Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

Impersonation, by Heidi Pitlor***

My thanks go to Algonquin Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Allie is a single mother and a professional ghost writer. Because her income is sporadic, she picks up money between publishers’ paychecks substitute teaching and landscaping. She’s always broke, always paying the most pressing bill at the expense of others. Then her big break comes, and she’s over the moon. She’s going to write a memoir for a famous feminist, someone she has idolized for many years. The pay is more money than she’s ever earned before, and as a bonus, she will get to spend time with an icon.

Except she won’t.

Her icon is a busy woman, and she isn’t forthcoming with any personal information. Nothing. With deadlines looming, then passing, Allie desperately invents anecdotes drawn from her own experiences, hoping that if they don’t satisfy, her subject may part with some true stories of her own; but ultimately, she is the one that gets tossed under the bus.

The story begins well, witty and absorbing. If I were to review the first few chapters, this would be a four or five star review. However, in the middle of the book the plot bogs down and the pacing grinds to a crawl. I had hoped for a climax and finish that would make it worthwhile, but instead, the story becomes a pedantic manifesto. The feminist issues that are near and dear to Allie’s heart, and one may assume, Pitlor’s as well, are also mine. If anyone in this world should love this story, it should be me. And oh, how I wish it was. But because the protagonist has become such a nonentity, there is no inspirational melding of character and social issues that might have made it possible.

There’s a terrible irony here, or at least there may be. Perhaps Pitlor deliberately ceased developing Allie because Allie is a ghost writer, and her entire career is predicated on her ability to lie low. Perhaps we are meant to see her disappear, and perhaps that’s intended to be part of the message. But if so, it doesn’t work for me. I need more internal development, or more of something else.

Conceptually the story is strong; but the execution leaves something to be desired.

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.

The Lives of Edie Pritchard, by Larry Watson****-*****

It’s not often that a male writer gets it the way that Larry Watson does. My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin for the invitation to read and review, as well as the gorgeous hardcover copy. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, July 21, 2020.

Edie’s story is divided into three periods. When we first meet her, she is a young adult, married to Dean. Twenty years later, we find her in a different marriage. The last third finds her a senior citizen. When I saw how the first and second parts were structured, I thought I spotted a formula and that I knew more or less what the last third would look like. I’m delighted to say I was incorrect.

The style in which it’s written is unusual. There’s almost no inner monologue; everything is either action or dialogue. There’s no shifting point of view, either. It’s straight forward and linear. The author takes his time establishing character and setting, and so for a long time, there’s no noticeable plot curve. At about the point where I begin to be nervous, that perhaps I’ve agreed to read and review a book that isn’t very good, it wakes up. I’m not generally a fan of spare prose writing, but this is different.

Edie has married Dean Linderman, whom she dated in high school. He’s a nice guy, but his twin brother Roy is a player. Where Dean is introverted and reflective, Roy is extroverted and aggressive; and one of the ways Roy shows aggression is in trying to seduce his brother’s wife. It never stops. Every single time they are alone together, even for a few minutes, he starts in on her. And every stinking time, she tells him no. Stop it, Roy, I am married to your brother. I love Dean, not you. But getting the guy out of her hair is like trying to herd mosquitoes. And yet, a couple of times I see Edie do or say something that, while not openly encouraging, sends mixed signals, and I think, Aha. Maybe that’s why Roy keeps trying.

 Watson uses nuance and subtlety in a way not many authors do. It makes Edie come alive, because I don’t know what she’s thinking, and Watson isn’t going to take it apart in front of me. I am left to wonder…now why the heck would Edie do such a thing? And while I read, I wonder. And when I am no longer reading, I’m still wondering.

Twenty years later, we find Edie Dunn. She’s married to someone else, and she has a teenaged daughter. Like Dean before him, Gary doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what Edie wants. Edie is his wife, and she should do what he wants her to do. And I won’t give any more of this bit away, but once more, Edie surprises me.

