A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

The Craftsman, by Sharon Bolton****-*****

TheCraftsman“One night…what’s the worst that can happen?”

4.5 rounded up. I am late to the party where this author is concerned; a literature chat session directed me toward this galley, and now I am sure to read Bolton’s work again. My thanks go St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, October 16, 2018.

Is it a thriller, or is it a horror story? Bolton successfully rides the center here, and there’s a good case to be made in either direction. Our protagonist, Florence Lovelady, is a high ranking cop in the UK. Her career was made when she identified a serial killer and was instrumental in his arrest; now he is dead, and she returns to the small town where he nearly made her one of his victims 30 years ago. The plan is to attend the service with her 15-year-old son in tow, and then spend the night or two in a hotel, where her spouse will join them.

Things don’t go according to plan.

The plot is cunningly constructed, beginning with one of the creepiest fictional funerals in literature. The foreshadowing will give even the most cynical reader a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. As for me, I know my limitations, and as soon as I saw how things are in this one, I decided it could not be the last thing I read before falling asleep at night. Ever.

The interesting thing here—and what keeps this story from actually becoming too horrible to be any fun—is that we know, at the outset, how this case, which takes place in 1969, comes out. We are told in a smooth first person narrative what the broad contours of the case are. We know what the crime was; what happened to Florence while she investigated it; who did it; and that he was caught and convicted. There now.

So as we look back to the teenager that was kidnapped, then buried alive, I confess my eyes skipped over some of the explicit horror, but really the description isn’t a lengthy one, and after all, we know that the guy was apprehended. We see the numerous humiliations to which Detective Lovelady is subjected, in the day when female cops are scarce on the ground and expected to run along and make the tea for their colleagues and to comfort the crying women; I love the scene in which she is told she’s being (punitively) put on a desk to type up reports, and it turns out that she doesn’t know how to type. Ha. But then again, we also know that her career is a successful one, that she has weathered these miseries and now outranks most of the men that treated her badly.
But there are surprises in store too, as new developments surface while she’s there in town. One thing after another unravels till we are on the edge of our seats—and this time we don’t know how it will all shake out.

At about the eighty percent mark, a plot element that I won’t identify comes into play that makes me stop cold for a moment and roll my eyes. Oh please. Not this thing. Every steadfast reader of the genre has a mental list of overused devices they hope never to read again, and after doing so well at avoiding them all, Bolton lets a big, beefy one loose, and just as things are on a roll, too. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it took the wind out of my sails for a moment. However, after a brief visit to the literary corn-and-cheese factory, she comes out on top again, and the ending is deeply satisfying.

The story features witches—yes, real ones! As well as shadowy, mostly unnamed stonemasons, and Dwane, who is by far the best-written sexton in a thriller or mystery anywhere.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy a creepy murder story with supernatural elements.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

The O Henry Prize Stories 2018, by Laura Furman, editor*****

TheOHenryPrize2018This collection is guaranteed to be good, and I was thrilled when I received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday. Those that enjoy strong fiction should buy it and read it, even if you have to pay full jacket price. This year’s edition holds 20 prize winning stories along with a bit of judging commentary at the end. This book is now for sale.

The first story in any short story collection is bound to be good, and so I knew that Joanne Beard’s Tin House would be strong, and it is, in a dark, surreal way. I wouldn’t read it at bedtime lest it enter my dreams, but it’s memorable, original, and gritty. I also enjoy Brad Felver’s Queen Elizabeth, and Past Perfect Continuous, by Dounia Choukri. My favorite of all of them, the one that made me laugh out loud, is Why Were They Throwing Bricks, by Jenny Zhang, a story that features a cagey, manipulative Chinese grandmother and the grandchildren whose lives she enters, leaves and reenters. Zhang appears to have mostly published poetry up to this point, but I hope she writes more fiction, because I want to read it.

The only aspect of any short story that I don’t enjoy is the open-ended sort that conclude with no real resolution. This screamingly frustrating inclination is minimal here, showing at the ends of a just a couple of the featured stories.

