Behind the Red Door, by Megan Collins**-***

I enjoyed Collins’s debut, The Winter Sister, and so when I was invited to read and review this second novel, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Have you ever had someone in your life that’s a hot mess and makes terrible decisions, one after another? This felt a little bit like that, at least during the periods when I believed the character; and I did, some of the time. But whereas The Winter Sister held together beautifully until the implausible ending—a common issue with mysteries and thrillers—this one is riddled with difficulties throughout.

Fern had a traumatic childhood. Her father used her to conduct cruel experiments, deliberately terrifying his daughter in a variety of ways so that he could write about her responses. Now she’s grown and gone, though not surprisingly plagued by serious mental health issues, but healing nonetheless, and he summons her home. He says he needs her. Against the advice of stable people in her adult life, Fern packs her bags and comes a-runnin’. Who knows? Maybe her daddy wants to say sorry; perhaps he is terminally ill and set on making amends.

Well, um, no.

Upon her return, three terrible things happen almost immediately. First of all, her father, Ted, has not changed a bit, and he only called her back because he’s moving and doesn’t have time to pack. He wants her to pack for his move. He doesn’t plan to help pack his own crap, and he doesn’t plan to pay her for her time. Plus, he still plays cruel tricks on her, just like bad old times.

On top of this, her best friend’s sadistic brother, Cooper, is still around, and he’s still not a real nice guy. She discovers this almost immediately firsthand.

And on a trip to the store, she runs across a book, a memoir written by Astrid Sullivan. Flash! Bang! She knows that face, doesn’t she? Did she know Astrid?  Now Astrid has been murdered, and Fern has been having dreams about her, which might be flashbacks. Has she buried memories of the murder? And…WHO would have DONE such a thing?  Nobody SHE knows would do a mean thing like that! Unless…naw.

Oh dear.

The story is told in alternate narratives, Fern’s and Astrid’s, courtesy of her memoir. This method does build a sense of dread, but it feels a little choppy in the telling.  In addition, I had difficulty believing the character’s motivation. I could see reflexively running home—I’ve known people that would do the same—but what I cannot understand is why, when she found out what Ted’s big emergency was, she didn’t toss her bag back in her car, say Buh-bye and good luck with the move, and hightail it home.

There’s a lot of extraneous business here; we have Fern’s mental health problems, and on top of it all, she’s pregnant. (Oh, good idea. A baby. What could possibly go wrong?)

I believe Collins has a great book in her, but this isn’t it. That’s okay; back to the drawing board. Life is long. But reader, as for you, I recommend you either pass this one up, or read it free or cheap.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

Dogwinks, by Squire Rushnell**

The old saw about not judging a book by its cover has come home to me in a big way. I was invited to read and review, and although I usually do some homework before accepting or disregarding such offers, I saw the beagle on the cover and leapt on the widget. And somewhere out there, at least one publicist must have my love of said dogs on file, because otherwise it would make absolutely, positively no sense to offer me this book. Dubious thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books; I know you meant well. This book will be available to the public October 20, 2020.

Here’s the thing I didn’t understand when I signed on. This is not merely a book of dog stories, as I had supposed. Apparently, there is a “much-loved” series known as “Godwinks,” and so the title of this one is a play on that name. Since I read no religious material ever, it’s unsurprising that this fact eluded me.

Having foolishly committed myself, I tried to keep an open mind, because in addition to being religious in nature, this is also a collection of dog stories.  I want to be fair, and I hoped I could disregard the preaching and focus on the hounds.  But it’s impossible to enjoy these stories; the writing seems formulaic, the sort of thing you’d read in Reader’s Digest. The figurative language is stale, and the story arc of each is transparently manipulative. Guys, I just can’t.

By wild coincidence, my current reading includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’m finding it to be better written and infinitely more agreeable than this superstitious bilge.

If you have a MAGA hat in your closet and a firm belief that your prayer group is protecting you from COVID19, then this collection may suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, I’d suggest you steer clear.

I Let You Go, by Clare Macintosh**

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Berkley for the review copy.

Ordinarily, a book that I don’t enjoy or admire gets reviewed when it’s released, the same way I would with a book I love. However, on this one, I choked. The protagonist is a woman who’s grieving the loss of her little boy, and the author’s notes mention that as she wrote it, she was thinking of her own child that had died. How do you pan a book like that? And so I made a conscious choice to bury it. It was released in 2016, and it is by far the oldest novel in my backlog.

