The Things We Do To Our Friends, by Heather Darwent**-***

2.5 stars rounded upwards.

The Things We Do To Our Friends is a debut thriller by newbie Heather Darwent. Our protagonist is Clare, a young woman who’s studying art history at a university in Edinboro. She’s new and knows no one, but is soon swept up in a small, elite group of students she meets in one of her classes. Before she knows it, they are her main curriculum, and her classes become secondary.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to review. This book is for sale now.

At the outset it’s easy to relate to Clare, who tells us her story using the first person limited. She has never lived here before, and she doesn’t have a lot of resources. She gets a job at a nearby bar, and the everyman proprietor, Finn, punctuates the story now and then with an objective take on Clare’s life and her new friends. She is soon invited to join a clique of students that are flashier, louder, and more confident than most of her classmates, and she wants desperately to become one of them. Tabitha is the ringleader, and it is she that Clare most wants to please.

The opening chapters here make me wonder if we are about to rehash Ruth Ware’s most recent mystery, The It Girl. The elements are certainly there. But there’s an undertone that builds here, teasingly referencing Clare’s unfortunate past. We don’t know much except that she’s estranged from her parents, who don’t want to hear from her.

That can’t be good.

The clique goes to Tabitha’s family home in France over the winter break, and Clare is thrilled to be included. But while they are there, she is pressured to join with them on a moneymaking venture that isn’t entirely legal. They let her know they are aware of her past, so she’d better cooperate.

Here is where the book starts to lose me. Clare is essentially being extorted, and yet her emotional attachment to the group only intensifies. At one point, she tells us that she sometimes forgets whose skin is whose, so tightly bonded are they, and in particular, she and Tabitha. But this makes no sense. Tabitha has threatened to harm her, as have the others. Why does she love them all the more for it?

More and more tidbits from Clare’s past are revealed, and yet Clare herself isn’t developed much. Neither is anybody else. We are told a lot, but shown only a little. I love books that are about character, and if there’s not much plot, I’m fine with that, but these characters are all static. At the 50 percent mark, I become impatient and skip to 62 percent; from there, I read to 72 percent, which is where things should begin to feel urgent, but they don’t. I skip again to 90 percent and read the ending. I seldom skip anything when reading, and on the occasions when I have done so, I sometimes find things when I skim the last half that convince me to go back and read it completely. That didn’t happen here. There are loose threads dangling, and plot elements that appear to have no purpose. Worst of all—and to be fair, this is probably not the author’s doing, but it rankles, nevertheless—is that this weak tale of warped humanity is billed as a “feminist page-turner,” which is what drew my interest initially, and as a lifelong, card-carrying feminist, I can assure you that this is absolutely not that.

I cannot recommend this book to you.

The Fortunes of Jaded Women*****

The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh, is hilarious and oddly touching. It’s the best debut novel of 2022, and it isn’t as if there was no competition. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Mrs. Mai Nguyen was born in Vietnam, but has lived most of her life as a Californian. When we meet her, however, she has flown to Kauai, the home of a renowned Vietnamese psychic. The psychic tells her that the year ahead will be a pivotal one, the one in which she must repair her relationships with her sisters and her daughters. There will be one wedding; one funeral; and one pregnancy.

Well, now.

Nobody likes to be estranged from a family member, and yet it happens. But all of them? Both sisters, and her daughters, too? (No brothers, and no sons, either.) But surely, it isn’t her fault; after all, there’s the curse.

Chapter four is when everything kicks up a gear, and I have seldom laughed so hard. Mrs. Minh Pham is the first to arrive, and she has my attention from the get-go when she slips the waitstaff some money and explains there could potentially be a “small, tiny, little shouting match, with a propensity for small, tiny, little objects to be thrown through the air.” Mrs. Pham is the middle daughter, and is accustomed to being the mediator in any dispute. She takes all the precautions she feels are wise; she parks near the door for a fast getaway if necessary. She removes the sharp utensils as well as the chopsticks from the table, and requests paper plates and plastic cutlery. “Mai had a reputation for throwing things.”

