and vegetable gardens where more formal floral ones previously stood. Now the place is being restored, and as gardeners work to clear a thicket of overgrown hedge, a huge statue topples over, exposing the bones of someone long interred there.

Meanwhile, in a hospital in the big city, convicted serial murderer Michael Johnston lies dying. During the same period that the commune reigned, Johnston was spiriting girls and young women off so that he could murder them. Improved technology has provided a number of leads, but the window in which the cops can extract information from the old bastard is rapidly closing. Liang suspects that the body found on the estate, which dates back to the same time that Johnston was slaying women in the area, may be one of his, and so she makes frequent visits to learn as much about the place and its residents, past and present, as possible.

The intriguing bit about this mystery is that the members of the commune, other than Rob himself, didn’t use their birth names, and it makes them tricky to trace. With names like Meadow, Pig, and Daisy, they could be just about anybody. Is one of them the body beneath the statue?

King does a fine job of segueing from past to present and back again, and of juggling a moderately large number of characters. As I read, I never have to flip back to be reminded of who someone is. The reader should know, however, that this is not a thriller. It isn’t written in a way to grab you by the hair and make your pulse pound. The pace is a bit more laid back, but for some of us, that is a pleasure. I never lost interest, and I could read this thing while eating my lunch without gagging.

There’s a good deal of period nostalgia, and so I suspect that the greatest appeal will be to Boomers.

Highly recommended.

The Devil Aspect, by Craig Russell

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I read this creepy tale during the last half of October, and it is indeed a good way to get into the Halloween spirit. I am disgracefully late with my review—3.5 years late, as it happens—but I do thank Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is, of course, for sale now.

Here is what drew me in. This is horror of the old school variety, with gothic towers and half a dozen criminally insane inmates. It’s set in Czechoslovakia, which I seldom see. The flavor, overall, is similar to the stories we told as children around campfires or late at night during slumber parties. Of course, it has a more adult approach, but even so, this is classic horror.

Our protagonists are Viktor Kusarek, a Jungian psychiatrist who comes to the asylum to conduct experiments on the patients, or inmates, in order to prove a theory, and police chief Lukas Smolak, who is pursuing a serial killer that is running amok in Prague.

This is a story that is more about the journey than the destination, though perhaps not intentionally so. Hearing about each of the six savage killers as Viktor interviews them is vastly entertaining. There’s one spot about a third of the way in, where a patient, partially sedated, is explaining that he is innocent, and also that a guest sorely provoked him. Always so critical! He was determined to impress her with his cooking, and indeed, the longer he worked at the stove, the more reasonable she became. Viktor points out that the guest had stopped complaining because he had her head in the skillet. I laughed out loud! The middle of this novel is unmissable.

There are three things I would change. First, the book is a little overlong, and could bear some tightening. Second, the whole Nazi menace has nothing to do with the problem or its resolution. It seems more like window dressing than anything else, but it doesn’t add a thing to the story. If I were the editor, I would cut that part of it out and voila, some of the tightening would be achieved. And third, the ending is so, so predictable. I stuck with the story until around the 85 percent mark, at which point I figured all hope of an ending other than what I expected was pretty much gone. At that point I skipped to the end. Yup. There it was. I would have liked a less formulaic ending.

Still and all, fans of old fashioned horror could do a lot worse. If this sounds like your kind of book after everything I have said, then go for it. I am old and cranky, and what seems obvious to me might seem new and clever to those that haven’t read many books of this ilk. And one way or the other, getting there is a lot of fun.

The Black Cabinet, by Jill Watts***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward.

The premise sounds exciting: a cabinet consisting of African-American luminaries that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as the best president the U.S. has ever had; well, as far as white folks went, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if he had Black advisors, even if it was kept away from the public eye?

It would have been cool, except mostly, he didn’t. Not really.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now; in fact, it’s been for sale for a long time. I’m very late with this review, because I was very late finishing the book, because it depressed me so deeply that I couldn’t face it.

Watts is a fine writer and has done the research. The issue for me is that this cabinet, which consisted of outstanding academics and other highly respected Black professionals, had incredibly little clout. They were kept secret. They were unofficial. And it sounds as though FDR tolerated them more than he appreciated them. Despite all of their labor and their eloquence, the New Deal left people of color standing in the rain without an umbrella.

The 1930s were a dreadful time for African-Americans, to be sure. The Jim Crow stranglehold on the South, along with less formal, mostly uncodified discrimination in the North, made it more or less impossible for most bright young Black men to make any headway in their chosen professions, apart from within the Black community (and for Black women? Fuhgeddaboudit.) So, it made my heart sing to learn that there was this exceptional group that advised FDR; but actually, they got crumbs off the president’s table. It makes me a little bit ill to see that this huge study turned up so very little.