Short stories are terrific to leave, once you’ve finished them, in your guest room, because people that stay with you briefly can read a story or more without the frustration of having to either leave an incomplete novel behind or beg to borrow it, not knowing when they can return it. If you need an excuse to get this excellent collection for yourself, there it is.

Highly recommended.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton***

TheClockmakersDaughterKate Morton is queen of the British historical mystery, and so I leapt at the chance to read and review The Clockmaker’s Daughter. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available October 9, 2018.

This story starts strong with a spellbinding first person narrative told by the woman whose spirit resides eternally at Birchwood Manor. She came here with Edward, a wellborn cad that “could make the very devil pray”, one that called her his muse. Edward seduced her, yes, but he would never have married her.

Elodie Winslow is an archivist in present-day London.  In the course of her duties, she runs across two pictures in a leather satchel. One is a photograph, quite old, and the other is a sketch of a house that seems familiar to her somehow. And so of course, faithful readers are cued right away to watch for a connection between Elodie, and the people, setting, and events that are introduced at the book’s beginning.

Find me a writer that can create more resonant settings in a British historical mystery; I dare you. For the first quarter of this novel, I was in it, steeping in the escapist paradise Morton provides, drinking in the several characters and narratives. But at the thirty percent mark, when yet another new thread, another new character—or is it an old character pretending to be a new character—is introduced, I find myself searching for a nice brick wall to smack my forehead against. It’s hard to get to know any of these characters with so many new ones added.

Usually with Morton’s books, the details and subsections are worth the reader’s careful attention because it all comes together so well at the end. Here, there’s excellent setting and a lot of secrets but not enough plot or character development, and so before the story is even halfway done I find myself eyeing the page numbers. How much longer…?

I also find myself wondering what story elements are classic, and which are simply overused. The old house with the secret doors?  I will never get tired of this element, especially when the writer is as capable as Morton. But bullies at a boarding school—meh. I am ready to be done with that one. And the sack of kittens to be drowned? I gave myself permission to skip a page, because it is. Not. Worth. It.

Many of Morton’s faithful fans will be pleased; her trademark style is unmistakable, and if that’s what you want, here it is. But a story this complex needs more legs to go with it, and less reliance on stale devices.

Am I done reading Morton? Not by a long shot. Every author has a story or two that isn’t magical. But when a story requires this much effort on the part of the reader, the payoff needs to be greater than it is here.

Recommended to diehard Kate Morton fans; even so, get it free or cheap, but don’t pay full jacket price this time.

The Caregiver, by Samuel Park*****

TheCaregiverThe Caregiver is one of the year’s best surprises. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. Our protagonist is Mara Alencar, and our setting is split between present day Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1980s. I am drawn to the story initially because of the setting, which I don’t see often; but it is Mara that keeps me turning the pages. Those that treasure excellent, character-based literary fiction should get this book and read it.

Mara is just a kid, and all she really wants is food, shelter, and the comfort and companionship of her mother, Ana. Ana is a young single mother that works as a voice-over actress, repeating the lines of English-language programs in Portuguese. The pay is low, and Ana’s self-discipline is negligible. Life is a constant struggle.

One evening Ana is visited by a group of students that claim they plan to rob a bank in order to fund a revolution. Ana’s job is to distract Chief Lima so that a comrade can be liberated from prison. The comrade will play an important part in the revolution; as for Ana, she will be paid handsomely, and then she will be free to go if she likes. Mara doesn’t like these rough people and their threatening demeanor, but Ana hears the amount they will pay, and once she receives an advance, she’s in.

Everything is seen through Mara’s eyes, both in childhood as these events unfold, and later, looking back during her years working as a caregiver to a manipulative older woman that shares some of Ana’s characteristics. As a child, Mara is often afraid or confused, or both. Her mother reminds her often that she is all that matters, and that the two of them will always be together; in the next moment, she will do something so blindingly selfish, so completely inappropriate that I want to yank the woman into the kitchen and remind her that she has a child and responsibilities. She will tell Mara, not for the first time, that she could never stand to lie to her because they are so close, and she loves her so much; but we turn the page and sure enough, she lies to her child, or she is gone for days on end with no warning or explanation. There are occasions when she seems to lie unnecessarily, and I want to throw my tablet at the wall, I am so frustrated.

