Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett*****

There are indifferent writers; good writers; outstanding writers; and then there are writers like Hartnett, that leave me with my jaw dropped down to my knees, thinking that I like to write, and you probably do, too, but friend, neither one of us will ever write like this. Not ever.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy.

Emma Starling is our protagonist, and she was born with healing powers in her hands. She went away to medical school, but was expelled for reasons that we don’t understand until later, and her healing touch is gone. She has quietly left school without telling a soul back home. She hasn’t even returned for a visit, but now she has been summoned unequivocally; her father is dying, and her mama wants her to come home. NOW.

There are enough points of view in this story to make your head spin. We have the graveyard crowd, for example, and since Everton, New Hampshire is such a tiny town, everybody knows everybody, dead or alive. When I first see that the dead are discussing the affairs of the living, I am dismayed, because the legendary Fannie Farmer has already done this in The Whole Town’s Talking. But soon it becomes obvious that this story isn’t derivative in the least; Hartnett takes this device and uses it in a different way, and it doesn’t dominate the story as Flagg’s does; these characters are there to provide a slightly more objective perspective than those that still live.

There are several points of view from among the living, too. And there are references throughout to the writings of Harold Baines, a naturalist instrumental in shaping the town and in particular, the iconic yet bizarre Corbin Park, which is open only to a chosen few. There are points of view offered from the critters as well; not all of the critters are real, however. And at the EXACT moment when I begin to think that the author should have pared this thing down, for heaven’s sake, because the organization appears to be all over the place, the narrative explains that “A good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent…It might seem unrelated, but sometimes a minor character doesn’t become important until later…The lives of the living often get tangled up in unexpected ways, especially in a town as small as ours, even when a ten-foot electrified fence splits it up.”

I howled, because it felt as if the author had read my mind!

An important plot point is the disappearance of Crystal Nash. Crystal was Emma’s best friend, and had lived with the Starling family as sort of an informal foster child. Crystal developed an addiction and disappeared; Emma and Crystal had had a falling out, and Emma tries not to think about her too much now. Clive, Emma’s father, seldom thinks about anybody else. He’s turned over every rock; slapped a poster on every telephone pole.

To say the least, it’s an interesting homecoming for Emma.

As if the many points of view don’t make for a complex enough story, Hartnett takes us back in time—sometimes just a few years, at other times, way back in the past—and I am awestruck at the way she pulls all of it together at the end, with no loose ends hanging. At the outset I had been sure that this story should have been streamlined, but at the end, when I look back to see what, if anything, could be cut without detracting from the story, there is nothing that’s superfluous. Not one thing. All of these odd bits and pieces are essential to the story she is telling; “meandering,” indeed.

Because I had fallen behind in my reading, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it is brilliantly performed. Usually a story this complicated doesn’t work for me as an audiobook, but this one is outstanding and not hard to follow (although I did go back over the DRC for some quotes.)  Mark Bramhall and Kirby Heyborne do an exceptional job as narrators.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest novels we’ll see in 2022. Highly recommended in whatever format makes your heart happy.

Favorites From the First Half

From January to June, here are the ones I love best.

Black Cloud Rising, by David Wright Falade*****

Ten Steps to Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby*****

Hannah Gadsby appeared from seemingly out of nowhere—to those of us in the States—with a searing personal story about her own trauma that was built into her standup comedy routine. Nanette singed our eyebrows and made a great many of us absolutely love her. When I saw this memoir, I knew I had to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy; that said, I would have paid an exorbitant price for a personal copy had it been necessary, and I would not have been disappointed in what I bought.

This book is for sale now.

In some ways it seems useless to review this memoir, because those that are interested in reading it are already fans; those that recoiled in horror from her blunt revelations and assessments of the world around us won’t read it, no matter what I say. But for the few that haven’t seen her standup routine, I counsel you first to watch Nanette on Netflix, and then watch Douglas, too. Of course, you can go into this memoir green, but you’ll appreciate it more if you understand her references to the show.

For those that are fans but are wondering whether the memoir is going to be her standup material, recycled—and surely, plenty of other people have done that sort of thing—I can reassure you that it is not. There are references to Nanette, and there are also references to her newer release, Douglas, the show she named after her dog. But there’s a good deal of information here that you won’t get anywhere else, and that’s what makes it worth it.

After discovering that Gadsby made it in the entertainment business despite coming from no money whatsoever, with no connections to anyone in show business in her native Australia or elsewhere, and having a host of disabilities, foremost among them autism, I wondered whether her success was a piece of rare good luck, or the result of hard work and perseverance unseen by most of her viewers. It’s the latter. And not only has she worked long and hard to make it as a comic, she is also one hell of a fine writer. The depth of analysis and critical thinking in this memoir took my breath away.

