The Patron Saint of Second Chances, by Christine Simon****

“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Signor Speranza is in a jam. The entire system of pipes that the village of Palmetto depends upon for its water must be replaced, and it’s going to cost a small fortune. Speranza is the self-appointed major, so it’s up to him to solve this problem; but no one has any money, least of all himself, a struggling vacuum cleaner repairman. He cooks up a wild pretext to draw attention and money: a big motion picture will be filmed here, and Dante Rinaldi, the red hot movie star of young women’s dreams, will be in it.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version that I relied upon to catch me up once I fell behind. This wonderful feel-good novel is for sale now.

At the outset, there is a certain amount of cringe humor involved, and that’s never been my favorite. I wait to see which way the wind will blow, and soon I am cracking up, snickering as I transplant my tomato plants and listen to the audio. Later, when I catch up with the digital review copy, it’s obvious that cringe humor isn’t the main tool in play here.

Over and over again, Speranza and his little town face certain doom; without money for the plumbing, they must all move somewhere else. He’s caught in a lie; then, just as he escapes that trap, another presents itself. He’s not much of a problem solver, and so he turns to every obscure patron saint you can imagine to get him out of this mess. He lights a candle here or there, and before you know it, some random seeming bit of luck comes out of nowhere. But then some other misfortune occurs, and he’s forced to scramble some more. Add into this disorder a young granddaughter, a thuggish butcher with fifteen intimidating sons, and a puppy that’s not yet housebroken, and the chaos is complete.

Ultimately, this is a lovely tale of loyalty and imagination prevailing against terrible odds and an uncaring bureaucracy. This is Christine Simon’s debut novel, and if this is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what she writes next.  I also want to give a special shout out to Tim Francis, who voices the narrative in the audio version. He is the first reader I’ve heard that can speak English with an Italian accent without sounding like Count Dracula. I greatly enjoyed his interpretation of this splendid little book.

Recommended to anyone that needs a wider smile and a spring in their step.

Fifty-Four Pigs, by Philipp Schott***-****

3.75 stars, rounded upward.

Fifty-Four Pigs is the first in the Dr. Bannerman vet mystery series, set in a tiny town in Manitoba, Canada. My thanks go to Net Galley and ECW for the audio review copy. This book is for sale now.

Peter Bannerman is a quirky guy, a rural veterinarian with particular tastes and a fierce loyalty to his friends. When his good buddy Tom’s barn is torched in the middle of the night, killing all 54 of his pigs and leaving behind a mysterious human corpse, the Mounties want to question him, but he’s nowhere to be found. Has Tom been killed? Kidnapped? Perhaps he’s on the run, panic-stricken. Peter is eager to try out his amateur sleuthing skills on this case; Kevin, his brother-in-law as well as the local law enforcer, is equally eager that he should not. Yet, Peter is concerned that his friend, whom he knows to be a decent, peaceable soul, could never commit murder, and who surely wouldn’t harm his own pigs. If he doesn’t clear Tom’s name, who will?

This novel is a cozy mystery, despite all the dead porkers (about whom there is blessedly little detail.) It’s humorous in places, and is already building a budding fan base. I love Peter’s dogs, Merry and Pippin; the latter goes just about everywhere with him, and is helpful when push comes to shove. Some of the vet cases make me snicker out loud; I’m gardening as I listen, and hope the neighbors won’t think I’ve lost my mind, all alone and cackling in my lettuce bed.

As for me, I find the first half to be a bit on the slow side, with more extraneous details that aren’t directly relevant to the story than I would prefer. However, I usually am not a cozy mystery lover, either. The second half of the story ramps up the suspense and the intrigue, and when Bannerman heads out to the ice fishermen’s shacks with a storm in the immediate forecast, it’s impossible to put this book down.