Since that time, this book has made bestseller lists and received acclaim from far more auspicious (and lucrative) sources than this humble blogger, and I realized this evening that I can go ahead and write my review with little likelihood of rocking this writer’s world.

What I found is some competent use of setting, but the plot was all over the place, both choppy and unfocused. I realize it is the author’s intention to build suspense by revealing the past in increments, but it didn’t build suspense for me; I felt irritated instead. The protagonist never became real for me, and ultimately the story was mostly predictable, increments or no. There was tired figurative language and a lot of cliches and truisms. I looked everywhere for the magic, but I never did find it.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone but the author’s diehard readers. The good news is that you can probably score a used copy inexpensively by now, if you’re going to go there.

Louisiana Lucky, by Julia Pennell**

Three sisters buy a winning lottery ticket and it changes their lives. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy.

Every now and then, my collection of galleys gets too dark, and so I turn to Net Galley in search of humorous reading to lighten things up. This novel caught my eye with its engaging cover, and sadly, I didn’t realize that the cover was its only positive attribute.

The word choice, character development, and even basic ability to use correct grammar came up short here, and I find myself wondering what’s up with the editor? But even a strong editor can’t help this book, because there’s nothing to salvage. None of the sisters came alive for me, and the tired old trope about money not buying happiness draws an eyeroll of epic proportions. If my mama was right and my eyes could get stuck up there, this would surely have done it.

This book is for sale now, but I’d keep my card in my wallet if I were you.

You Are Not Alone, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen****

I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

Shay Miller has watched a woman die, and now life will never be the same. She is alone in the big city, barely getting by like so many working class women. She is in love with her roommate but doesn’t rock the boat by propositioning him; she has no friends or family nearby. Then one terrible day, she is waiting for her subway when a sinister looking man turns in her direction. Imagine how glad she is to see Amanda, a normal-looking woman who’s also headed her way. But instead of providing the security Shay is hoping for, Amanda jumps onto the tracks in front of a moving train.

It happens so quickly!

Shay is the sort of person that relies on information to deal with stress. She has a little notebook, what she calls her “Data Book,” filled with all sorts of oddball statistics that she quotes from at the start of each chapter and throughout the novel. (Frankly, I could have lived without this feature, which began to feel like filler at times.) She deals with the stress of having witnessed a suicide by finding out every single detail she can about the late Amanda.

And this part is the hardest aspect for me to buy into. She’s haunted by what she saw; okay. Amanda looked a lot like Shay, which made her more fascinating to our protagonist. Fine. But the obsessive way she pursues information—even once she finds she has the dead woman’s necklace, which she had forgotten momentarily—doesn’t jibe with me. She goes to her apartment, visits the woman’s mom…huh. Go figure.

Now, once I quit rolling my eyes and allowed myself to buy this premise, things flowed a lot more smoothly. Cassandra and Jane, friends of Amanda’s, hold a memorial service for her, and it is by attending this event that Shay comes to know these two sisters. They are kind, they are solicitous, and they are caring. Before Shay knows it, they are her new best friends, and because she herself is a good person—if a little odd—it doesn’t occur to her that their motives might not be as benevolent as they pretend to be. They are the spiders, and she is the fly.

Here’s the thing I like best about this story. Shay’s character has to be rock solid for it to work, and once we get past the stupid parts at the beginning, it is. I half expected her to be dumb as a box of rocks all the way through, but not so much. The way she is developed, neither too unrealistically savvy nor ultra-naïve, is admirable. There’s a thin path through the middle between these two extremes, and I wondered if she would be the dithering idiot that has to be saved by someone smarter, but that’s not how it shakes out. There are a couple of loose threads that are left dangling, but it’s the way Shay’s character is crafted that wins the day.

Those that enjoyed this authorial pair’s other books will like this one too; those in search of a good beach read or a fun weekend book should consider this one. All told, big fun, and delightfully original.

Dear Emmie Blue, by Lia Louis***

I read this copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. From time to time I find myself reading too much dark material, which is the direction I’m generally drawn toward. I found this title and thought that it might balance my selection. And for what it’s worth, it did that.