Since I’ve been reviewing, I have built myself a bit of a reading routine. There are particular times of day when I read, and also times when I put my books down to get other things done. Gadsby destroyed my orderly timetable. It’s been a long time since any book, however enjoyable to read, has caused me to say, Nope. Not stopping. This one did.

I highlighted a lot of passages, but I’ve decided not to use any direct quotes here, because all of them are so much better in context. But I will say that I am truly ashamed at the way that teachers let her down. As a child she was disciplined, bullied, and received everything at school except the help she desperately needed. I am devastated that my profession failed this brilliant woman. I’d love to believe that things have improved significantly since she was a child, but in my heart, I know there are still little Hannahs out there. Some are falling through the cracks, whereas others are pushed. The horror!

Most of her story is not horrifying, however; it is immensely entertaining. Nobody could safely walk through the room while I was reading without having to listen to a passage or two. On the other hand, nobody minded much, either, because Gatsby.

The most engaging aspect of this memoir—and its author—is authenticity. She never pulls punches, whether describing her own poor choices, or those made by others. One or two very popular American performers have taken passive aggressive swipes at her, and she uses this opportunity to swipe back, right at the start of the book, no less! I wanted to stand up and cheer, but instead, I did it sitting down so as not to lose my place.

The only question remaining is whether you should read this brilliant, darkly funny and disarmingly frank memoir in print or audio. I haven’t heard the audio, but since she reads it herself, you know it’s good. On the other hand, there are several passages that are so well written that I went back over them before moving on; you might miss those with an audio book. True fans that can do so should get both versions.

Highly, hugely recommended.

Mother May I, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted to see that she has another novel coming out this spring. My heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley, Harper Audio, and William Morrow for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

One of the things I love about Jackson is that she recognizes and includes social class as a large factor in the lives of her characters. I am initially sorry to see that her protagonist, Bree Cabbat, is married to a wealthy man, but once the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the story won’t work any other way. Although Bree is rolling in it now, she grew up poor, the child of a single parent that took her back-to-school shopping at a Goodwill two towns over from their tiny Georgia town, carefully making sure that Bree’s classmates not recognize their own castoffs when Bree wore them. Later, theater classes helped Bree refine her accent to make her more employable; acting lessons helped her project the carefree confidence that is common to young adults whose families have money.

Now she is married to Trey, a man “who’d grown up with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys.” As the story progresses, there are frequent subtle reminders of this; Trey has a gun safe; Trey has a bottle of whiskey, a gift, that cost over two thousand dollars; their daughters are in an upscale school with a nice theatre program, and their daughters are enrolled in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and Robotics. Yes, our Bree has come up in the world, alrighty. And so when their baby is kidnapped out from under her very nose, naturally Bree’s assumption is that there will be a ransom, and that she and Trey will pay it.

But this time, she is oh so wrong.

When the call comes, it turns out to be a very elderly woman bent on exacting revenge against Trey’s business partner, who is also his cousin. Bree must do exactly as she says, because if she sees any sign of police, “I’ll break his flimsy neck…I’ll twist his little head right around backward.”

Dear God.

 This story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let me go till I was done with it. I was initially approved for the audio version, and by the time I was given access to the print version, I had finished the first galley. Ordinarily, when something like this happens, I write my review, submit it to both places, and figure my work is done here. But for Jackson I do due diligence and more, and it’s a pleasure to read her book twice, so I did. And while both versions are excellent, I give a slight edge to the audio version. Print is a desirable medium anytime one is reading any mystery, because sometimes we want to flip back to check a detail or two. But Jackson always records her own audio books, and so I know the interpretation of the reader is always completely consistent with the writer’s intention. And in this case, the key side character—Marshall, an ex-cop that was married to Bree’s best friend, now dead—has a distinctive voice that comes through somewhat in the printed version, but much more plainly in the audio. I love the way she voices him, and although Marshall isn’t the protagonist, his role in this story is critical. The narrative shifts between Bree, who speaks to us from the first person limited, and Marshall, who comes to us in the third person.

The story carries an added social justice component: it’s MeToo on steroids. The things we learn about the men in the story add complexity, and though there’s a trigger or two here, I suspect most female readers will find the denouement deeply satisfying. I do.

The ending would ordinarily be deemed over-the-top, but because I believe the characters and story so completely by the time we get there, I also believe the resolution.

