The Night Child, by Anna Quinn****

TheNightChildAnna Quinn is a brave writer. This wrenching debut novel occupies a place in literature that has lain dormant for decades; kudos to Quinn for bringing dark business out into the light of day for a good airing. I received my review copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blackstone Publishers. It will be available to the public January 30, 2018.

Nora is a high school teacher and the mother of a small child; her marriage is coming undone. Her mental health is a little on the shaky side, and she’s seeing a therapist to help her understand a terrifying vision that came to her in her classroom. A “wild numinous” face, the disembodied face of a child, floats over her students’ desks one day after school, and Nora panics. This face represents the core of Nora’s story, and once the layers of her outer self are peeled away, it makes for a deeply absorbing read.

Quinn takes some time to lay her groundwork. The first part of the story is unremarkable, and I briefly considered abandoning it. Character development seems limited to marital issues and time spent in therapy, and Nora lacks depth and originality until about the thirty percent mark. I tell you this lest you abandon the story yourself. It’s worth the wait, because once the story takes wing, it is hypnotic.

It’s tempting to say this novel is the twenty-first century’s answer to Sybil, but that doesn’t do it justice. Nora’s struggle to find the self that is held beneath layers and layers of emotional scar tissue, to heal herself so that she can be a good mother to Fiona, is one that we carry with us long after the book is over. Those that face serious mental health issues themselves will see vindication. Those that have family members or other loved ones working to unify a personality fragmented by trauma may see themselves as Paul, who’s juggling his own needs, those of his daughter, his love for Nora, and the crushing burnout that comes of living with a partner facing all-absorbing mental illness over a lengthy period of time.

Recommended to those interested in reading about mental health issues through the approachable medium of literary fiction.

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White****

nothing with stringsWith Christmas around the corner, I bought this slender volume for less than five bucks. It brightened my days (and my bathroom) until I finished it.

White has a droll sense of humor, quirky, eccentric, and at times understated enough that if my mind strays to other things even slightly, I find I have missed something funny. My favorites are the title story, which is fall-down-laughing funny, and “What Would They Say in Birmingham”. Here I have to add that White’s protagonists tend to be Caucasian Southerners, and the humor she employs will most likely appeal to the typical NPR audience, which is mostly white liberal Boomers from all over the United States.

Although it’s billed as a collection of Christmas stories, the holiday influence here is minimal. It’s the sort of collection one could read at any time of year without feeling out of place. I like short story collections because they can be tucked into the guest room, where visitors can read a story or two even if they won’t be around long enough to go through the whole book, but this time I dropped it into a Christmas box I was mailing to relatives as a happy extra little surprise.

Recommended to fans of this writer, and to older white folks that like short stories.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.

The Spy Who Never Was, by Tom Savage*****

TheSpyWhoNeverI love Savage’s work, and this title is his best to date. I got my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Alibi. You can get it January 9, 2018.

Nora Barton is our protagonist, and she is recruited by Edgar Cole as an unofficial CIA agent—she has been helpful to the Agency before—because of her physical resemblance to someone being targeted by the enemy, an enemy known as TSB.

“Edgar Cole was using her as bait: here, kitty, kitty. Now Nora was in Paris with TSB, and the two of them were playing an elaborate game of I-know-you-know-and-you-know-I-know, and Nora wondered what would happen next in their little charade.”

Nora isn’t allowed to tell her husband, who is an intelligence agent himself, but she tells him some of it anyway. I smile, knowing I would do the same. He tells her not to accept this assignment—absolutely not—but Nora doesn’t take orders from him, and she makes the decision to go.

Savage writes true thrillers. Like his other novels, this one grabs you by the hair on the first page and doesn’t let go. I am accustomed to the traditional story arc, rising toward a climax, but that’s not what we get here; instead, there’s a huge surprise around every corner. My pulse raced while I read this thing, and my blood pressure rose. There are several places in my notes throughout the book that say “Holy crap!” or, “My heart!”

Once in Paris, people start getting dead. That agent that was attacked because he was guarding her—wait a minute, was he guarding her? Nora isn’t sure who she can trust, but happily, she has a personal friend, an elderly fellow now retired from intelligence that lives in Paris. Her friend’s message to her is sobering indeed: “Go home, Mademoiselle.”

Every now and then Savage breaks up the tension for a split second with humor, and I love this. Her mentor in Paris prides himself on his English use, and he misuses idioms in ways that are charming and sometimes very funny, and this is done in a way that doesn’t mock the French or anyone else. Savage is a pro, handling this delicate characteristic deftly. The mentor tells Nora that a spy known as “Le Faulcon” is here to kill her; he is a “Russian hitting man”.

Whoa now. Frankly, I would be on the plane back to the States in a jiffy; but then, I would not have gone at all. Nora, on the other hand, is a badass.

This leads me to my very favorite aspect of Savage’s work, which is becoming a literary signature: women generally don’t get saved by men here. Women either save themselves, or they save others. But in this regard, Savage is the ultimate anti-noir author. There are no helpless women. Three cheers for Savage’s powerful feminist fiction.