The premise here is that Emmie has fallen hard for a young man that she met years ago by pure chance. At age 16, she had written a secret that she needed to share on a scrap of paper, along with her email address, stuffed it into a balloon and launched it into space. (How does one get a slip of paper inside a helium balloon without losing the gas inside it? But let’s not dwell there.)  Rather than falling into the ocean and choking a seabird to death, the balloon makes it to dry land, and Lucas finds it. The two become fast friends, and as time progresses, she is sure they are meant to be more.  She is devastated to learn that his plans are different from hers.

This story is a quick read with lots of dialogue. One of my pet literary peeves right now, however, is the terrible-mother-who-ruins-everything. Oh. Come. On. You can do better than this. However, other aspects of the story are more congenial. In the end Emmie takes control of her own life, as she should have done all along, and good things result.

Those looking for a pleasant beach read could do worse. However, the publicist that compares this book to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is completely delusional.

It’s for sale now.

In the Neighborhood of True, by Susan Kaplan Carlton*****

“Shalom, y’all.”

Ruth Robb was born and raised in New York City, but following her father’s sudden death, she moves with her mother and sisters to Atlanta, where her mother’s family lives. The year is 1958. Almost immediately she is faced with a critical choice: should she quietly avoid mentioning her Jewish roots and allow her peers to make assumptions based on her grandparents’ standing in their Protestant church, or should she risk her newfound popularity with candor? My thanks go to Algonquin Books and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The family has barely begun to grieve their loss. Everything is tossed into boxes and they leave New York, soon to be embraced by Ruth’s loving grandparents. Their new home, however, is almost too good to be true:  the house is large and luxurious, with a pool; her grandparents are generous and solicitous; their deep roots in the community make for nearly instant acceptance among the girls’ peers. But Ruth’s grandmother, called “Fontaine” within the family, has plans for Ruth and her younger sister, Nattie. They are enrolled in an elite Christian school, and Ruth is sent to private lessons for a “pre-debutante.” There’s a little pink book that serves as a grooming and etiquette guide, and it is specific and proscribed.

What isn’t in the pink book is the synagogue. Fontaine immediately informs the girls that they are, after all, “Half Christian,” but their mother quickly reminds her mother that she is a convert, and the girls are Jewish, period.

The characters are so resonant and believable that I find myself reflecting on the amount of stress that the girls, Ruth in particular, are experiencing. First, they must leave all of their friends, and the culture in which they’ve been raised, behind; their father is gone forever; and now there’s this tension between their loving grandmother, who provides them with everything, and their mother. This is not a dramatic conflict; but it shimmers under the surface constantly. They are a loving family, and they’re civilized. Yet Ruth is torn. But her nearly instant popularity galvanizes her, and she decides not to decide, by skating around questions of church and religion. After awhile her evasions become deception. Her mother is a discreet but unmovable force, with a sort of Jiminy Cricket demeanor: don’t forget who you are, Ruth. When are you going to tell your friends? What do they think you are doing on the weekend? The ante is upped when Ruth falls in love with Davis, who’s a big man on campus.

Things come to a head when the local synagogue is vandalized.

Carlton’s author blurb says that she had a similar experience, although she wasn’t the teenager, she was the mom. No doubt this is responsible for some of the story’s authenticity, but much of the compelling narrative has to be chalked up to excellent writing. There’s never a stereotype, and I never felt I was being lectured. Instead I am absorbed. What the heck is Ruth going to do? And though I am unfamiliar with Atlanta, there are several times when colloquial expressions that have fallen out of use pop into the story, expressions I recall from my early childhood in the 1960s. But the author never leans on pop cultural references; rather, they drop in naturally. It’s smooth as glass.

Sexual references tend toward the general; there is sex included, but not much detail. I include this information for teachers and parents considering including it in their libraries. If in doubt, read it before you present it to the young people in your life.

Since retiring from teaching language arts to adolescents, I have generally avoided reading young adult novels. I’ve been there and done that. But there’s an exception to everything, and I am glad I was given the chance to read this one. Highly recommended.

To Have And To Hoax, by Martha Waters**-***

Oh well.