As the women arrive at the dim sum restaurant, they flash their fake Louis Vuitton handbags and immediately set about trying to one-up one another with regard to social status and affluence, and especially—oh yes, especially—that of their respective daughters. Within three minutes, a donnybrook ensues, and the other diners, who are also Vietnamese and well acquainted with the curse of the Duong sisters, begin placing wagers on the winner. The sixty-something sisters commence throwing things at each other and are gently escorted out of the restaurant. They head for a bakery, and they get kicked out of there, too. Finally, the three of them end up on a park bench, their hair and clothing in dishabille, and yet none of them makes any move to leap up and go home.

These are not spoilers; this all takes place within the first 17 percent.

The chapters change points of view, moving between the sisters, their elderly mother, and their daughters, all in the third person omniscient. The fascinating thing is, these crazy behaviors, and the ways that they mold and shape their daughters and their relationships, all fit perfectly.

Although the setting changes, from Orange County, California to Hawaii to Vietnam to Seattle and beyond, this story is character based, and that’s my favorite type of novel. The skeezy men they date—mostly white boyfriends with Asian fetishes—make it even funnier.

The ending is perfect.

This is one of those rare galleys that I may actually read a second time for pleasure. One thing I know for sure is that Huynh is on my radar now. I can’t wait to see what her next book looks like!

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land***-****

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land marks the debut of a talented writer. Omer Friedlander’s short story collection has already made reviewers sit up and take notice. My thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This collection is for sale now.

All of Friedlander’s stories are set in Israel, and all of them evoke their setting in a way that is fresh and immediate. My favorite stories are the title story; High Heels (except for the ending; more on that in a minute,) and Alte Sachen.

Here’s my issue with these stories, and it’s true of nearly all of them: the author uses endings that don’t feel like endings, leaving the reader to figure out for herself what happens. This is particularly painful when a story builds in a most suspenseful manner and then ends on a cliff hanger.

I don’t think so.

I understand that this is considered a valid choice in literary fiction, but I doubt it will ever become a popular one. When an author leaves the rarified world of literary journals and writers’ groups and opens his work up to a general readership, adjustments need to be made.

The sweetness of a well-built story that culminates in tremendous frustration when the end is left dangling finally got the better of me, and I didn’t read the last story.

Now you know; if you want it, go get it.

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.

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

“The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chevy in the Hole, by Kelsey Ronan***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Chevy in the Hole is Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel. I love strong working class fiction, and the title and book cover spoke to me. But while it shows a good deal of promise, it’s also a cautionary example of how, in trying to do too much, one can do too little. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale today.

The protagonists are Gus Molloy, who is Caucasian, and Monae Livingston, who is Black. The book opens as Gus is being revived with Narcan on the floor of a dirty restroom in Detroit. We follow him as he meets Monae, a student working at a farm outside of Flint. Their stories are told alternately with bits and pieces of the lives of their predecessors.  

The story is promoted as a love letter to Flint, and a tribute to the resilience of its people; it’s a story of “love and betrayal, race and family.” And we do surely see all of those things, but as soon as one aspect or another is touched on, I wink and poof, it’s gone. Gus and Monae are both sympathetic characters, and I can’t help pulling for them, but I suspect the author could have developed them more fully had we not spent so much time and detail on fragments of their parents, grandparents and so on.

If the author’s purpose is to use these characters from the past to showcase the various struggles through which Flint has gone—sit-down strikes, Civil Rights marches, and now, this horrifying industrial sludge that has polluted the town’s drinking water—it could have been done in a paragraph or two, or through some other device than shifting the point of view. The frequent changes of character and time period make it confusing as heck, particularly while listening to the audio version; that’s a shame, because Janina Edwards is a warm, convincing reader.

But we frequently shift from one protagonist to the other, even after they are married, and all of these people from the past have to be sorted by both time period, and by which protagonist they are related to.  A story like this should flow. As it is, it’s work listening to it, and had I not been granted a digital review copy as well to refer to, I might have given up.