The audio is performed by actor Miles Meili, and I find his narrative to be an acquired taste; he tends to sound wryly amused even during the serious parts of the story, and during the first half, I wish wholeheartedly for a print version to refer to. However, once the excitement begins, I can’t think about anybody except poor Peter, who’s out there in that raging storm, and so Mr. Meili’s stylized delivery no longer distracts me.   

The ending is hilarious.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, and I do lean toward the print version, but if you are an audio-or-nothing reader, go ahead and get it in the form you love best.

Overboard, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is one of my all-time favorite writers; I’ve been reading her Victoria Warshawski detective novels for most of my adult life. Paretsky is one of four living authors to have received both the Grand Masters Award from the Mystery Writers of America and Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She, together with the late Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, have pioneered the image of women detectives in fiction, departing from the femme fatale of yesteryear who could only reveal the truth by using her sexuality to coax disclosures from men, instead creating capable women professionals that can ferret out the truth using their brains and bulldog persistence. A sympathetic cop friend tells Vic, “You’re a pit bull, Warshawski. You’ll go into the ring with anyone, as long as they’re at least three times your size.”

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

If I knew nothing of this author and her scrappy detective, the first line in the book would have reeled me in: “It was Mitch who found the girl.” As it is, I already know that Mitch is one of the two dogs she shares with her elderly neighbor friend, Mr. Contreras, and I feel as if I am greeting an old comrade.

The girl in question is in bad shape, and she doesn’t speak. For a while her identity is a mystery. Vic would be happy to offload her to medical professionals and get back to her own life; she’s got a lot of clients, and Lotty, her doctor friend that serves as a mother-figure in Vic’s life, is urging her to investigate the rash of attacks on the local synagogue. She doesn’t need more work.

But the cops—generally not friends of Vic’s at the best of times—are ready to haul Vic in. In fact, given their track record, Vic is amazed at the attention the girl is getting. All manner of monied movers and shakers show intense interest in the girl, and it makes Vic suspicious.

She’s right.

A sixteen year old boy comes to her office, asking her to look into a dicey situation involving his father. He believes his dad is in danger, and his parents won’t tell him anything. And so, there’s this kiddo, and there’s the girl: “Two teens, two life-threatening secrets—I have to assume they’re connected somewhere, somehow.”

She’s right again.

Before we know it, her apartment and office have been searched and bugs are left; her phone is being tracked; and Vic has to resolve the case in order to get her life back. She’s jumping in the cold river to elude capture, hiding in the least likely places, and keeping the kids safe from the forces that would harm them. Her attorney chuckles that “You get in over your head faster than Houdini in a water tank.”

He’s right, too.

When I opened this galley, I was already reading a handful of others that I liked, and figured I’d put this one into the rotation, but as often happens when I read Paretsky, everything else sat untouched until I’d torn through this book feverishly, as if the lives of Vic, her clients, and Chicago’s working class depended upon it.

Highly recommended to those that love strong detective fiction; feminists; and champions of the working class.

Two Nights in Lisbon, by Chris Pavone*****

“Once first blood is drawn, sharks make quick work.”

Chris Pavone (Puh-vo-KNEE) writes the best thrillers around. I read his second novel, The Accident, in 2015, thanks to the First Reads program on Goodreads, and I liked it so well that I ferreted out a copy of his debut thriller, The Expats at my favorite used bookstore. I’ve read and reviewed everything he’s published since then, and I’ll tell you right now, Two Nights in Lisbon is his best.

My thanks go to Net Galley; Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; and Macmillan Audio for the review copies. This book will be available to the public May 24, 2022.

The beginning doesn’t impress me much; a couple is in Portugal and he leaves before she gets up; says he’ll be right back; and he disappears. In real life this would be a big deal, but in a thriller, it feels almost generic (though it actually isn’t.)  Ariel—the stranded wife—is beside herself with worry, and she goes to the police and to the U.S. Embassy, but they all blow her off. It hasn’t been 24 hours yet, there’s no sign of foul play, and face it honey, sometimes husbands wander. She carries on until we’re a quarter of the way into the book, and this part of it could probably stand to be tightened up some. But this story draws the full five stars from me, because after this, Pavone makes up for it, and more.

