Pride of Eden, by Taylor Brown*****

Taylor Brown is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. His 2018 book, Gods of Howl Mountain is one of my ten best loved books among the 1,300 I have reviewed since 2012, so I have been waiting for this book, and it does not disappoint. My undying thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale today.

Pride of Eden is a wildlife sanctuary in Georgia, owned and run by a Vietnam vet named Anse. Anse has PTSD related to his service, and his most searing memory is of the loss of a service dog that sacrificed its life to prevent a soldier from being killed by an explosive device. Anse is a complicated character with a possible death wish, but this aspect of his character is never overplayed, and after a haunting, visceral passage at the beginning, it becomes a subtle quality that runs beneath the surface, as it likely would in real life.

Anse accepts animals of all sorts; some come from illegal private zoos, or from private owners that are surprised that their adorable lion cub has grown up to be a wild animal. But secretly, he is also a vigilante. When he sees an animal in need of rescue whose owner plans to keep it—or sell its dead body for parts—he creeps in at night and liberates it.

Tyler is the preserve’s veterinarian, a buff no-nonsense woman who is also Anse’s girlfriend. My favorite passage involving Tyler is when a man comes to see Anse, and Anse is in a mood and wants Tyler to get rid of the guy. Tyler pushes back; it might be important, and the man has traveled a long way to see him. Anse grudgingly tells her to “Send him in,” and Tyler fires back that she is “not your fucking secretary, Anse.” At the outset of the story, Tyler does not know that Anse does not acquire all of his animals legally.

The third main character is Malaya, who comes to the sanctuary looking for work:

  “What do you want to do?” he asked.

   “Anything.”

    “What are your qualifications?”

“Third infantry, two tours in Iraq. Honorable discharge. Then I contracted in South Africa, tracking ivory and rhino poachers.”

“You catch any of them?”

She uncrossed her arms, buried her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Anse could see her knuckles ridged hard against the denim. “Yes,” she said.

Malaya is complex as well. But I love Malaya not only for her meaty internal monologue, but for the things she isn’t. Most male authors (and some female ones too) wouldn’t be able to resist these tired elements, and once again I admire Brown’s respect for women, which shows vibrantly in the way he frames his characters. Malaya is not romantically interested in Anse, nor does she try to mother him. Malaya and Tyler are not jealous of one another, and they do not compete. Both characters are buff and intelligent, and at no time do they have to be rescued by men. As a result, I could appreciate this story as it unfolded without the distraction of stereotypes or overused, sexist plot devices. Neither female character is motivated by sexual assaults in her past.  

The other two characters are Horn, another damaged vigilante that collects wild animals, and Lope, Anse’s driver, who helps him move large animals.

This is not an easy read. It will attract Brown’s fans, of course, and also animal lovers; yet those same animal lovers have to wade through an awful lot of sorrow, as the story is rife with tales of animal abuse. Brown’s purpose, apart from writing outstanding fiction, is likely to raise awareness of poachers that kill endangered animals for profit, and of private game reserves that send semi-tame animals to an enclosure so that wealthy ass hats can bag some big game, take that animal’s head home to hang in the den.

 Yet there’s nothing at all here that is included to be prurient or sensationalistic; every word has a purpose, either to develop a character or drive the plot forward, or both.

My emotions run the full gamut as I am reading, and this is a sign of excellent literature. I laugh out loud a couple of times; at others, the prose is so painful that I have to walk away for awhile and then come back. But I am never sorry to be reading it. The ending is so deeply satisfying that I want to high-five someone, but alas, I am reading it alone.

Once again, Brown’s novel is destined to be one of the year’s best reads. I highly recommend it.

Girls Like Us, by Cristina Alger***-****

I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin last summer. Since I received it after the publication date, I moved it to the back burner in order to prioritize galleys whose publication dates could still be met. January came, and I still hadn’t opened the book. Deeply ashamed, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it in the evenings while preparing dinner. The audio version is three stars, but I suspect that if I had stuck to the digital review copy, it might have been closer to four, so I am rounding my rating upward.