For those still interested: there it is.

The Fortunes of Jaded Women*****

The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh, is hilarious and oddly touching. It’s the best debut novel of 2022, and it isn’t as if there was no competition. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Mrs. Mai Nguyen was born in Vietnam, but has lived most of her life as a Californian. When we meet her, however, she has flown to Kauai, the home of a renowned Vietnamese psychic. The psychic tells her that the year ahead will be a pivotal one, the one in which she must repair her relationships with her sisters and her daughters. There will be one wedding; one funeral; and one pregnancy.

Well, now.

Nobody likes to be estranged from a family member, and yet it happens. But all of them? Both sisters, and her daughters, too? (No brothers, and no sons, either.) But surely, it isn’t her fault; after all, there’s the curse.

Chapter four is when everything kicks up a gear, and I have seldom laughed so hard. Mrs. Minh Pham is the first to arrive, and she has my attention from the get-go when she slips the waitstaff some money and explains there could potentially be a “small, tiny, little shouting match, with a propensity for small, tiny, little objects to be thrown through the air.” Mrs. Pham is the middle daughter, and is accustomed to being the mediator in any dispute. She takes all the precautions she feels are wise; she parks near the door for a fast getaway if necessary. She removes the sharp utensils as well as the chopsticks from the table, and requests paper plates and plastic cutlery. “Mai had a reputation for throwing things.”

As the women arrive at the dim sum restaurant, they flash their fake Louis Vuitton handbags and immediately set about trying to one-up one another with regard to social status and affluence, and especially—oh yes, especially—that of their respective daughters. Within three minutes, a donnybrook ensues, and the other diners, who are also Vietnamese and well acquainted with the curse of the Duong sisters, begin placing wagers on the winner. The sixty-something sisters commence throwing things at each other and are gently escorted out of the restaurant. They head for a bakery, and they get kicked out of there, too. Finally, the three of them end up on a park bench, their hair and clothing in dishabille, and yet none of them makes any move to leap up and go home.

These are not spoilers; this all takes place within the first 17 percent.

The chapters change points of view, moving between the sisters, their elderly mother, and their daughters, all in the third person omniscient. The fascinating thing is, these crazy behaviors, and the ways that they mold and shape their daughters and their relationships, all fit perfectly.

Although the setting changes, from Orange County, California to Hawaii to Vietnam to Seattle and beyond, this story is character based, and that’s my favorite type of novel. The skeezy men they date—mostly white boyfriends with Asian fetishes—make it even funnier.

The ending is perfect.

This is one of those rare galleys that I may actually read a second time for pleasure. One thing I know for sure is that Huynh is on my radar now. I can’t wait to see what her next book looks like!

The Winners, by Fredrik Backman*****

“Do you want to understand people? Really understand them? Then you need to know all the best that we are capable of.”

The Winners is the third book in the Beartown trilogy by the iconic philosopher-novelist, Fredrik Backman. In the afterward, he tells us, “To you who have read this whole of the saga, I’d just like to say that I hope it gave you something, because I gave it absolutely everything I had.” I am one of them, and I believe him, and yes, it did. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review. It’s been an honor.

I began reading with a certain amount of trepidation, because everything I’d heard and read, some of it by the author himself, suggested that this wasn’t going to be gentle reading. Here’s how he opens it:

“August ends with sultry, ominous heat before autumn kicks the door in at the end of the month and the temperature tumbles in free fall. The natural world around us becomes erratic and aggressive, the dogs and hunters feel it first, but soon everyone else does too. We notice the warnings, yet still the storm arrives with such force that it knocks the breath out of us. It devastates the forest and blocks out the sky, it attacks our homes and our towns like a grown man beating a child.”

Woof.

The characters we’ve met in the first two books, Beartown and Us Against You, are all present and accounted for, and now that his faithful readers already know most of the central characters, Backman gives us a few more. The new hockey coach is Elizabeth Zackell, a quirky individual if ever there was one, and smart as hell. We are introduced to a family from Hed, the nearby town whose club is Beartown’s archrival; we become attached to these people, too. But ultimately, we see the way that great love and passionate loyalty can go hand in glove with violence and even evil.

It’s a story that can take your breath away.