Next comes the ransom demand. Nameless, faceless baddies contact her. They have her husband; they want three million dollars, and they want it fast.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but I’ll say this much: this plot is original, and as thrillers go, also plausible. There’s never a moment where I stop believing. And there’s a wonderfully satisfying measure of Karma attached at the end.

The thing that makes me love this author so hard, and that is particularly strong this time around, is his deep, consistent respect for women. In this era of MeToo and mansplaining, it takes a lot of chutzpah for a man to write a female protagonist, and what’s more, he includes a rape scene, which I trust no man for EVER, except for Pavone right here right now. He tells it the way a woman would tell it, and—all you other male authors out there, listen up—there’s not one moment where the assault feels even a tiny bit sexy. And so, at the beginning of this particular scene I tensed, waited to be outraged, or disappointed, or whatever—and then relaxed, because he gets it. This guy gets it.

Ariel makes the occasional small mistake, but no large ones. She is intelligent, organized, and capable of looking out for herself, even in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language. The reveal at the end makes me do a fist pump. Yesss.

The pace never flags after the first quarter, and there are occasional moments that make me guffaw. This is a story that brooks no tolerance of the wealthy, the elite, the entitled.

I received both the audio and digital review copies, and so I alternated the two, although I listened the majority of the time, backtracking for quotes and other salient details for the purpose of this review. January LaVoy is our narrator, and she does an outstanding job. You can’t go wrong with either version, but I would give the edge to the audio version, which is immensely entertaining.

Highly recommended.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich*****

I wasn’t able to get a galley this time, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This turned out to be the best possible way to read it, because Erdrich narrates it herself.

The Sentence is set in Minneapolis during the pandemic, from November 2019 to November 2020. It starts with the world’s most hilarious crime, one which sends our protagonist, Tookie, to prison; however, most of the meat of the story takes place once she’s out again. Tookie develops a love of writing (“with murderous intent,”) while she’s incarcerated, and so, once she is released, what more natural place is there for her to look for work, than a bookstore? But this bookstore is special. It’s haunted.

Tookie’s story is wrapped around a number of social issues and current events; most prominently, of course, is that of American Indians’ rights; this is the time and place of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, and so the demonstrations of outraged citizens are folded into the novel as well. And of course, this is not one bit funny.

I came to read Erdrich late in the game, when The Night Watchman, which won the Pulitzer, came out in 2020. That one novel persuaded me that from now on, I would read every blessed thing Erdrich writes. The Sentence strengthens this resolution.

Highly recommended.

Let’s Not Do That Again, by Grant Ginder*****

“Justice always comes first.”

Grant Ginder is one of the funniest writers alive. I read and reviewed Honestly, We Meant Well when it came out in 2019, and I knew then that I’d read whatever he wrote from that time on. Is Let’s Not Do That Again as funny? No, friend, it’s even funnier.

My thanks go to Net Galley, MacMillan audio, and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

Nancy Harriman is running for Senate in New York City, with the assistance of her loyal son, Nick, and hindrance from her rebellious daughter, Greta. She’s focused; she’s determined. And that’s a good thing, because her daughter is focused on ruining Nancy’s life.

Parents don’t always know what their children get up to online; this is doubly true when there’s only one parent, and she’s busy running for the public office her late husband used to hold. And so Nancy doesn’t know that Greta is in league with the devil, till Greta has obtained an ungodly sum of travel money from her grandmother, and has flown to Paris to be with him.

With Greta is Paris, one thing leads to another and in a breathtakingly short amount of time, the wicked little Frenchman has manipulated her into causing destruction on a level that makes international news. Nick, the good son, is sent across the Atlantic to retrieve his sister, who appears penitent, but isn’t.