Last, let’s look at the side characters. There are a host of them, and a number of them are known by multiple names, so this is not a beach read. I quickly learned not to read this story after I took my sleeping pill, because if I did, I would just have to read it again the next day. In addition to our colorful older French mentor, Savage introduces a new character named Fanny that I would love to see again.

Get it digitally or get it on paper, but if you love a well-crafted psychological thriller, you have to read this book.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

The Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg****

TheStoryofArthurThe Story of Arthur Truluv is a gently philosophical story centered on an elderly widower. Arthur visits the cemetery every day and has lunch at his late wife’s grave so that he can talk to her. Those interred there make pieces of their stories known to him at times; it’s a bit like crossing Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking with the work of Fredrik Backman. I read it free and early thanks to Random House and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. I rate this book as 3.5 stars and round upward.

Arthur, an octogenarian, and Maddy, who is 17, meet at the graveyard. Maddy is in a spot herself; her home life is not good; she’s been dumped by a much older boyfriend; she’s a pariah at school; and on top of all these things, she is pregnant. She and Arthur form a tentative friendship, though she is wary of trusting him at first. A bond is formed, and Arthur becomes a mentor to Maddy.

Added into the mix is Arthur’s lonely next door neighbor, an older woman named Lucille, who has never married or had children. These three characters make up the vast majority of the story, but it’s not a story with three protagonists; as the title suggests, the story is Arthur’s, and Maddy and Lucille are here primarily to develop him.

The story is a sweet one and has some nice moments, particularly where gentle good humor is employed; yet at the same time, I felt a little let down. Perhaps it was the hype; there’s been so much buzz about this book. But although I liked most of it, I found it somewhat derivative. I had 90 percent of the ending figured out a third of the way into the story. The character of Lucille felt wooden to me, and a lot of Berg’s sentimentality and allegory could use a lighter hand.

This one is a good choice for those needing a little light, feel-good fiction, but I wouldn’t pay full jacket price for it. This story is available to the public tomorrow, November 21, 2017.

 

Gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

godsinalabamaThis book was just what the doctor ordered. Whenever I find myself steeped in too much important-yet-grim literature, I have a handful of go-to authors that are guaranteed to leave me feeling better about the world. Jackson is one of them. I bought my copy of this book used via Powell’s City of Books, online using the gift certificate they bestow on reviewers from time to time. I recently won another one and have ordered some more books by this writer to brighten the winter to come.

Arlene had vowed never to return to her family in Alabama. Dark things have been done there, and she did some of them herself. Let’s examine, for instance, the murder of Jim Beverly. Arlene promised God that if he let her get out of the state after it occurred, she would never return, and despite her family’s hurt inquiries, she never has. Now things are different, though. A visitor from her hometown has come to her apartment asking about Jim. In addition, Arlene’s boyfriend Burr, who is African-American, has told her that if she won’t introduce him to her people, regardless of what they are like or how they will treat him, he will leave her. And so Arlene is forced to break her vow with the Almighty and head south.

Arlene’s family is unforgettable; Aunt Flo, who raised Arlene after her mother’s breakdown, is one of the finest strong female characters of all time. I have read several books since I read this one, and yet Arlene and Flo are still riding around in my head. That’s what excellent literature does.

As to Jim Beverly and Arlene’s vow, there’s more to all of it than meets the eye, and the ending is so surprising yet so completely believable that I can only roll my eyes in admiration. Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction.

Hank & Jim, by Scott Eyman****

HankandJimFans of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart will want to read this biography, written by the author that recently wrote a biography of John Wayne. I was invited to read and review by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, and so I read it free in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale now.

The book is well crafted, and multiple aspects contribute to its success. The first is the unglamorous but essential research. Eyman used extensive interviews with both actors’ families as well as directors and other actors that had worked with them. The second is the thoughtful analysis. Eyman’s insights are intelligent and fairly measured, never becoming prurient, gossipy, or mawkish. The third is his friendly, congenial narrative, peppered with telling anecdotes that keep the pages turning.  It’s well organized and doesn’t rely on photographs to tell the story.

These actors belonged to my parents’ generation, and so for a long time I was not much interested in them. More recently, though, I’ve found it’s interesting to see their craft, their lives, and their work  as creatures of the time in which their careers blossomed, and as part of American entertainment history.

The truth is that I never cared much for Henry Fonda. The only one of his movies I saw in the theater was On Golden Pond, and the harsh way he spoke to his daughter on the screen—who was also his daughter in real life, Jane—was so brutal that I never wanted to see anything more that he’d done, apart from the occasional old movie I ran across on television.  Learning later that he was more or less the same father to her in real life didn’t help much. Eyman is unsparing as he describes this aspect of the Fonda family, but he also points to the mellower man he became later in life, and to the tremendous loyalty he showed his friends, Stewart foremost among them.