I won’t try to address the whole story or individual characters; that’s Backman’s job, and he does it quite nicely. I had a quibble with the way the first book ended; I said in my review that it was over-the-top, bordering on glib. I see now that this was deliberate, and he wants us to see that not every family responds to a crisis as well as the Andersons have, and not every victim of a violent crime is able to see justice done; not everyone has the heroic instincts of Amet, the player that runs toward the fire rather than away from it.

The hallmarks that make Backman’s work so special are all here. I can count on one hand the number of male authors that genuinely respect women and are willing to go to the mat for women’s rights, and he is one of them. He is a vocal champion of the rights of gays and lesbians, and his prose shows keen understanding of the struggle they face, even now that their legal rights are protected in much of the world. His capacity to juggle a large cast of dynamic characters, developing nearly every one of them in a way that is consistent, along with their relationships with each other, makes me feel as if I could recognize them on the street; I don’t mean one character, or two. I mean at least a dozen of them. There are a number of characters that do bad things or make bad choices, but only a couple are genuinely bad people, and though we see little of them, they cast long shadows on these two communities.

He got the ending exactly right.

Can you read this book without reading the other two first? Don’t be a dick. Of course not. Without familiarizing yourself with the characters in the first book before the second, and the second before the third, you won’t be able to keep everyone straight; also, this third volume is about the same length as the first and second combined. Start with the first one.

Highly recommended.

Upgrade, by Blake Crouch***-****

I loved Dark Matter, Crouch’s award-winning science fiction novel based on the notion of parallel universes. When I was invited by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine to read and review Upgrade, I jumped on it.

This is a story that hits the ground running. Logan is a scientist, and he’s also a husband and father. He leaves home one day in the normal fashion, and he never gets to go back home. He’s been kidnapped, more or less, by his own government; they plan to use him in experiments, but then he’s busted out of there by a badass ninja type that turns out to be his sister.

Surprise!

The pacing is swift and at times, the story is electrifying. However, the first half of the book is more interesting than the second half. My main criticism is the unhappy appearance of one of my least favorite tropes, the Bad Mommy. How has any living author missed the fact that this device has been done to death? Without this annoying feature, I would rate this book 4 to 4.5 stars.

As always when I read science fiction, I cannot tell you whether the science aspect of this novel is credible or entirely made up. I am a humanities animal through and through, so with every scientific explanation of a development in the plot, I just nod along. Okay. I believe that. Of course, I’d believe anything when it comes to scientific explanations. I have no idea how much is actual science, and how much is pseudo-, and I am okay with that. After all, it’s also fiction.

Crouch’s fans will likely appreciate this novel, and those without my own aversion to the trope mentioned above may very well like it, too. It’s for sale now.

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land***-****

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land marks the debut of a talented writer. Omer Friedlander’s short story collection has already made reviewers sit up and take notice. My thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This collection is for sale now.

All of Friedlander’s stories are set in Israel, and all of them evoke their setting in a way that is fresh and immediate. My favorite stories are the title story; High Heels (except for the ending; more on that in a minute,) and Alte Sachen.

Here’s my issue with these stories, and it’s true of nearly all of them: the author uses endings that don’t feel like endings, leaving the reader to figure out for herself what happens. This is particularly painful when a story builds in a most suspenseful manner and then ends on a cliff hanger.

I don’t think so.

I understand that this is considered a valid choice in literary fiction, but I doubt it will ever become a popular one. When an author leaves the rarified world of literary journals and writers’ groups and opens his work up to a general readership, adjustments need to be made.

The sweetness of a well-built story that culminates in tremendous frustration when the end is left dangling finally got the better of me, and I didn’t read the last story.

Now you know; if you want it, go get it.

The Battle Cry of the Siamese Kitten, by Philipp Schott*****

Philipp Schott is a Canadian veterinarian, and he’s very funny. This meaty compendium of essays runs the gamut, and the overall effect is a calming one, like the fish tank in your doctor’s waiting room, but more entertaining. My thanks go to Net Galley and ECW Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I came to Dr. Schott’s work through the back door, so to speak. A friend on social media recommended a mystery he wrote, Fifty-Four Pigs. While I was requesting the galley for that one, I saw that this was also available, so I put in for it as well. I am glad I did, because while the mystery is pretty good, this little gem is even better.

I have never said this before without intending it as an insult, but I do so now: this book is great for insomnia. Here’s what I mean. I’m tossing and turning and after half an hour of that, studies suggest that one must give the battle up and go do something for a bit in order to reboot the brain. When we cannot sleep, it eventually upsets us, and when we are upset, it’s even harder to get to sleep.