Martha Waters spans three genres here: historical romance, rom-com, and satire. I like satire, and the other two, not so much. I am rounding my rating up to three stars, because I stepped out of my comfort zone with this novel, hoping for light entertainment; those that enjoy rom-com books may be more enthusiastic than I. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lady Violet and Lord James found instant chemistry at a grand ball. Almost as instantly, they were married; then they quarreled and have been estranged ever since. Yet even the stupidest and most imperceptive reader will see that they are still crazy for one another. If one is in doubt, turn the page so the author can hit you over the head with it again. Again. And again.

I enjoy smart satire that leaves something to the imagination. This book tries too hard to be funny. I tried reading the DRC, and when I couldn’t get through it, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This made it, if possible, even worse. Overdone prose is made worse by an over-the-top voice actor.

I had been reading too much that was dark and serious, and then the pandemic broke out and I went looking for relief. I found it, but I didn’t find it here.

But again, I have never liked rom-com. If that’s your wheelhouse, you may appreciate this thing more than I do. I pushed through to the forty percent mark; my usual due diligence requires me, if skipping, to then proceed to the eighty percent mark and see if there are joyful surprises that might change my mind. But no.

Fans of the genre may feel differently, but I have to call them as I see them. Not recommended.

Musical Chairs, by Amy Poeppel*****

We need more writers like Amy Poeppel. Her previous novels, Admissions and Limelight, are whip-smart and hilarious; both involve well-developed characters stuck in odd but credible situations. Her new novel, Musical Chairs, shares these attributes, but it’s even funnier, and even more insightful. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s available to the public August 1, 2020.

Our protagonists are Bridget and Will; they are family to one another in the modern sense, the sense that sometimes we adopt our most important friends and declare them to be kin. They’ve been together as performers in the Forsyth Trio since college. Bridget has never married; Will is divorced. They have seen one another through thick and thin, and well meaning outsiders think they must surely harbor romantic feelings for one another. Will has no children, but has served as a father figure to Bridget’s twins, both grown.

Summer is here, and Bridget is preparing to spend it in her summer house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend, Sterling, will be joining her; she thinks that he may be the one. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Sterling dumps her on her ass without a moment’s hesitation, and both of her children descend on her unannounced. Her octogenarian father lands in the hospital. Nothing that happens is the way she had planned it.

At the same time, Will has been looking forward to some time on his own in the city, but Bridget is in distress and so he drops his other plans for her. Not one thing goes as planned.

I don’t usually enjoy books about rich people, and Bridget’s family is wealthy indeed. This one works for me because the disparity in wealth between Bridget and Will, who is an ordinary starving artist, is addressed in a natural, organic way throughout the narrative; but beyond that, I feel I know Bridget, and so she is not the rich woman, not the heiress, but instead she is Bridget, and she feels like a friend. We always forgive our dearest friends for things that are generally deal breakers with others. Finally, Poeppel has no tolerance for pretension, and more than anything, her honesty turns a good story into a terrific one.

The pacing here never slackens; one crisis is nearing resolution when another one pops loose. At one point I am convinced that Poeppel is driving home a message about the destructive nature of secrecy, but by the ending I can see she’s done no such thing. Sometimes secrets are great. Sometimes they work out well. And sometimes they are only secrets for a while as their owner waits for an appropriate time to reveal them.

The side characters here are brilliant as their perspective contrasts with that of the protagonists. The internal monologue involving Bridget and Will is personal, even intimate, and so we see everything as they do; but then Jackie, the ambitious young assistant that Edward has hired for the summer, looks these folks over and weighs in, and her observations make me laugh out loud. In fact, this book marks the first time since the pandemic began (at the beginning of March, here in Seattle) that anything I’ve read has made me laugh. It felt great! Then later, another side character’s pet parrot Ronaldo pipes up and it happens again. (My laughter woke my husband, and I was a little bit sorry, but also not.)

The dialogue between Edward and Will near the end makes me shake my head in awe.

At the outset, I am puzzling over the title. Musical Chairs turns out to be a website for job-searching musicians, but later I see a broader reason that this title was chosen. Throughout the chaos that unfolds for Bridget and Will this summer, the characters are constantly changing places, rotating, and assuming new positions, and it’s fine, because—and here’s our real message—change is not failure.

The references to the musical “My Fair Lady” are icing on the cake.

Highly recommended, and likely to be one of this year’s best books.