My other frustration is that both the labor history and the Civil Rights issues—with Black people shut out of company housing in the past, and the issues with cop violence as well as the pollution that is visited most within the Black community—are huge. The pollution problem is immense, and ties back into both of the other issues. This book could be a powerhouse, a call for change to reward to the plucky souls that have stuck with this place through hell and high, toxic water. Instead they present almost like postcards; oh, look at this! Now look at that! Okay, never mind, let’s go on back to the present.

That being said, the author’s mission is an ambitious one, and her word smithery is of high caliber. I look forward to seeing what else she publishes.

If you choose to read this book, I recommend using the printed word, whether digitally or as a physical copy.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.

Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You, by Ariel Delgado Dixon***-****

I was invited to read and review by St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley, and it sounded like a winner; a debut to boot. I am disappointed not to be able to read further, because this is clearly a writer with talent, and the story is an interesting one thus far.

Here’s the thing:  I see foreshadowing that suggests the family dog is going to meet with a lot of pain, and I am not up for it.

There’s been a trend away from this lately, and I suspect this is why: there’s a lot of push-back against it these days. There was a time when the sacrifice of a (fictitious) pet was considered a lesser evil. Rather than kill or torture a character that the protagonist loves and the reader may have bonded with, take out the dog, cat, horse, etc. It’s sinister foreshadowing, but nobody is dead yet. But these days, animals in general and pets in particular are out of bounds. If a writer goes there at all, it must be well in the past and with as few details as possible. Less is more, and usually, none is even better.

Were it not for the animal cruelty that other reviewers have referenced, both with the dog and the wilderness camp, I would gladly finish and review this galley. I wish the author well, and look forward to seeing what they publish next, assuming this deal breaker doesn’t make it into their next endeavor.

My rating isn’t based on much because I didn’t get far; four stars is the rating I give most often, but this time it should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Eternal Audience of One, by Remy Ngamije*****

“Life is not hard in Windhoek, but it is not easy, either. The poor are either falling behind or falling pregnant. The rich refuse to send the elevator back down when they reach the top. And since cities require a sturdy foundation of tolerated inequalities, Windhoek is like many other big places in the world. It is a haven for more, but a place of less. If you are not politically connected or from old white money, then the best thing to be is a tourist. The city and the country fawn over tourists. The country’s economy does, too. That is when it is not digging itself poor.

That is Windhoek. The best thing to do in the city is arrive and leave.”

And now, raise your hand if you find yourself wondering where Windhoek is. Don’t be shy. You’ll have plenty of company…ah. Yes. I applaud your bravery, being the first. And you, and you…and you in the back. Anyone else? That’s what I thought. Look around. Almost all of you. So now, I’ll relieve your discomfort and tell you, it’s in Namibia. Our protagonist, Seraphim, and his family must relocate there during the upheaval in their native Rwanda. This is his story, told in the first person.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is available to the public now.

Seraphim’s parents are strivers, working industriously to ensure that he and his siblings will have excellent educations and better lives. As a young man, he works hard and is fiercely competitive in school, but once he is at university in Cape Town, he becomes a party animal, using Cliffs Notes to dodge the assigned reading and embarking on booze fueled, all night romps. Ultimately, this is a coming of age story in a different time and place than that which most Western readers are accustomed to. And oh, my friend, if you are going to spread your wings and stretch your global literacy just a teensy bit, then this is one painless way to do it.

Once he’s inside South Africa, Sera deals with Apartheid, and during the course of his education, is advised by a wise friend, who tells him that if you want decent notes, you must befriend BWGs. These are Benevolent White Girls, and they seem to know some sort of educational code that young Black men have somehow been shut out of. There’s a funny passage about how to tell if a Caucasian is the sort one can hang out with, and to explain the difference in his own social class growing up, in contrast to others in his social group, he describes a problem with desks. There are fifty children in the class, he says, and not everyone can have a desk. Little Sera gets busy, and eventually is able to rise from chair number 50, to chair number three. Then, after a struggle with Gina and Hasham, the first and second place students, he rises to the first chair, first desk. When a friend asks what became of Gina and Hasham, Sera shrugs with his characteristic cocky arrogance, and he tells him, “I like to think they married and had second and third place children.”