Within the last section, Edie’s teenage granddaughter is going to move in with her. Edie’s companion who’s in the car with her asks if she isn’t out of practice with teenagers. Edie says, “It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you’ve fucked up as a parent, you never forget how to fuck up again.” I love this.

When I am sent a physical book to review, as opposed to digital or audio, the book goes into the bathroom. I know that I am hooked if the book comes back out of the bathroom with me at some point. Edie came out at about the sixty percent mark, and after that she didn’t get left alone unless I had to sleep.

The thing about this story that may get in the way of good reviews here is exactly the thing that makes it so good. The way that Roy—and later, other men—follow Edie around and pester her, trying to control her and later, her granddaughter, is repetitious and maddening, and that. Is. The. Point. Though it’s conveyed subtly, we know that Edie is very attractive. And again—I love that we don’t hear constantly about her clothes, her figure, and so on; rather, we know she’s gorgeous by what others say about her, and how they respond to her. And not one living male takes her seriously. They see her, and then they want her, not because they care about her or even know her, but because it would stoke the fires of their self-esteem. And all along, Edie tries, initially, to explain what she wants instead, and not a damn one of them will listen to her. But she does what she has to do, and by the end of the book, I like Edie a great deal.

Those that enjoy strong feminist fiction should get this book and read it.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

Becky Mandelbaum is the real deal. In 2016 she published a short story collection, Bad Kansas, which I read and loved. ( You can find my review of it here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2017/09/15/bad-kansas-by-becky-mandelbaum/) And so when I found this debut novel on Net Galley, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Big thanks to Net Galley, and to Simon and Schuster. This book will be available to the public August 4, 2020.

Ariel and her mother, Mona have been estranged for six years. But when she finds a news item about her mother’s sanctuary having been torched, Ariel knows it’s time to go home, to see what has been lost and what can be saved.

The story is told from the third person omniscient, and we hear from three characters mostly. We start with Mona, whose stress levels have become nearly unbearable. She’s getting too old to do so much work, and she never has enough money. She has just one employee, working on site primarily for room and board. Perhaps this is part of what possesses her when she leaps in her truck in the dead of night to steal the neighbor’s Make America Great Again sign. She wrestles the great big thing into the bed of her pickup, and by now we can see that she is a tightly wound person whose impulse control is just a tiny fraction of what it should be.

Meanwhile, Ariel is concerned, not only about the fire, the sanctuary, and her mother, but also about her relationship. Her boyfriend, Dex—the third of the characters we hear from most– proposes just as she has begun to fantasize about ending the relationship. As the story progresses, we can see that Ariel is the sort of person that runs from her problems, sometimes literally. She accepts the ring and then says she has to go home for the weekend, and no, he shouldn’t come with her. After all, she’ll be right back. Probably.

Mandelbaum does a brilliant job of building believable, nuanced characters and complicated relationships. Five percent of the way into my galley, my notes say, “This one is going to be a thinker.” And it is, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t a pretentious piece of writing by a long shot, and it isn’t full of florid descriptions or challenging vocabulary. Instead, we have characters that are dealing with thorny personal issues that have no obvious solutions. And my favorite aspect of it is the way the mother-daughter relationship, which is the heart of the novel, is framed. Mona has made a lot of mistakes in parenting Ariel, but she loves her daughter and is a good person. Ariel is still learning how to solve problems herself. There’s a trend in fiction writing right now to draw villainous mothers as the sources of protagonists’ problems. It’s close to becoming a cliché. Mandelbaum has steered clear of this canard and created something much deeper and more interesting. In fact, there are at least half a dozen stereotypes that she has dodged expertly. The fact that she has done this in her debut novel suggests that a great career is ahead of her.

I love the way she ends this story.

Don’t deprive yourself of this glorious novel. Highly recommended.

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich*****

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now.

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again.

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned.

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that their children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead,

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now.

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again.

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned.