FBI agent Nell Flynn, our protagonist, returns home after ten years away in order to bury her father and deal with his estate. She and her dad were estranged, and her mother died when she was a child; she has no siblings; she is also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the fallout from an earlier case. I assumed incorrectly that this earlier case must mean that Nell Flynn either had, or was about to have her own series, yet no mention is made of this; as far as I can tell the PTSD has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with any other aspect of the story. Her boss urges her to seek treatment; she doesn’t want to because she’s hard-boiled, and yada yada. Moving on.

The body of a young woman is found, and then there’s another; since she happens to be visiting Suffolk County, her father’s partner asks Nell to lend a hand. She is recruited as a consultant, but she gets the sense that the local veterans don’t want her to dig deeply. Her father’s partner is a relative newbie, not part of the old boys’ network, and so she and he work together to try to solve the killings, but she is obstructed at every turn. Is there a cover-up taking place, and if so, is it because her father was culpable? First one thing and then another makes her wonder whether he might have killed them, and while she is at it, she also wonders if he had a hand in her own mother’s death many years ago, when she was quite small.

The thing that makes this story unique is the fact that the cop is investigating her own dead father. I also like the way the author deals with the mystery woman that her father’s will includes. I thought I saw how that thread was going to play out, and I was not even close to being right. I like Alger’s subtlety here.  I also like the medical examiner, who is female too.

The main challenge for me was as a listener. The reader that performed the audio version has a painfully wooden delivery and pronounces a couple of fairly common words differently from anyone else that I’ve heard, and each time she said them I was distracted away from the story line. The way Nell’s father’s old friend, Dorsey, is voiced sounds like a bad John Wayne imitation. So, should you read this book? If you enjoy crime fiction that’s character based, particularly with a female cop or detective, you could do worse. I wouldn’t pay full jacket price for it, though, and I don’t recommend the audio version.

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

The Man That Got Away, by Lynne Truss*****

This is the second entry in the Constable Twitten series, and my fourth book by this writer. Truss is a reliably funny author, but this is her best yet. My thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. You can buy this comic masterpiece now, but first you should read A Shot in the Dark if you can, because the background information you will find there will make this book even funnier.

Constable Twitten is the only capable, driven cop in Brighton, a small seaside tourist town in England. Steine, his boss, is unwilling to recognize that crime exists here at all; he is possibly the most gullible character to appear in fiction. For example, he believed an April Fool’s Day newscast about the spaghetti weevil, said to be ruining the spaghetti harvest. The other officer is slightly better, but when his dream of going undercover finally comes true, he becomes so immersed in his new role that he forgets he is supposed to be fighting crime. He is posing as a musician and spends all his time at the club performing or practicing; he doesn’t even bother to check in at the station. Twitten is left virtually alone to deal with Brighton’s crime wave.

Here is a pattern I’ve seen with Truss’s novels. The beginning is usually lame. The first time I read her work, I saw so many not-funny lines in the first ten percent that had I not owed a review, I might have been tempted to abandon it. However, even though I had decided that this was probably a pretty stupid book, I noticed a change as it went on, and by the last thirty percent or so, I was laughing out loud. Consequently, I was expecting a progression in this novel, from not-funny to slightly-funny to actually-pretty-funny to gut-splittingly-funny. I reminded myself that patience would pay off here, and I opened the book…and laughed on the first page. This book starts out at ten and it stays there all the way through.

There are several threads that are good here; we have the blind wax sculptor that makes dreadful likenesses for the wax museum, and there’s Inspector Steine being duped into believing a con woman is his long lost niece. But the most memorable, achingly funny bits are centered around Mrs. Groynes, the police station’s secretary who is also the janitor, and also the brains of an organized crime ring. Twitten knows this, and Groynes knows that he knows, but he cannot persuade another living soul that it’s true, and so there she remains, unhindered, using her job to obtain intelligence that in turn helps her underworld minions avoid detection.

 It isn’t difficult.

Those that love excellent satire need look no further. I highly recommend this hilarious book to everyone.