Part of what I love is the way the voice here sounds like young men in their late teens and early twenties, here, there, or probably just about anywhere. In my experience, his demographic is the most hilarious of any in real life, and it comes shining through here, full of irreverent wit.

The narrative isn’t linear, and there’s some creative jumping around that, when combined with the internal discussions the narrator calls “The Council of the Seraphims,” can be difficult to keep up with. Don’t try to read the second half of this novel after you’ve taken your sleeping pill.

All told, this is a brainy, hilarious work, which is perhaps why Ngamije is being compared to Chabon and Zadie Smith.  He resembles neither, apart from being very literate and extremely funny. In fact, this book is worth reading just for the snarky texts sent by Sera and his friends; their handles crack me up even before I see what they have to say. Highly recommended, even at full price.

The Maid, by Nita Prose*****

Snow asked when I showed up for the work the day after Gran died. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Mr. Preston told me that your grandmother passed away yesterday. I already called in a replacement for your shift. I assumed you’d take today off.”

“Mr. Snow, why did you assume?” I asked. “When you assume, you make an A-S-S out of U and ME.”

Mr. Snow looked like he was going to regurgitate a mouse. “Please accept my condolences. And are you sure you don’t want the day off?”

“It was Gran who died, not me,” I replied.

Nita Snow’s debut novel, The Maid, has become the most talked-about release of January, 2022, garnering attention months in advance. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, January 4, 2022.

Molly Gray is twenty-five years old, and has been raised by her grandmother, who worked as a maid for a wealthy family. She taught Molly to be a meticulous cleaner, and so in her professional duties at the Regency Hotel, she takes pride in her work. She loves her clean, starched uniform. She loves returning every hotel room she cleans “to a state of perfection.” And best of all, she knows exactly what to say to people, what to do with her hands, with her eyes…there are clear expectations for every maid on staff, and Molly, who is clueless socially and knows it, loves fitting in, becoming virtually invisible.

When Gran dies, Molly loses not only the sole member of her family, but she also lost her only companion and friend. For months now, she’s gone home to a quiet house, and she’s so lonely that she calls out that she’s home, even though there isn’t so much as a goldfish to hear her.

The poor dear.

But Molly’s carefully ordered world changes when she finds Mr. Black dead in his bed. The Blacks are regular guests at the hotel, and Giselle Black has become a friend of sorts for Molly. Mr. Black is a nasty customer; Molly has seen bruises on Giselle. Nevertheless, his lifeless form face-up in his bed is a shock. More shocking still is the discovery that she herself is a person of interest in this crime.

It’s about this point where I become distracted. Where the heck are we? At first, I believed we were somewhere in England, because everybody drinks tea all the time, and the restroom or bathroom is always the “washroom.” But then I notice that the cops operate similarly to those in the U.S., and everyone pays for things with dollars, not pounds. The book’s synopsis doesn’t say where we are, and no other reviewers say anything, either. Finally, I take a closer look at the author’s profile, and it says she lives in Toronto. Aha! So, I’m guessing we are in Toronto also, or at least someplace in Canada.

Molly is a compelling character, and her aloneness makes her all the easier to bond with. I’m a gran myself, and I want to sit down with her (coffee, not tea, please,) and explain a few things to her. It’s not so much the locked room mystery that keeps the pages turning for me–I don’t care what happened to Mr. Black, but I’m in this thing for Molly. She cherishes this job, has given her brief adult life to it, and now somebody is trying to throw her under the bus. It makes me boil. How will she get out of this mess?

Ultimately, however, this is a feel-good story, and with the world in the state it’s in, every single one of us needs one of those. Highly recommended to everyone that enjoys excellent fiction.