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that her children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead,

“She was the first person in the family to have a job. Not a trapping, hunting, or berry-gathering job, but a white people job. In the next town. Her mother said nothing but implied that she was grateful. Pokey had this year’s school shoes. Vera had a plaid dress, a Toni home permanent, white anklets, for her trip to Minneapolis. And Patrice was putting a bit of every paycheck away in order to follow Vera, who had maybe disappeared.”

The point of view shifts between Patrice; a local boy turned boxer, Wood Mountain; Haystack Barnes, the white math teacher and boxing coach; and Thomas, Patrice’s uncle, who is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant. Thomas is modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, and the author’s notes at the end mention that his struggle to save the Chippewa land made writing this book an emotional experience.  

As the story opens, Patrice is preparing to track down her sister, who is rumored to have had a baby in Minneapolis, and Thomas is organizing a group of Chippewa to attend the hearings in Washington, D.C. The Feds have sent a letter to the tribe suggesting that since they were clearly successful, they would surely no longer require government aid or protection. Their land would be absorbed by the U.S. government and then sold to private buyers; its current residents would be relocated to cities where they could get work. And it’s a measure of exactly how clueless the average American was about the Chippewas’ plight that Barnes, who lived and worked among them, said, “I don’t understand why it’s so bad. It sounds like you get to be regular Americans.”

There are other points of view as well; the most memorable are the Mormon missionaries that have drawn the short straw and been sent to minister to the “Lamanites.” This religion holds that the inferiority of American Indians is revealed holy truth; only by converting can they be salvaged, and when that happens, the new converts will slowly become whiter. Our two missionaries dislike each other profoundly, which is unfortunate since they may only separate from one another to use the toilet. When the main story becomes intense and at times, very sad, in will pop the missionaries and before I know it, I am laughing out loud.  In addition, I admire the way the strong female characters are developed.

There are three primary threads to follow: what Patrice decides to do with her future; whether Vera will be found; and whether the Chippewa of Turtle Mountain will lose their land. All are handled with the mastery one might expect from an iconic author.

Don’t be the idiot that I was. Get this book and read it now.

Credible Threat, by J.A. Jance****

Jance is a prolific novelist, with three long-running series to her name. Credible Threat is the fifteenth in the Ali Reynolds series. Thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The star rating is a tricky thing sometimes. In this case, I wonder whether, had I never read anything by this author, I might tack on that fifth star. It’s the curse of the brilliant, being measured against oneself, but ultimately, I couldn’t help comparing this mystery to The A List, which came before it.

What I like—a good deal, in fact—is the trajectory Jance has taken with this series, making all of the important characters women. In addition to protagonist Reynolds, we have the villain, Rachel Higgins; a third long-running character is the AI named Frigg, who identifies as female. Two key assistants are female, and Sister Anselm, a nun friend of Reynolds, also plays a key role. There are men here, of course. There’s the victim, Father Andrew, who doesn’t last long, and the intended victim, Father Gillespie, who has the meatiest male role in this installment. Ali’s spouse is the co-owner of High Noon, the security firm through which Ali is drawn into one mystery after another, but he is conveniently called out of the country early in the game.

The story begins with a call from Archbishop Gillespie, a friend of B, Ali’s husband. He’s been getting a whole string of threatening notes placed in offertory collections all over the Phoenix area. The police have brushed him off already, and he’d like the matter handled discreetly. He is concerned about his would-be killer’s soul.

Our killer, meanwhile—whom we know right up front, so I’m not giving anything away here—is grieving, embittered, and unhinged. She has recently discovered clues in her late son’s memorabilia collection that suggest his addiction and suicide were the outcome of his molestation at the hands of the swimming coach at the Catholic high school he attended. The coach has died of AIDS, and Higgins still wants somebody to pay for her son’s death; an eye for an eye. Since it’s clear to everyone that the Roman Catholic Church stonewalled and swept abuses under the rug for generations, it makes sense, she decides, to go right to the top. But clearly, even if she were up for international travel, it would be absurd to attempt killing the Pope. Who’s in charge locally, then? Archbishop Gillespie. And so Rachel commences to plan Gillespie’s murder, sending the missives in advance so everyone will know why he had to go. She finds a fall guy to frame for her crime and is off and running.

