About seattlebookmama

Greetings! I am Donna Davis, a retired teacher living in my favorite city in the world. I've found that one of the greatest comforts in life is a good book. We can all use a little of that. Welcome, and enjoy! Donna Seattle Book Mama

The Matchmaker’s Gift, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

“The heart is big enough to hold both grief and love.”

I read Loigman’s debut novel, The Two-Family House, followed by The Wartime Sisters, and I loved them both, so when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review The Matchmaker’s Gift, I leapt. Once again, Loigman has me at hello. This outstanding historical novel is for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

The story is told from the point of view of two protagonists, a woman and her grandmother; they were close, but Sara the grandmother has died, so her story is told in the past, beginning in 1910, when she arrives in the U.S. as a child, along with her family. Abby is her granddaughter; her story begins in 1994. Their stories are told alternately, but both are in the third person omniscient and told in a linear time frame, so I am free to lean back, relax, and get lost in their stories, without any confusion or doubling back to check things.

Sara was a matchmaker, although she initially had to be very careful, because Jewish tradition dictated that matchmakers be married men, and she was still just a girl. But she was gifted with visions of a sort, and could tell who belonged together. And so she was forced to create matches “in secret, pairing people together like a rogue puppeteer.” She never missed. And upon her passing, she leaves a cryptic message indicating that upon her death, Abby will inherit her special talent.

Abby is nonplussed by this, and even as she grieves her beloved grandmother’s death, she is confused as to what she should do. She’s a divorce lawyer, for heaven’s sake! Is she to toss her education and become a modern day yenta? She hasn’t even found a man for herself yet, let alone for others.

It’s always a joy to find a story that diverges from the well-worn path, and novels involving Jewish matchmakers—or any others, for that matter—are thin on the ground. But that is only a small part of this novel’s appeal. I love Sara and Abby; I almost feel they are my friends. I feel their sorrows and admire their courage and integrity. When either of them meets with unfair opposition, I want to smack their detractor with my cane.

But there’s something extra that’s infused into Loigman’s stories, an intangible but unmissable warmth. Nobody can teach anyone this. I can count on one hand the number of authors that can write heartwarming stories that don’t follow formulas or insult the reader’s intelligence. Loigman is one, and this makes her golden.

When I was halfway finished reading this glorious novel, I saw that an audio galley was available. I was a bit cautious, because I had already developed a firm sense of how these women sounded in my head, and I was afraid I might not like the narrators’ interpretations, but my concern was unfounded. I had a road trip ahead of me, and I listened to the next forty percent as I drove, and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t love. Narrators Eva Kaminsky and Gabra Zackman do a lovely job, and I have never had such a seamless transition from the digital galley, to the audio, and back again.

Highly recommended, and bound to be one of the year’s best loved books.

Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

Liberating Lomie, by Saloma Miller Furlong*****

Saloma Miller Furlong is the author of two memoirs that focus on her decision to leave the Amish faith and community; this is her third. I received a copy for review purposes from the author; this book is for sale now.

Furlong hasn’t had the typical Amish childhood. In her earlier works, she explains that her father was unable to function normally; given to sudden, inexplicable rages, he was a frightening man when he was angry, and he was angry often. Sometimes his rages occurred at predictable times; other times, they came from nowhere. He was unable to do the necessary work to support the family, as is usual in Amish households, and Saloma’s mother, siblings, and Saloma herself had to scramble to pick up the slack. These things are described in Why I Left the Amish and Bonnet Strings. Her experience is also featured in two PBS Experience films, “The Amish,” and “The Amish Shunned.” These documentaries are available free of cost online.

None of Saloma’s books provides light reading; her experience is a brutal one, her childhood traumatic. She is assaulted numerous times, and some of these involve sexual assaults. She tells her mother, who does nothing to protect her. And so, if you are looking for a book that details the typical Amish life, its cultural and religious practices, what technology is acceptable and what is forbidden, and so forth, this is probably not the book you’re looking for, although the two documentaries mentioned above will provide a good overview. Instead, her books demonstrate what happens when an Amish household or some of its members are in crisis.