From there things spiral further out of control, and it’s hard to imagine just how this story will play out, but when I see where Ginder takes it, I bow in awe.

I am fortunate enough to have received both the digital and audio versions of this delightful spoof. Susannah Jones is such a skilled narrator that at times, I forget that there’s only one person telling the story. On the other hand, there’s some creative, very funny spelling peppered into the narrative that you’ll miss out on if you don’t see the text. All told, I’d say it’s a toss-up. Go with whichever mode makes you happiest.

Highly recommended, especially if you lean a little to the left.

A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

In On the Joke, by Shawn Levy****

Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that emerged from the vaudeville era to make history, roughly between the World War II era and Watergate.

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

There are eight chapters in this book, each dedicated to a particular type of comic. He starts with Moms Mabley, whom I had never heard of, and continues down the line with Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and several others, and ends with “The Scrapper,” Joan Rivers. I confess it was Rivers’ face on the cover that drew me to this historical work.

Levy has cut no corners, and the documentation is flawless; his style of reporting is conversational and written for a general readership. All told, he’s done a fine job here.

My only sorrow—and one that isn’t the author’s fault—is seeing what horrible things these women had to do to themselves in order to meet with success. One after another, women comics have mounted the stage, day after day, night after night, to make self-deprecating jokes, many of them downright vicious. They tell about how ugly they were as children, and how ugly they are now; they tear themselves apart like Christians diving voluntarily into the colosseum pit where the lions await. I expected to laugh my way through this thing, but most of the time I wanted to sit down and sob for these artists.

As I expected, my favorite among them is Rivers. Eventually she eased up somewhat on the self-attacks and began roasting other public figures. I saw some of her work when she was still alive, and at the time, I thought some of her jokes were too mean to be funny, but as Rivers pointed out to her critics, she always “punched up.” Using her well known catch phrase, “Can we tawk,” she eviscerated the most successful celebrities, politicians, and other newsworthy public figures, and a lot of her material was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’d have finished reading and reviewing this book much sooner had I not kept setting it aside to watch old footage of her routines, as well as some of the others Levy covers.

If you are looking for a book to make you laugh your butt off, this isn’t that book, but it’s an excellent history of the women that paved the way for the likes of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Hannah Gadsby, and many others.

Recommended to feminists, and those interested in entertainment history.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, by Sarah Bird***

I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Bird’s historical fiction since I read Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, which was published in 2018. When I saw that she had a new book coming out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to start reading it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and McMillan Audio for the recording. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Evie Devlin; the setting is in Texas during the Great Depression. This is a time before government relief exists. Jobs for capable men are scarce, and for women, nearly nonexistent. Evie’s father is dead, and her mother has let her know that she won’t support her efforts to become a nurse. When hard work and determination land her a scholarship, Evie is over the moon, and she makes her way to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Galveston. The director is not happy to see her; she disapproves of scholarship girls in general—a low class of girls, she believes—and in particular, a Protestant one! What is this world coming to? However, Sofia Amadeo likes Evie, and she wants her admitted, and since the Amadeo family’s money and power drive absolutely everything in Galveston, the director is forced to let Evie in. She and Sofie become roommates first, and then the closest of friends.

We follow Evie through nursing school, but on graduation day, she hits a snag and is sent away without her pin, which is the equivalent of a license to practice. Now homeless and nearly penniless, Evie is adrift, until she learns about the dance-a-thons that feature cash prizes. She was forced to dance for money as a small child and doesn’t care to do so again, but when she sees what passes for a nurse in the show—basically someone off the street recruited to play the role of nurse, but with no training of any kind—she persuades the manager to hire her instead. From there, romance and all sorts of other entanglements and complications ensue.