My first impression is that this story is substantially similar to the last Reynolds mystery, in which a mother planned to commit murders to avenge her son. I’m surprised a pro like Jance would slip like this. But that’s my sole complaint.

I love the way Jance battles stereotypes, and in this case, it’s the Catholic clergy—the good ones—that benefit. Though the layers of abusers, sexual and otherwise, are deep and wide, I bristle at the cracks that are made by comics and the general public almost reflexively about all priests. I have known some wonderful men that abused nothing and nobody, who gave up marriage and family in order to spend their entire lives in the service of others, via the Church. Not all nuns are frustrated savages looking to beat children with rulers; not all priests are pedophiles. The way Jance takes that apart makes me want to stand up and cheer.  

The clever loophole that Ali finds and that Gillespie widens with regard to Frigg’s extralegal snooping is terrific.

Whether we call it four stars or five, this is a solid mystery and a good deal of fun.  I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

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.  

Pretty Things, by Janelle Brown*****

Nina is a second generation grifter, a talented thief that uses social media to spot and follow the conspicuously wealthy, then set up an opportunity to rip them off. But now Nina has gone straight; her college education has made it possible to earn an honest living. However, her mother’s chemo bills are stacking up, her mom too weak to find and execute her own ten-finger specials, and so Nina finds herself back in the game.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

Vanessa Fucking Liebling is an heiress, a spoiled daddy’s girl that has found an avocation as a social media influencer. She thinks nothing at all of dropping tens of thousands of dollars for a single dress that she will wear once; she is courted by upscale manufacturers of women’s clothing, accessories, and you-name-it, and she flies free of charge to famous cities around the world with a small coterie of women like herself, the chosen ones that have the Instagram followers that make their endorsements so valuable. But when her father dies, Vanessa soon learns that the money problems he’s tried to tell her about are indeed real. With her party budget in the crapper and a schizophrenic brother to look after, Vanessa ditches the New York fashionistas and heads to the family’s vacation home, Stonehaven, located in Lake Tahoe, California. She is about to come nose-to-nose with destiny.

Our two protagonists, Nina and Vanessa, are featured alternately in the first and third person respectively; in addition, we catch snippets of their earlier lives and the critical events that have molded them.

Though Nina is a crook, I find her easier to like and bond with than Vanessa. Nina, despite her dishonesty, cynicism, and the immense chip on her shoulder, is an underdog, a scrappy fighter determined to better herself and to take care of her mama. She isn’t a violent offender, and the marks she steals from are so filthy stinking rich they hardly notice the loss of a wristwatch here, an antique vase there. It’s hard not to feel that if the world were a fairer place, the dilettante wouldn’t have that much stuff to start with, and Nina wouldn’t have to scramble to get by and take care of her sick mother.

Vanessa, by contrast, is a much harder sell. Brown develops the hell out of this character, showing her gradual awakening as she realizes how shallow her entire existence is, and how devoid she is of any true friends. At first I am having none of it. Poor little rich girl indeed; cry me a river! But Brown keeps chipping away at my resistance, and eventually I see Vanessa as a flawed human being with problems, rather than a rich person that deserves whatever karma comes her way.

My first book by this author was Watch Me Disappear, a glorious work of suspense that kept me enraptured till the last twenty percent, at which point I was consumed by dismay. Therefore I read this book with avidity, and yet at the same time I am on the alert, wondering if this story will also be resolved with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me ending. My fears prove groundless. The main storyline as well as the smaller bits all come together in a way I find deeply satisfying. The ending is a complete surprise.

My one small criticism at the outset was the schtick about Nina’s mother’s chemo. It’s been done, and done again, and done again. I’m thinking I’d like the story better if she would just let the grifter be a grifter, rather than carrying on about poor, dying mom. However, there’s an additional twist at the end that I did. Not. See. Coming.