The extremity of her trauma is glaringly obvious by the fact that her first two memoirs completely overlook her mother’s own brutality towards Saloma, as well as her complicity in assaults by Saloma’s father and older brother. For more than fifty years, this author buried this part of her own trauma, the betrayal she experienced by the person most responsible for her protection as a child. Only recently has she permitted herself to acknowledge it within her own mind, let alone write about it. In the email she sent me requesting that I read and review this new memoir, she told me that she wishes there were a way to recall every single copy of that first memoir, because it omits so much. But I believe one can also read it, and for that matter, all three of these books, with the understanding that we learn as much by what is not said, as by what is.

Saloma’s decision to leave home, to abandon the culture that is all she’s ever known, is driven by two factors. The first and greatest, of course, is self-preservation, the need to find physical safety. But another strong motivator is intellectual inquiry. Amish girls do not attend school after grade 8. This isn’t a general rule; it’s an absolute one. In rare cases an exception may be made for a young man, if his course of study will ultimately benefit the community, but at the end of eighth grade, girls are done. Informal study and reading are also nearly impossible. Amish homes contain the Bible and essential Amish teachings; novels, art books, even resource materials have no place there. An Amish family member that is curled up with a book or newspaper is a slacker at best, using time that could instead be used to benefit the family. At worst, it is a sign of moral corruption, reading worldly content that is not necessary and may even be regarded as evil. No, Saloma couldn’t get away with such things; she once purchased a magazine subscription of the tamest variety, and that was allowed, though it was seen as strange.

Sometimes we know a book is good because of the thinking it inspires after we finish the final page. So it is for me here. I find myself wondering why there aren’t more Amish youngsters that are unable to turn away from the written word. Surely there are other bright, intellectually curious boys and girls that chafe at being forcibly wrenched from their education? Initially I assumed, as many non-Amish do, that most Amish youth might slip through the open door represented by Rumspringa, hit the road, and never look back, but I learned that this isn’t true. The overwhelming majority of Amish teens remain Amish all of their lives, and the majority that do leave, return home later and stay put. And so I wonder; have they simply bred for passivity? It’s a conundrum.

I am initially surprised by Furlong’s decision to use the same book cover here that she used on her first, but I believe it may have been done with an eye toward replacing the old memoir with this new one.

As for the writing quality here, I like the quality of her analysis, and so for those that enjoy a memoir with depth, I recommend this book to you.

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional, by Isaac Fitzgerald***-****

I enjoy a good memoir, and so I was all in when I saw this singular work; my thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. It’s by “the beloved founding editor of Buzzfeed Books,” but somehow, I either missed that part or forgot about it, so I read it and assessed it as if he were just some random guy, and ultimately, that’s probably the fairest way to do so anyway. This book is for sale now.

Fitzgerald has seen and done just about everything. His family life growing up is dreadful, and he is delighted to bail out of the screaming, wretched mess called home in order to attend boarding school. He is the scholarship kid, but he benefits plenty from the largesse of his classmates. Post education, he takes himself to San Francisco, with an entire continent stretching between himself and his family. Upon arrival, he continues his favorite pastime, drinking, which he began doing with his older brother when he was just twelve. His parents didn’t do it, so he figured it might be a good choice.

The promotional blurb says that this is the story of the author’s “search for a more expansive vision of masculinity.” Perhaps this is why I find it so hard to relate to. There are moments, though. A huge chunk of the first half in particular describes his affinity for bars, which he identifies as his safe spaces. My notes from the start of this segment say “Oh boy, I always wanted to read yet another alcoholic memoir.” Soon afterward, though, he says, as if reading my mind, that if we expect him to discuss the way he quit drinking, we’ll be in for a long wait, because he still drinks, though not nearly as much. That much was good for a chuckle. Then there’s another segment about his period with the porn industry. I confess I straight-up skimmed some of that, although again, there’s a moment, when he talks about the importance of consent, and how the porn industry, in his experience, is more careful and respectful of this boundary than anyone else he’s encountered.