For roughly the first eighty percent of the book, I am enthralled. The plot is fascinating, the historical accuracy commendable. Soon this becomes my favorite galley. And this is why I feel such a colossal sense of disappointment, almost a sense of betrayal, in fact, when the ending is cobbled together with feel-good revisionism and wishful thinking. Without going into spoilerish detail, a member of an oppressed minority becomes Evie’s focus, and suddenly we roam so far from the historical truth that we never find our way back again. And make no mistake: the actual truth is ugly. But if you’re going to write in the kitchen, you have to be able to bear the heat. Or, something like that.

Sarah Bird is a badass writer. Just reading her figurative language alone gives me joy, and I am hoping fervently that this bizarre departure is an anomaly. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

As for the audio, Cassandra Campbell does a serviceable job, though the Italian accent sounds a bit like Dracula. This is a common issue, I find, and so I’m not terribly concerned about this aspect. Everything else she does is right on point. If you are going to read this book—which, sadly, I cannot recommend—I’d say it’s a toss up as to audio versus print. Go with whatever you’re most comfortable with, but do it free or cheap if you decide to acquire it.

I’ll Be You, by Janelle Brown***

Janelle Brown has written several successful novels, among them Watch Me Disappear and Pretty Things, both of which I read and reviewed; I rated both five stars. So I was greatly looking forward to I’ll Be You, anticipating the same sort of page turner I associate with this writer. Sadly, that’s not what I found. Though it has some nice moments, the pacing doesn’t measure up, and the whole thing is burdened with trite story elements and devices.

Nevertheless, my thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public April 26, 2022.

The premise: Samantha and Elli are twins, and they grow up in Southern California as child actors, with the sort of rabid fan base that makes it hard to go out in public. Sam loves acting, but Elli doesn’t, and as they grow up, Elli leaves it all behind, attends college, then marries a successful career man and buys a home in the ‘burbs. They can’t have children of their own, but adopt Charlotte, who is now two.

Samantha discovers the horrible truth, that her skills were good enough when she was a child actor; twins are popular in the industry, because child labor laws prohibit any child from working more than half a day. Identical twins can each work a half day, and so filming can take place all day. Once she is grown and looking for a single, adult career, however, she finds roles hard to come by. The drug habit she’s developed as an adolescent burgeons into something larger, more horrible, and she’s been in and out of clinics ever since, sometimes on her sister’s dime.

Now Elli has taken off and left Charlotte with their mother, who is having trouble keeping up. Mom calls Sam, figuring that helping care for Charlotte is the very least that Sam owes their family. And Sam comes. Soon it becomes clear to Sam that Elli isn’t just off on a weekend retreat, but has been absorbed into a cult; in order to save her sister, she has to (yeah, this again) pretend to be her. Meanwhile, Mom is no help whatsoever, caught in a combination of denial and family roles, in which Elli is the good daughter, and Sam isn’t.

So we have here just about every overused element I’ve seen in the last ten years. We have the alcoholic addict that wants to drink but mustn’t, needs to use, but must resist. Over. And over. And then we have Bad Mama, a very popular mechanism of late. Mothers can rarely be good guys in today’s novels, and they’re (we’re,) such low-hanging fruit. As if that isn’t sufficient, we also have the twins-changing-roles trope, slightly modified. Even the name—Elli—can anybody out there write a novel, oh please, in which the protagonist is not Allie, or Alex, or Ellie, or some other variant on this same, eternal name?

I made it through the first forty percent or so withholding judgment, because I figured this author is one that can pull it out of the water and make it shine. But I realize this book is not up to snuff when I see how frequently I am setting it aside to read my other galleys. When I read the other two of Brown’s novels mentioned above, I started them, stuck with them to the exclusion of other books, finished them fast, and reviewed them. This time I would often consider opening it, and then decide on another book instead. Finally, I resolved to finish it, and so I did, but as you can see, I wasn’t impressed.

Brown is a capable novelist, and I’m not giving up on her. Anybody can have a dud someplace in their career. But as for this book, I advise you to read it cheap or free, if you read it at all.