The one thing I would change here, if I wanted to be picky, would be to find a way to inject some of the epic laugh-out-loud humor I have enjoyed in Jackson’s earlier books. But that’s a tall order, given the intensity of this one.

One way or the other, this book is guaranteed to be one of the year’s very best. Don’t let yourself be left out. I strongly recommend this book to you, even at full cover price.

Eddie’s Boy, by Thomas Perry*****

Can we talk for a minute? It’s just…well, don’t you hate it when you have to kill four assassins that were gunning for you, but then they won’t all fit in your trunk? It’s the worst; but when Thomas Perry writes about it, it’s the very best. My thanks go to Edelweiss and Mysterious Press for the review copy of Eddie’s Boy. This book is available to the public today.

This mystery is the fourth installment of Perry’s hugely successful Butcher’s Boy series. For those that aren’t in the loop, Michael Shaeffer (as he currently calls himself) was orphaned as a small child and taken in by the neighborhood butcher, who raised him as his only son. But the butcher didn’t merely cut and sell meat for the dinner trade; he had a side line that involved cutting, and otherwise killing, people that other people wanted dead. Both trades were passed on to his adopted son Michael. Now, however, the butcher has been gone a long time; Michael is an older man, retired from all of everything, and happily married to a minor member of the British nobility, living in a splendid home in the UK. They grow lovely rosebushes together.

But then in the wee hours one day, Michael is awakened by a tiny but unmistakable sound that tells him someone is entering his home. Sadly, it is not a mere burglar, but hired muscle sent by a vengeful someone that has figured out who he is and where he lives. Now Michael and his wife cannot rest until he finds out who is pursuing him and disposes of them.

This book is the caliber of the early work that made Perry famous. The suspense and pacing starts out at ten and it stays there till the thing is over. There’s a particularly heart-stopping scene on a train early on that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. And the details make it even more chilling. Returning to the four corpses that can’t all fit in the trunk; after Schaeffer moves one dead killer to the passenger seat and belts him in, he tosses a tarp over the three men in the trunk, and then he drops his flight bag on top of them, because he means to jettison the men en route to the airport.

Can you read this thriller even if you haven’t read the first three in the series? Sure you can. In fact, the third in the series was still on my wish list when the chance to read and review this one appeared, and obviously I navigated it just fine. But I want the one that I missed extra hard now, and I guarantee that once you have read this one, you’ll want to read the rest also.

Highly recommended to those that love a good thriller.

The Dirty South, by John Connolly*****

A few years ago I read and reviewed my first book in Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series, and I became immediately addicted. Since then I’ve never missed an installment, and after the 17th in the series, A Book of Bones, I more or less stalked the internet to find out when I could find the next in the series. It doesn’t disappoint. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for this, the 18th in the series. It’s for sale now.

Here, Connolly steps away from the crossed-genre, pants-on-fire entries he’s written recently to scribe a prequel. A couple of new readers have inquired whether to read this before all of the other Charlie Parker books, or treat it as the 18th.  The fact is, you can take it in either direction. On the one hand, I have reached back and read a couple of the first in the series and whereas they are perfectly respectable detective novels, they don’t hold a candle to those he’s written more recently. Once I had read the 14th, which is where I began, I was spoiled and a wee bit disappointed by the earliest books in the series. So whereas it makes sense to start reading with this prequel, I fear some readers will notice a dip in quality if they read this masterful literary mystery Connolly has just published, and then dive into his earliest Charlie Parker books. Again, they aren’t badly written. But they aren’t brilliant, and the most recent five in the series, including this prequel, are. So take that and do as you like with it.

Parker is reeling, as the book unfolds, from the vicious murders of his wife and daughter by a killer that intended to slay him, but found them instead. He is convinced that their murderer is a serial killer, and so he has taken a leave of absence from the police force back home and is touring the country by car, chasing down every murder anywhere that bears a resemblance to theirs. He is a dangerous man, because he has no sense of self-preservation. He sees himself as a man that has lost everything, and such men will take risks that more happily situated investigators would consider unthinkable. He also has a source none of the others can access: his wife, his daughter appear to him now and then, and they tell him things that relate to the case at hand, things that nobody else knows.

Those familiar with the series know that Connolly’s most recent Parker books have veered more in the direction of horror, and they include a number of supernatural events that his earlier work does not. Here he steps away from it, and once again his only information from the great beyond is what the spirits of his loved ones share. His adversaries are purely mortal ones. And as to which is better, it’s hard for me to say. His last book prior to this one is a monster, and it includes a tremendous amount of historical research that I find appealing, along with some hugely original, sinister characters that surely must come straight from the bowels of hell. It’s amazing work.