The book is billed as being humorous, but this is a massive overstatement. Most of the content is dead serious. But then again—yes, you guessed it. There are moments.

What takes me by surprise, and happily so, is the message that he’s spent the whole book building toward, and I never see it coming until we’re there. I highlighted it in case I wanted to use it as a quote here, but that would be an epic spoiler. You didn’t know that memoirs can have spoilers? Oh yes. They can. And when I see this one, my disgruntlement fades and I am once again a perfectly gruntled reader and reviewer.

One aspect that I appreciate, and particularly appreciated during the rougher patches, is that the brief essays that, strung together, make up the memoir, make very short chapters, and they’re clearly marked. This is a terrific bedtime book, because I am able to find a reasonable stopping place when I need to turn out the light (or, as it happens, turn off my Kindle.)

If you’ve read this review and are interested, then I recommend it to you. I anticipate that men will enjoy it more than women.

Scorpions Dance, by Jefferson Morley****

The Watergate burglary’s fiftieth anniversary has passed, and Jefferson Morley, a longtime journalist and political biographer, has written a history of that event; the focus is Richard Helms, the man that ran the CIA and had to walk a tightrope between the demands of President Richard Nixon, and what best served the CIA. This book is for sale now.

If you are searching for just one book to read about the Watergate debacle and/or Nixon, this isn’t it. However, if you are a hardcore Nixon buff, as I am, or if you are a researcher, looking for specific information for academic study, you can hardly do better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review.

Helms was a slick operator, walking a tightrope as he sought to protect the reputation of the agency while maintaining cordial relations with Nixon and those around him. For some of this, there’s a heavy irony involved here; how can anybody ever make the CIA look less than sleazy? But of course, leftists like me are not the ones Helms wanted to impress in the first place.

As the administration sought to damage political enemies that might prevent Nixon’s reelection for a second term, its shady dealings—hiring thugs to ransack a psychiatrist’s office in search for dirt on an opponent, and planting bugs in the office of the Democratic Party in the Watergate Hotel—proved to be the president’s undoing.

Two of the ugly characters in service to Nixon were in charge, for example, of interviewing candidates for a “riot squad” of counterdemonstrators to oppose the anticipated throngs of antiwar demonstrators that were anticipated in Washington. “One of them was Frank Sturgis, whose reputation for violence preceded him. ‘The men were exactly what I was looking for,’ Liddy rumbled in Will, his best-selling memoir. ‘Tough, experienced and loyal. Hunt and I interviewed about a dozen men. Afterward Howard told me that between them they had killed twenty-two men, including two hanged from a beam in the garage.’”

The burglaries had too many moving parts to be kept completely under wraps, and consequently, the president and his top advisors were soon looking for scapegoats below themselves, men that could be packed off to prison while the country regained confidence in the administration that had supposedly brought them to justice. At one point, they had Helms in their sights as a possible fall guy, and the former CIA director, McCord, who was retired, caught wind of this and was having none of it. In a letter, he said, “If Helms goes and the Watergate operation is laid at the feet of the CIA where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall. It will be a scorched desert. The whole matter is at the precipice now.”

There are moments when I wonder if the ghost of Richard Nixon haunts the White House, cackling with glee to see a former president in far more trouble today than he himself experienced when he was there. Who knows what the old dog would have thought about the political machinations unfurling today?

Morley has a conversational narrative tone that works wonders. Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and narrator John Pruden does a fine job bringing it to life. But the most impressive aspect of this book is the research behind it, with treasure troves of primary documents and brilliant integration of data from multitudinous places. The endnotes are impeccable, enabling other researchers to trace back the facts to their original sources if they need or desire it.

For a niche readership of researchers, this is a five star work, but I suspect most interested parties will be of a more widespread readership; for them, this is still a fine read at four stars. Most satisfying.

When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McClain***-****

I have never read Paula McClain’s work before, but a number of Goodreads friends expressed enthusiasm about her novels, so I decided to see what the excitement was about. I came away a little underwhelmed, but nevertheless, thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Anna Hart, and she’s a missing persons detective in San Francisco. A tragedy has sent her running off to lick her wounds, and the bulk of the story is dark and brooding in tone. Then a missing persons case appears that bears striking similarity to one she was confronted with many years ago, and she becomes a dog on the hunt. There’s a bit of magical realism sprinkled in, things she “just knows” that help her solve the case.