The Janes, by Louisa Luna****+

 4 stars plus. Louisa Luna debuted in 2018 with the first book in this series, Two Girls Down. When I learned that Alice Vega was returning, I jumped on the galley without a moment’s hesitation. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 21, 2020.

Alice Vega is back home in Southern California, and she is hired as a consultant on a case for the local cops. Two dead girls have turned up, both recent immigrants with IUDs in their too-young bodies. All signs point to their having been victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation, yet there is no evidence of rape. What happened here, and where did the IUDs, which aren’t available in stores, come from? She is offered an astonishing amount of money for her services, and she decides to use some of it to hire her old partner, Max Caplan, who’s back on the Eastern seaboard entertaining job offers. When Vega crooks her little finger, Cap comes running.

Luna has a voice and style not like anyone else’s. One of the things that I love is the way she swaps the stereotypic gender roles of these two main characters. Cap is nurturing, and he loves kids. Vega isn’t a nurturer, and when huge stressors come down on her, she becomes angry and violent, but as a reader I love this because her rage is always spot on. Cap has sex when he’s in love, but Vega has sex to fulfill a biological need, and then wonders why the guy is still hanging around. Clean yourself up and get out of here, dude, I have things to do today. Run along. And while Vega’s vigilante justice would be a terrible thing in real life, in fiction it feels deeply satisfying.

In other words, Alice Vega makes my feminist heart sing.

Luna is better than most authors of the genre in that no matter how off the chain her protagonist is, I never disengage because of an unlikely plot element. We have corrupt cops; we have bureaucrats; we have secrets that would become public if Vega and Cap were prosecuted for crimes committed in the line of duty. My single twinge of regret comes when Cap sustains a head injury that renders him unconscious; wakes up dazed and confused, with some memory loss; and then shakes it off without tests or treatment of any kind. Vega reminds him to get an MRI when everything is over, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I wonder at times whether she meant to do more with it and then edited it back out.

Given that both stories, this one and the last, feature two female victims, I wonder if this will be her signature element throughout the series.

This story differs from the first in that it is darker, less funny, and ramps up to the high octane, pulse-pounding excitement of a true thriller at around 80%. The plot and characters are credible, but they lack the bounce and the zip that made the first book so memorable. Nevertheless, I love Alice Vega and eagerly await the next in the series.

Heartily recommended to those that love the genre and respect women.

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

Takes One to Know One, by Susan Isaacs****

I have loved Susan Isaacs’s work for decades, and so when I saw her newest novel up for grabs on Edelweiss, I jumped at the chance to read it. This book is for sale now.

Corie Geller is a former FBI agent. Now she is the stay-home mom of a fourteen year old stepdaughter, and the wife of a prominent judge.  She works as a scout for quality Arabic fiction. And she’s bored out of her mind.

But old habits die hard, and she can’t help noticing that a member of her regular lunch group, Pete Delaney, has habits that raise red flags. He’s too normal, almost as if he’s working at it. His appearance is forgettable, his occupation is dull…but he always sits facing the door when he goes out to lunch. He sets Corie’s professional sense a-jangling. Is Pete really this bland, or is it a front for something more sinister?

The few people that Corie confides in are sure she is jumping at shadows. She needs a job, or a hobby. Briefly I wondered whether Pete and Corie were going to fall madly in love, but then I remembered who my author is. Isaacs would never.

The one person that takes Corie’s questions seriously is her father, a retired cop who’s bored also. As she and her papa peel away Pete’s façade, they grow closer to uncovering his secrets. And Josh—Corie’s husband, whose work requires a whole lot of travel—knows nothing of any of it.

The thing that elevates Isaacs above other novelists is her feminist snark. It’s put to excellent use here. Aspects that don’t work as well for me are the detailed descriptions of upscale furnishings and other expensive possessions, and the whole Arabic literature thing, which adds nothing at all to the story and is a trifle distracting; I kept wondering when it would become relevant to the story, but then it didn’t.  But both of these are minor factors.