But there’s something to be said for books like this one, too. Most of Connolly’s work is so edgy and so full of violence that I have had to take it in small bites, lest it affect my overall mood. I didn’t have to do that here. I can crawl under a quilt and read for hours without needing to come up for air. I always make sure I read something less malign for a few minutes before turning out the light, but at the same time, this is a much more comfortable read.

Which is not to say that it’s tame. It isn’t. Someone has murdered Black girls in this tiny Arkansas burg, and Parker pulls into town right on the heels of the most recent one. Right away, it becomes obvious that there’s shifty business going on. The town is miserably depressed economically, and the local robber barons, the Cade family, have a deal in the works to bring a large manufacturer to town.  The Cades stand to make a great deal of money, and the locals, poverty-stricken and jobless or badly underemployed, are convinced that better times are just around the corner.

And so it seems that nearly everyone has a stake in keeping the waters calm. The dead girls had to go and get themselves murdered, just when the deal’s about to go through? How inconsiderate. Yes, their killer should be found and brought to justice; but that can wait until the big dogs have signed on the dotted line.  Prosperity is just around the corner. A scandal might ruin everything, and Parker refuses to cooperate, insisting on justice for the murdered children. The nerve of him.

Connolly’s signature elements—the malign, solipsistic, endlessly greedy local bourgeoisie; the poignance of Parker’s grief and his communication with his dead family; and the fast paced, complex plot with a zillion characters and some snappy banter are all here in spades. As usual, his writing style is literary, and so this may not be the best choice for someone whose mother tongue is not English.

As always, highly recommended. This is indisputably one of the year’s best. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for the 19th Parker book, because nobody else writes like this.

At Home With Muhammad Ali, by Hana Ali*****

Muhammad Ali is the sort of larger-than-life historical figure that nobody forgets. I was offered an opportunity to read and review this biography written by his daughter, Hana, and I jumped at the chance. Her recollections are bolstered by the vast archives that her father intentionally left, cassette tapes of every phone conversation that took place from his home, along with letters, photographs, and journal entries. Ali knew he was making history, and so he consciously left copious documentation behind. This wonderful book strikes the perfect balance, deeply affectionate and intimate, emotionally honest, yet never prurient or mawkish. My thanks go to the author for the beautiful hardcover copy, and for this opportunity.

A note before I continue: usually when I review a book, I refer to the author by his or her last name. In this case, however, the last name is shared by author and subject, and so when I use the name ‘Ali,’ I refer to the boxer, whereas I refer to his daughter and biographer by her first name.

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I didn’t watch boxing, which my mother considered a nasty, violent sport; I was inclined to agree with her, and so when Dad turned on a boxing match on television, she and I beat a hasty retreat. However, it was impossible to miss my father’s agitated shouts at the TV whenever Ali was on it. Ali’s brash confidence, his refusal to humbly look at the floor while talking to white interviewers, his fervent proselytizing on behalf of the Muslim faith frightened a lot of Caucasians, particularly those who, like my family, lived a life that never intersected with people of races different from our own. But my father wasn’t just afraid of Ali; he was angry. How dare he! On television! He called him a clown; he called him an idiot. There was a lot of that going around at the time, as the Civil Rights Movement strove to change the racial contours of American society, not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the nation.

Many years later, when I began studying education in preparation for teaching public school, in particular language arts, American history and civics, one of the most critical parts of my own graduate school curriculum had to do with serving children from underserved racial and ethnic groups, and part of that was in holding up positive role models to foster self-esteem in every child. My classmates raised the name of Muhammad Ali, and I could see that they were right; say that name around any Black child, especially a little boy, and watch his chin raise perceptibly, his spine straighten, and a gleam come to his eyes. This is what interested me about Ali, not his athletic record, but his principled stand in regard to Civil Rights issues, and his assertion that Black men in America should walk tall.

As I began reading Hana’s glowing tribute to her daddy, I began to wonder more about his boxing career. Ali began boxing at age twelve! There’s a practice you won’t see today; but Louisville, Kentucky during the post-war boom was a much different place than anywhere in America today. By the time he was old enough to shave, he was already accomplished at his sport. And the more I read, the more convinced I was that I should not review this biography without watching some boxing. I went to YouTube over and over, and I watched Ali with Sonny Liston, with Joe Frazier, with George Foreman. I learned a lot about the sport, including the fact that it’s not really all that violent, and it involves just as much skill as other team sports. And also: that man was talented, and he was so damn smart.