In the end, this book is the total package. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

Highly recommended. Get this book now!

The Familiar Dark, by Amy Engel*****

When it comes down to it, some people just have it coming to them.

Amy Engel is the author of The Roanoke Girls, a shocking thriller that proves she is a force to be reckoned with. The Familiar Dark is even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Dutton for the review copy. It’s for sale now, and you should get a copy to help chase away your cabin fever.

Eve Taggart was raised poorer than poor in a ripped up trailer in Barren Springs, Missouri; it’s “a slippery part of the world. People dart in and out like minnows in a shadowy pool…Folks here are hard to pin down, even harder to catch…It’s a place for people who don’t want to be found.”  Her mother is an addict with a mercurial temper, and so when Eve gives birth to Junie, she resolves to parent differently from her mama, and to never take Junie to visit her. The more space there is between her present and her past, the better off Junie will be.

But when Junie and her best friend, Izzy are found in a public park with their 12-year-old throats slit, everything changes. Without Junie to provide for, all of the social conventions that Eve has so carefully nurtured, all of the tentative connections she has made with mainstream members of the community are gone in an instant. Eve’s older brother Cal, a cop, tries to provide a buffer between Eve and the town, between Eve and their mother, and between Eve and the disastrous errors she makes as a result of her grief; none of it does any good. And Cal is sitting on a secret of his own.

I am generally a reader that has between six and twelve books going at any given time, but once I was about a third of the way into this one, I read nothing else. Instead of asking myself which book I’d like to read right now, I knew exactly. The suspense is built numerous ways, by foreshadowing, by the little hints given by others in her tiny town, but there’s more to it than that. Part of it is Engel’s unusually vivid word smithery and the frank, unsentimental dialogue that moves it forward. But the meatiest part of this story is in the pathological family triangle that—resist it though she has—forms most of Eve’s world. The further we get into the story, the more layers are peeled away and the more we learn about Eve and mama, mama and Cal, and Eve and Cal. We learn some secrets about Junie that poor Eve didn’t know, but these are almost secondary as they reveal more about the three adults. It is mesmerizing.

Eve thinks she has nothing left to live for now that Junie is gone, but Mama, who’s been drawn to the killing like a vulture to roadkill, assures her she is mistaken. What’s left is vengeance. This resonates with Eve. Pulled into a press conference in which she doesn’t want to participate, standing alongside the other bereaved parents, people that are well groomed and whose social skills make them vastly more sympathetic figures to the public than she will ever be, Eve decides to cut to the chase. After the other two plead for possible witnesses to call in tips to the local cops,

“I pointed out at the cameras, stabbing my finger into the air…’I’m going to find you, you sick fuck. And I’m going to tear you apart.’

“I thought about all the press conferences I’d seen over the years, parents trotted out for missing kids, killed kids, abused kids. Everyone feels sorry for those parents, those mothers, until they don’t. Until the mothers don’t cry enough or cry too much. Until the mothers are too put-together or not put-together enough. Until the mother are angry. Because that’s the one thing women are never, ever allowed to be. We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Does this ring as true to you as it does to me? Sooner or later, the mother always gets the blame. And so now I am still riveted and I am nodding. Uh huh. That’s right, Eve. Tell it!

When a novel is as outstanding as this one is, I almost hate to read the last fifteen or twenty percent, because often as not, that’s where it comes undone. Either the solution doesn’t hold water, or a hard cold tale of murder and revenge takes on a sudden sentimentality that doesn’t match the rest of the book; in these I sometimes picture editors and publicists urging the author to provide a feel-good ending, and the author ultimately bending. As I progress, I have figured out what the poignantly sweet ending to this one will likely be, if Engel goes in that direction.

But she doesn’t.

Instead, this story is one of badass female bonding gone dark, dark, and darker. Oh hey. The title.

Highly recommended.