When I am sleepless, I am too groggy to do much. I’ve had a sleeping pill, and my motor skills make me unfit to clean house or do anything else that is useful. Once my eyes are able to focus on text, reading is the obvious activity to breach the difficult night hours, but I cannot be certain I’ll remember what I’ve read the next day, and I’m not with it enough to take in complex literature or nonfiction. Thrillers are completely out; they’ll wake me up further, once I’m coherent enough to understand what I am reading.

When all is said and done, short stories or collections of essays, are the best, and Dr. Schott’s are particularly congenial. Each is engaging; a few are tear-jerkers, and while some are persuasive or informational, most are humorous. Although Dr. Schott’s practice is almost entirely there for house pets that are mammals—so, cats and dogs—he has a handful of essays describing cases where he has gone far afield. The zoo wants an ultrasound of that pregnant snow leopard? He’s on it! Beluga whales? YES!

There’s one in which he waxes eloquent about the healing bond that occurs between the very elderly, particularly those in assisted living facilities, and elderly cats and dogs, and he decries the way most such facilities exclude pets; he advocates for a large scale effort to remedy this, including volunteer corps to assist with the extra labor that including these beloved beasties creates. He makes a strong case.

Funniest of all, however, is the title piece, in which he and his wife attempt to take their own cat to the office for shots and whatnot:

I don’t think we veterinarians appreciate how difficult it is to bring some cats to the clinic. Dogs are more easily fooled, only catching on once they get to the clinic door, but it is the rare cat who cheerfully saunters into their carrier, purring in euphoric anticipation of the double joy of a car ride AND a veterinary visit…

“Lucy, look! Extra treats today! And that special catnip mouse! Don’t you want to go in?                                                                                                      Her facial expression was clear: ‘How dumb do you think I am?’                         Play our cards wrong, and she could bolt for the cat sanctuary above the basement ceiling tiles.  The cats think of it as their secret rebel base; we know where it is, but we still can’t get them out of there.

 The pandemic has inspired countless previously petless households to seek out four-pawed companionship, and so, during the period when many businesses have suffered from a lack of customers, Dr. Schott has been even busier than usual. It’s lucky for us that he’s found the time to sit down and write these agreeable essays. In addition to aiding the sleepless, it’s a fine addition to a guest room or yes, the bathroom, because each entry is fairly brief, and the reader can be assured that they’ll have time to finish what they’ve started. Regarding the book, I mean.

Highly recommended.

The Cookie Bible, by Rose Levy Biranbaum***

Biranbaum is the author of The Cake Bible, a book that I used to own, never used, and finally handed off to my daughter. Had I realized this at the outset—and I should have, as it was included in the promotional blurb—I probably would have stepped away from this cookbook. However, cookies are generally an approachable baking project, and it didn’t occur to me that this author might provide recipes that are not.

My thanks go to Mariner Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public on Tuesday, October 18.

My rating is a compromise, because recipes such as these will elicit a variety of responses, none more valid than another, and so I can see this collection as two stars for unpretentious and somewhat lazy souls such as me, and four stars for those looking for a tremendous challenge, or an opportunity to impress.

I was on a weight loss regimen during the warm months, looking forward to fall and the chance to get back in the kitchen and bake. I held onto this galley as a reward for all the weight lost, and I planned to test a couple of recipes before writing a review. That hasn’t happened, nor will it. I confess I didn’t understand what I was in for. These recipes are the sort one uses for a grand occasion if at all. If there’s a dessert auction on the horizon, or if you are simply looking to flex your baking muscles, or even intimidate other bakers, this book is your book. Be prepared to buy a LOT of ingredients that aren’t standard. Super fine sugar; candied lemon peel; brandy or freshly squeezed orange juice, strained; unbalanced hazelnuts! I believe I’d have to be unbalanced to attempt any of this. Fine sea salt; hulled sesame seeds; Muscovedo light brown sugar; sour cherry preserves. Mine are ordinary cherry preserves. Fail. Crystalized ginger. Oh, and once you procure your super fine sugar, you’ll need to grind it in your spice grinder. You have one of those somewhere, of course.

I found one recipe that I thought I could manage. There were 2.5 pages of densely printed instructions.  I could see that I was supposed to have 60-62% cacao dark chocolate, but after reading the recipe four times, I couldn’t find the place where I was supposed to have added it. I did find the place where I should have added something else on top of it, but as far as I am concerned, if the recipe isn’t clear after four readings, then it’s not clearly written.

Next!

Once again, if you have occasions when you are ready to pull out all the stops, you may like this thing, but do make sure you read your recipe well in advance, as I suspect you will have to special order tools and ingredients.

Not for me.