And this is the side of Ali that the public never really saw. Who knew that he preferred brainy women with independent ideas? In the 1960s, this was a rare thing among men. Who knew that he wouldn’t let anyone, whether family or staff, raise a hand to his children? Nonviolent parenting all the way. There wasn’t much of that around back then, either. Part of his indulgent nature was due to his faith, but part of it was a deep fear that some hateful person would try to hurt him by kidnapping his daughters. Given the way Hana describes her childhood self, it might have become a Ransom of Red Chief situation. Among the mountains of documentation Ali saved is a hefty collection of letters sent home by preschools and schools decrying Hana’s scrappy behavior. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the recordings she shares:

“’Hana, say ‘I’m a good girl.’

“’I’m a good girrrrl.’

“’Say ‘I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“’I’m a pretty girrrrl.’

“Say ‘I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’I won’t bite the boys no more.’

“’Say ‘I won’t scratch the boys no more.’

“’I won’t scratch the boys no more.’”

Hana recalls him as a gentle father who remained available to his children despite his busy career; each day began with her careening down the stairs to find him in his den, where he might be having a phone conversation with one of many American celebrities as well as world leaders. He spoke with Brezhnev, Ghaddafi (who wanted to contribute to the war chest of a Black American presidential candidate), and Deng Xiao Peng, who wanted Ali to train Chinese boxers. He offered his services to President Jimmy Carter in the 1980s, hoping he might use his religion as a connection to the Iranians holding American citizens hostage.

In another section she recounts the time he happened by a police cordon. A man was out on a ledge of a skyscraper, threatening to jump; Ali persuaded the cops to let him get past the cordon and speak to the man. There are photographs of him holding the would-be jumper in his arms after he was rescued.

Whereas other public figures often bemoan their lack of privacy, Ali loved being famous, and he loved his fans. Sometimes he left home just to go out and find some of them and talk to them. It’s refreshing.

Yet Ali wouldn’t have been an easy man to be married to. Part of this dovetails with his generosity; he often tooled around in his Rolls Royce when he wasn’t training or working, and when he saw homeless people he’d load them into his car, bring them home, and put them in a guest room until he could arrange a lovely hotel suite for each of them. It’s a sweet gesture, but although Hana doesn’t mention how her mother reacted to it, I can tell you right now that for me, that would get old fast, coming home and not knowing how many strangers had taken up residence. And whereas Ali had more respect for the women in his life than most men did back then, his marriages were clearly never intended to be equal relationships.

But his relationship with Hana was an idyllic one, and this shows in the many engaging photographs that punctuate the text, one after another in which she and her father pose using identical body language, some of which are pretty funny. She also speaks with the pain she feels, even today, of her parents’ divorce, which she is convinced was primarily due to a misunderstanding.

There’s a great deal here about Ali’s religion; there’s really no way to tell his story without it, since it motivated nearly everything he did. There are places where I am ready to be done with it; but just when it threatens to slacken the pace of the narrative, Hana wisely segues on to other topics.

To remember Ali is to remember the virulence of the overt racism of twentieth century America. The way that the media played up every violent thing any Black man or boy did; the stereotypes involving the jungle, and the unpredictability of Ali’s personality, all served to underscore the false notion of hidden menace deep within the man. Ali is the first Black man I ever saw on television that didn’t keep his eyes down when talking to reporters, and who didn’t downplay his own strength. He scared a lot of Caucasian people half to death, merely by being successful, strong, and confident.

But Hana doesn’t dwell on any of the negative publicity; instead, she shows us who he really was. Ali loved to write poetry, for example, and he loved to read. He had never gained strong skills in spelling or grammar, so some of what he produced came out looking a little rough, and yet its merit is undeniable. What a voice! Who knew that a fun day out with his daughters often meant a trip to Barnes Noble to load up on good books?

The book’s ending is perhaps the most poignant of all. Hana recalls her father, an old man in his seventies, weakened by Parkinson’s, viewing footage of himself after the Foreman fight:

 “I wrestled with an alligator, and tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. Just last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”

Watching himself he muses, “Man, I was something!”

I defy you to finish this book without a lump in your throat or misty vision, as Hana tells us, “Sometimes I still feel like that five-year-old girl roaming the halls of a mansion, waiting for her daddy to come home.”

Highly recommended.

Best Overall Fiction 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Best Horror 2019: A Book of Bones, by John Connolly

I haven’t reviewed this one yet; watch this site, because it will be up before the new year.

ALSO EXCELLENT:

Review is in progress.