Here is a note I wrote during the first half of the book, and it effectively sums up how I felt for most of the story:

“This is one of those stories where the first person narrator bobs and weaves, trying to tell us a few things while withholding all sorts of important, motivating events in her past. It’s getting tiresome, and I want her to just fucking spit it out so that we can move on.”

I suspect that if McClain had used a lighter hand with the veiled references, mentioning them less frequently and then returning to them later, I might have had a more charitable viewpoint.

As it stands, I wouldn’t call this a bad novel, just not a great one. If you are a fan of her earlier work, you may love this book just as much. But if you haven’t read McClain before and are about to lay down your money for just one book within this genre, I advise you to choose something else.

Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger*****

I’d been in a reading slump, with most of my reading carrying an element of obligation; I love reviewing except when I don’t. Something had poked a hole in my reservoir of joyful discovery, and all the juice was leaking out. William Kent Krueger’s new entry in the Cork O’Connor series, Fox Creek, put a stop to all that. I found myself looking for extra openings in my day, craving the chance to bury myself in this absorbing mystery. I haven’t felt this great about a galley since last winter.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review.

The story is set way up north in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, in the tiny community of Aurora. Cork, our protagonist, has left law enforcement and instead runs a diner, hiring himself out as a private investigator when the opportunity arises, which doesn’t happen often. When a man comes to the diner and asks Cork to help find his wife, Cork says he’ll think about it. Meanwhile, Dolores, the wife in question, is engaging in a sweat ritual out in the woods where the ancient and very wise Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux lives. It turns out that Cork’s would-be client is not her husband, and she doesn’t know him at all. He’s got a hidden agenda, alrighty, and he’s brought some rented thugs along to make his chore easier. Now there are two tasks: the first is to hide Dolores, and the second is to find out who these guys are and why they want her so much. Meanwhile, Cork’s wife, Rainy, guides Dolores deep into the woods near the Boundary Waters; Henry joins them. What follows is one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read recently. I have a hunch that Cork will be okay, since killing him would also kill the series, but the others—Henry, Rainy, and Dolores—might make it out, or they might not.

I was about to say that this is character-based fiction, so well rounded are the main characters, but the setting is resonant and important to the characters and the plot. All told, this is the way a novel is supposed to work, with strong characters and settings that make the plot believable and urgent. And as always happens when I read Krueger, I also learn some things about the setting, and about Ojibwe culture and history. (His depiction of the art of disappearing and eluding pursuers reminds me a little bit of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, but that’s all the two series have in common, apart from genre.)

This is the 18th book in the series. Can you dive in, right here right now?  Emphatically, yes! I began with the prequel to the series, which came out last year, and I loved it so much that I went to the library to check out the first book in the series—and then, I found it disappointing, because over the course of this long series, Krueger’s skill has increased, so the first book, Iron Lake, is decent, but nowhere near as brilliant as his more recent work. Now I look forward to more of this series, but always going forward, never back.

This riveting novel will be available to the public on August 23, 2022. If you love this genre, you should get this book and read it—or better still, preorder it right now. You won’t be sorry.

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow****

Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.

The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.

As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.

The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.

Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.

Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.

Cold Fear, by Webb and Mann*****

“Christmas is special here. In Reykjavik, nothing bad ever happens at Christmas.”

Cold Fear is the second in the Finn thriller series. Last year authors Webb and Mann launched the first, Steel Fear, to widespread acclaim, and I loved it, too.  My thanks go to Random House Ballantine and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist, Finn, is a singular fellow. A Navy Seal (like one of our authors,) he is currently on the run, being sought for questioning regarding war crimes that took place in Yemen. He doesn’t think he is guilty, but he isn’t sure; a large chunk of his memory of that time has vanished, leaving him—and us—slightly off balance. But Finn is a survivor, and now, in Iceland, three members of his own team are here too; he thinks they may have the information that he needs to fill in the gaps he can’t access. There’s another more worrisome person, an assassin, looking for him as well.

