Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

It’s the best of books, but it’s the worst of books. K-Ming Chang has made her mark on modern literature, and her debut novel, Bestiary, has already made a number of prestigious lists. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; sadly, its twisted edginess is too intense for me.

This much-buzzed-about book is for sale now.

How many triggers are packed into this one little book? All of them. Every trigger you can possibly think of, plus she may have made a few more up on the spot. There is violence a-plenty here, and the graphic child abuse and elder abuse provide such visceral imagery that I may never get it out of my head. I abandoned this book faster than just about any I can recall, and although I was certain it was the right thing to do for myself, I nevertheless experienced a twinge of regret along with it, because it is obvious from the first page that this author can write.

My gut hunch is that younger adult readers with cast-iron stomachs and level dispositions will be the most appreciative demographic for this one, but wimps like me will need to give it a pass. It is to the former that this book is recommended.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London*****

I’m not usually a romance reader, but when I saw the plus-sized woman on the cover of this novel, I was mesmerized. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The premise is that Bea Schumacher, a successful plus-sized fashion blogger, is invited to be the subject of a season of Main Squeeze, which is a fictional reality show on the lines of The Bachelorette. I have been yearning for a proud, plus-sized protagonist since I read a novel last summer featuring a main character that used to be quite large. I didn’t want a protagonist that had a history of being big as her private, shameful secret. I wanted a protag that is plus-sized right now and fine with it. So I wasn’t drawn in by genre or the tie to reality television; I was hooked by the protagonist’s size.

Bea has never had a serious romantic relationship, and has just had her heart stomped on hard by a lifelong male friend. Bea had seen—or thought she had seen—their friendship evolving into something more, and after one magic night, she was sure her dreams had come true. Then the man of her dreams took off running and quit taking her calls. It would shake any woman.

But Bea has established herself as a serious force in social media, and a major reality program has come knocking. Isn’t it about time to have a plus-sized Bachelorette—er, Main Squeeze? With plus-sized courage, Bea throws her hat into the ring, but she also reminds herself that this is surely not the way to find real and lasting love; she is doing this to build her brand, and when it’s over, she’ll go back to her blog with lots of new followers. The only problem is that the audience is not so stupid that they can’t see what she’s doing. Ratings drop like a rock because Bea is obviously phoning it in, and the program director lets her know that she either needs to engage emotionally, or act like she’s doing so. No actor, Bea cracks open the door to her heart.

The readers most likely to enjoy this book are plus-sized women, and I have to tell you, there are some ugly remarks made by members of the public that are especially hard to read. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, ladies, but it still hurts every stinking time. So there’s that.

But when all is said and done, I like this book a lot. Yes, it’s a light read in most ways; I don’t rate novels on the seriousness of their content, but rather on whether they represent the best of their genre. This book is a beach read perhaps, or a light romance, but the meaty social issues that are woven into it make it more-than. In the end I found it uplifting, and in this difficult year, that’s the kind of read I’m looking for.

A note on the audio version. Since I missed the pub date, I procured a copy of the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons, and then immediately knew two things: first, that I HAD to read this book right away, not for the author or publisher, but for myself; and second, that this book is absolutely not suited to the audio format. It’s not the narrator’s fault; the text is liberally sprinkled with social media posts and parts of TV dialogue, and when read aloud it sounds artificial and disjointed. I promptly sent the audio version back and moved the digital galley to the top of my queue. If you read it, read it. It’s no good as an audio book.

That said, this book makes my plus-sized heart sing, and if you can use some of that, get this book. You’ll be glad you did.

Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, which I received over a year ago. I began reading this story numerous times, but I didn’t find it engaging enough to continue, and so each time I began it, I would end up returning it to my queue in exchange for something I liked. However, I recently began moving through my backlog with assistance from Seattle Bibliocommons, where I was able to get audio versions of those I’d left by the wayside. Ultimately, this is how I was able to follow through, and it’s a good thing, because the last half of this book is far better than the first half.

The story features three women, all of them in the American Midwest in the early 1920s. The sisters are Ruth and June, and their mother is Dorothea. June is the golden one, the prettiest and most successful. Ruth, who is younger, just resents the crap out of June. And she can tell that their mother loves June more.  June, on the other hand, is Betty Crocker; one of them, anyway. One of the few career opportunities open to women involves inventing recipes for Betty; answering Betty’s mail; and playing the part of Betty on the radio. Women visit the company expecting to meet Betty, and thy are outraged to learn that no such person actually exists.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her family remain in the family home with Dorothea, and the sisters are estranged. Their mother hates to see them this way, and she schemes to bring them together.

The narrative shifts between the three women, and from the past to the present. When we are taken back to their youths, we learn what has come between them, and what assumptions, grudges, and secrets each holds that has not been said.

The first half of this book feels like it will never end. The sloppy pop-cultural references grate on me, particularly when the shortcuts result in inaccuracy. For example, when the stock market crashes, Cullen has men jumping from skyscrapers left, right, and center, when in fact, this is mostly myth, or at best, hyperbole. At most there was a single jumper in real life. Historical fiction at its best teaches us in an enjoyable way, but when readers are presented with urban legends as reality, it is a letdown.

By the halfway point, I am only still listening to this book because I have to make dinner anyway, and having put in as much time as I have, I figure I may as well finish it up. My review is on its way to being three stars at best, and possibly two. So imagine my surprise when at the 55% mark, the whole thing wakes up! The female character that has been the least interesting up until now is Dorothea, but now we learn the meaty parts that she has kept secret, and there we find the key to everything else. I am so astonished that my jaw drops, and I stop chopping vegetables and gape at my tablet, which is streaming this story. Oh, heck! Seriously? This is why…? Oh, holy crap. Who knew?

From that point forward, it’s an entirely different ballgame. When I head for the kitchen, I’m already thinking about what I heard the day before, and looking forward to the next bit.

Those that enjoy character-based fiction could do a lot worse, as long as you take the historical parts with a grain of salt. Overall, I recommend that if you read this book, you should get it free or cheap, and prepare to be patient.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

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

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

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.