I was more interested in Jimmy Stewart, who left a more timeless body of work. Harvey is a film I loved enough to search out and watch in turn with each of my children.  Of course, at Christmas time I am inclined to pull out It’s a Wonderful Life, although none of my kids would watch it with me more than once. There was such heart in his roles.

Because I like Stewart’s work, I had already read one biography fairly recently. Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe dealt well with his war years as well as the early years of his life, and so I didn’t enjoy the first half of Eyman’s book—which covered the same ground again—as I did the second half, which I found both comforting in places as well as mesmerizing.  The second part also has more quotes by his children, who weren’t around for much of the stars’ earlier lives. And I came away with renewed respect for Jane Fonda, who had a harder road than I had previously understood.

Now I have half a dozen movie titles I want to watch, or watch again; that’s a sure sign of a strong biography. And it makes me think warmly of my own longstanding friends, some of whom I’ve known and loved almost as long as the 50 years that Hank and Jim were friends.

Recommended to fans of Fonda and Stewart, and to those that love good biographies; this would also make a nice Christmas gift for older relatives.

The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius*****

“America is a country where race matters. The more people say they are, what, color-blind, the more it is a lie.”

thequantumspyDavid Ignatius writes gripping spy fiction, and this is his best work.  The basis of this one is the longstanding intelligence war between the CIA and its Chinese counterpart; the story is fictional, but his careful research ensures that this could have happened.  Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Edelweiss and W.W. Norton and Company Publishers. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, November 7, 2017.

Harris Chang is Chinese-American, raised to respect the red, white and blue.  He works for the CIA, and has been sent to investigate a leak in a quantum research lab. As the USA and China struggle to achieve technological dominance, tensions rise. Chang wonders if he has been chosen to investigate based on his ethnicity, since he knows very little about China or even his own family tree; why yes he has. The Chinese expect to be able to turn him because of it, and over the course of time, his bosses begin to suspect that it’s happened.  Harris is loyal, and he chafes at the unfairness of his treatment, but is determined to succeed. After all, what could prove his loyalty more clearly than to perform above the standard to which most of the Agency’s employees are held?

The setting changes constantly as spies chase other spies all over the world, but the story takes place primarily in Arlington, Virginia and in Singapore. There are also some especially tense, intriguing scenes set in Mexico, and I love the side details about Trotsky’s house, which is now a museum.

Ignatius dumbs down nothing for anyone, and so the reader should have literacy skills that are sharp and ready. Don’t read this one after you take your sleeping pill. Trust me.

The story can be read—and mostly will be, I think—as an enjoyable bit of escapism. With current events so intense, we all need some of that, and it’s what I expected when I requested the DRC. But I find it much more rewarding because of the racial subtext. It’s an area that’s important to me, and at first my back was up when I saw hints of it without knowing what the writer’s intentions were. So many are astonishingly clueless, or worse, when it comes to this aspect of fiction. But as I saw where he was taking it, I had to completely reevaluate my opinion. I would love to be surprised in exactly this way more frequently.

The ending made me want to stand up and cheer.

Highly recommended to those that love strong thrillers, and even more so for those that also cherish civil rights in the USA.

 

We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates*****

WeWereEightYears Ta-Nehisi Coates is pissed. He has a thing or two to say about the historical continuity of racism in the USA, and in this series of eight outstanding essays, he says it well. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House, and I apologize for reviewing it so late; the length wasn’t a problem, but the heat was hard to take. That said, this is the best nonfiction civil rights book I have seen published in at least 20 years.

Coates started his writing career as a journalist, and became the civil rights columnist for The Atlantic. For those Caucasians that advise Black folk to just get over this nation’s ugly history because slavery has been gone for 150 years, he has a response. Pull up your socks and be ready. To Bill Cosby and Patrick Moynihan and anybody else that wants to blame the high poverty level on the demise of the Black family, look out. And for anyone that seriously believes that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is proof that America’s institutional racism is dead and gone, step back a minute.

When Coates sets out to make a point, he comes armed for conflict. Not only is he searing eloquent, his research is hard to dispute. Regarding white folk that hold themselves blameless for what their ancestors have done, he wonders why we feel so free to claim our veterans every May and November and yet pretend that our white bedsheeted predecessors have nothing to do with us.

He has a point.

For those of us that are persuaded that the election of Donald Trump to the White House is more about economics and the unemployment of poor white people or the abrasive nature of Ms. Clinton than about white supremacy, Coates has some cogent arguments that run in the other direction. It’s enough to make you stop and think, and that’s why I am tardy with my review. I read in small bites, and then I had to reconsider some of my own conclusions. And although it stings, great writing does this. If we are paying attention, we have to realign some of our own thinking in order to meet the reality this book presents.

Coates is bemused by Caucasian readers that love his work. I understand his bewilderment; nobody likes to hear bad news about the characters of their ancestors, let alone about themselves. But if a thing needs doing, it needs to be done right, and in that respect, Coates is undeniable.

Highly recommended to everyone genuinely interested in civil rights in the USA.