Meanwhile, a woman has been found dead, face up under the ice. Suicide has been suggested, but that notion quickly falls apart. When her body disappears from the morgue, the police kick into overdrive. Iceland has almost no crime of any kind, let alone murder, and so immediately, they begin eyeing the Americans in their midst, including Finn.

Finn is a memorable character. He’s funny looking, like a cross between a Gecko and E.T., and yet, thanks to his training, he can merge seamlessly into a crowd and be invisible. His traumatic childhood haunts him, but the authors don’t beat us to death with this aspect of his personality. To my delight, he is burdened with none of the overused tropes used by lesser authors such as alcoholism. He is not on a mission to avenge the deaths of people in his personal life, and he doesn’t get kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car or van. Bad guys don’t try to harm his family—of which there is none, in any case—or his pets. He doesn’t get neurotic and bite his lip till he tastes blood, or bunch his fists up so tightly that he cuts his palms with his own fingernails. Feel me? I have quite a list of things I never want to see in a novel again. This happens, once one reads over a thousand novels in this genre, and for awhile I quit the genre entirely, thinking that there was nothing new left to read. Webb and Mann have proven me wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One last word about setting. Though Finn is a resonant protagonist, the setting is more important here than in most thrillers; that was the case in Steel Fear, which was set on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and it’s true here, as well. The descriptions are resonant, but they don’t slow us down. This is a true thriller, with a pace that never flags.

I’m in this series for the duration. I also urge other women to ignore the promotions that boast that this is Alpha Male material. Last time I looked, I was an old lady school teacher, and I am all in. If you love a good thriller, I highly recommend both Finn books to you.

When the Summer Was Ours, by Roxanne Veletzos***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I had proclaimed myself to be over and done with World War II fiction; there’s been a glut of it in the publishing world, and I have well and truly had my fill. My soft spot, however, is for any book written by an author whose work I have read and enjoyed. I reviewed Veletzos’s charming debut, The Girl They Left Behind, in 2018, and so when the opportunity came up, I agreed to read and review this one, too. It was a good decision.

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

Eva Cesar, daughter of the well-to-do but terribly strict local bourgeois, falls in love when Aleandro, a Romani artist stops in her tiny town in Hungary. He is a painter and a fiddler, raising his younger brothers alone following the deaths of their parents. Eva’s father knows nothing of this romance, and it’s a darned good thing. Not only is her father a Nazi sympathizer and bigot, but she is already engaged to marry Eduard, a dedicated Red Cross physician whom she also loves.

The story follows all three of them over the years, shifting points of view. All three are likable characters; Aleandro is obsessive enough that he seems a little creepy at the outset, but as the story develops, that’s no longer the case. Eduard is a stable, likable human being, but he is the one that is least developed. Eva often makes passive decisions, which I find grating, yet these are the early 1940s, and women don’t yet know they’re entitled to be decisionmakers, at least in many regards. The plot seems to go all over the place, but it comes together quite nicely at the end.

There are two related developments I would have liked to see handled differently. First—and I’m telling you this because it occurs early—Eva becomes pregnant after just one night of passion with Aleandro. Picture me sticking two fingers down my throat. Gag, spit, gag some more; what an overused trope. But then it gets worse. Eva heads to a clinic where abortions are performed quietly, since the procedure isn’t legal; the facility is filthy, and the staff are rude; we briefly meet the doctor, who virtually has horns and a spiky tail, and dines regularly on the flesh of aborted embryos and fetuses. More or less, anyway. And with women’s rights to choose our own reproductive decisions under attack, this is the very worst possible time to put such vile propaganda into a novel. She flees, of course, and has the baby, of course. In fact, as I write this, I question my choice to knock off only half a star from my rating. I’m growing madder by the minute, just writing about it.

Moving on!

The most difficult aspect of a complex story like this one is deciding how to end it. I come back around when I see how tastefully and realistically this is achieved. The ending is both credible and sweet.

There it is; you decide.