The reader should also know that this is not a thriller. There seems to be a trend among publicists to promote all mysteries as thrillers, and perhaps this helps sales in the short run, who knows; but it doesn’t serve the author well in the long run. Isaacs doesn’t write thrillers, she writes solid, feminist mysteries that pull the reader in with the story arc characteristic of strong fiction. When I hit the 62% mark at bedtime one evening, I understood that the next time I read it, I would have to finish it, and indeed, it was too exciting to read flopped in bed as I usually do. I had to sit up straight, and I kept finding myself leaning forward as I read, as if I might need to jump up at any minute.

I would love to see Isaacs use this protagonist in a series. I’ve missed this writer and look forward to her next book, whether it’s another Corie Geller story or something else. I recommend this book to feminist mystery readers that are ready for a chuckle or two. 

Today We Go Home, by Kelli Estes**-***

I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great. The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.

I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal. Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s, North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become friends and neighbors on equal footing.

I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling with laughter at its naiveté.

To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.

I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow, apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the book.

Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will do fine work in the future.

This book is for sale now.

What Rose Forgot, by Nevada Barr****-******

Nevada Barr’s newest stand-alone mystery is a humdinger. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now, and you should read it.

Rose Dennis wakes up ragged and half naked in the bushes. Sturdy staff members close in on her and drag her back to the secure wing of the Alzheimer’s unit.  She overhears an administrator in the hallway opine that she’s unlikely to last a week, and she knows she has to get out of there. But proving she’s not suffering from dementia is a tall order, and saving herself calls for desperate measures.

Barr’s wit and sass are at their best here, and the pacing picks up at ten percent and never flags. Rose and her thirteen year old granddaughter Mel are well crafted characters. Although I appreciate Rose’s moxie and self reliance, Mel is the character that impresses me most. I spent decades teaching children of about this age, and so I am overjoyed to find a writer that can craft a believable seventh grader. For Mel to do the things she does, she has to be gifted—as Barr depicts her—and again, this character is right on the money, clever without losing the developmental hallmarks of adolescence. The dialogue is resonant and I love the moment when Rose borrows Mel’s cell phone for most of a day. The suffering Mel tolerates for her beloved grandmother is priceless.

But now let’s go back to Rose, and to her situation. A lot of Barr’s readers are Boomers; I am perched on the margin, retired but not yet drawing Social Security.  Looking through Rose’s eyes at the way senior citizens are treated gives me the heebie-jeebies.  As a younger woman I had regarded assisted living facilities as a sensible approach to aging; my mother lived the last few years of her life in one, and I have often joked to my children, whenever I have done them a favor, to “remember this moment when you choose my nursing home.” But after reading this novel, I am not going into one. Not ever.

Now of course most places aren’t complicit in murder for profit schemes, but there is so much here that is completely believable.  Nursing assistants talk to the patients as if they are toddlers. “Diapers are our friend.” Rose is planted in a day room in front of a picture of Sponge Bob and a handful of crayons.  Do we really believe such patronizing behaviors aren’t present in real-life nursing homes? It makes my skin crawl. And the pills that render senior citizens passive and helpless: “Her brain floats in a chemical soup concocted by evil toddlers in a devil’s pharmacy.” And this place has a two year waiting list!

Rose isn’t going gently, and before we know it, she’s on the loose. Now and then the things that she does in her own self-defense make me arch an eyebrow, but the fact is that people age very differently from one another. Some are still kicking butt and taking names when they’re eighty; others pick up the knitting needles and head for the rocker at sixty. And more to the point, what Rose does makes me want to cheer, and so I choose to believe.

My only quibble here is with the way Barr depicts large women. She’s done it for decades; I wrote to her about it once, and her response was that these negative notions weren’t her own thoughts but those of Anna Pigeon. Well folks, here we are with Rose Dennis, and the Nurse Ratchet character here is—oh of course—huge. I would love to see Barr feature a plus size character, oh just once, that is a good person. Please let’s lose the stereotype; other authors have managed it, and Barr should too.

Should that hold you back from buying and reading this book? It should not. I laughed out loud more than once, and the subtext is powerful.  I recommend it for Barr’s many readers, and for all feminists at or near Boomer-age.