The ending is a complete surprise, and it makes perfect sense within the chaotic context of the time and place.

The most admirable aspect of this story is the consistency of the narrator. A writer that can tell a story from a child’s point of view without mixing up the developmental level that affects a child’s perceptions, vocabulary level, and capacity to analyze what she sees is hard to find. A male writer that can do this, and that can also consistently write a woman’s story in the first person without giving himself away is a unicorn. Samuel Park convinces me that I am listening to a woman tell her story, and repeatedly I am pulled under, only to be reminded when I go to make notes at the end of my writing session that this is a male novelist. This doesn’t happen. I am gob-smacked at his level of perception and originality.

I never met Park, but I grieve for him anyway as a reader. Please come back, Mr. Park. One book is not enough; forty-one is too young.

Highly recommended.

In Her Bones, by Kate Moretti****

InHerBonesMoretti’s mysteries are addictive, and when I found this galley in my email, I jumped it to the front of the queue. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for letting me read it free and early. You can buy it now.

Edie is an outcast, spurned by her friends when her mother Lilith is arrested as a serial killer. Since it is so rare for a serial murderer to be female, the press is everywhere; meanwhile, all Edie has left is her brother Dylan and later, his young family. Otherwise, the people to whom she feels most closely bonded don’t know Edie, don’t realize that she is watching them, obsessing over them in person and in cyberspace; they are the bereaved family members of Lilith’s victims. It gives me chills.

One day Edie takes her voyeuristic tendencies to the next level; when the man she’s been stalking is found dead, police immediately suspect Edie of being his killer. And as we read Edie’s narrative, which tells us some things but not everything, we wonder too: is Edie a lonely, isolated young woman searching for connection to another human being; or is she a chip off the old block, a stone cold killer just like her mama?

The first person narrative alternates with a third person study of Lilith, and so the voice switches from Edie’s very personal story to a clinical, dry report regarding her aberrant mother. (Let me tell you, whatever issues you may have with your own mother—she’s going to seem like the mother of the year once you’ve read this.)

I’ve read a few unhappy reviews by online friends. but I like this book. It helps if you approach it as a mystery rather than a thriller; those in search of a grab-you-by-the-hair page-turner may not get what you’re looking for, but I wanted an interesting story with an original premise and a credible ending, and this is that. In addition, the third person case notes written by social workers and their ilk ring true to me. In fact, I made a wry note to myself, wondering whether Edie or Dylan might have been in one of my classes; I have never taught the children of a serial killer to my knowledge, yet the wanton neglect and lack of nurturance, even a simple effort to provide the basics eludes Lilith in a way that seems familiar. You think I am exaggerating? Not so much. There are terrific parents; there are indifferent parents; and there are, I am sad to say, more than a few Lilith Wades out there in the parent pool.

This is my third galley by this writer. Whereas I liked The Blackbird Season a little more than this one, mostly because of its amazing word smithery, I find this story more original and memorable than The Vanishing Year, which has the sort of denouement that makes me roll my eyes. Here Moretti pulls the ending together in a way that keeps me thinking about the characters rather than the author, and I sigh with appreciation when it’s done.

All told, it’s a solid mystery with a satisfying conclusion. Recommended to all that enjoy the genre.

A Long Time Coming, by Aaron Elkin**

ALongTimeComingAaron Elkin has been writing mysteries for a long time, but he is new to me.  When I saw this title listed on Net Galley, I went to Goodreads and found that his work is well regarded by some of my friends; add to this his residence in my own Pacific Northwest, and I am ready to give his work a try. Thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

The story starts well. Val Caruso is an art curator, and his personal life is a mess. He’s stone cold broke, and so when he is approached to do a job involving a stolen-but-found Renoir, his interest is piqued. An ancient Holocaust survivor claims ownership of a painting that has been sold to someone else, and Caruso is hired to help. I particularly enjoy the character of Esther, the domineering but charming friend that connects the two men; alas, we will soon leave her behind when we go to Milan.

At the outset the amount of art related information feels just about right to me. The book is sold as a popular read rather than a niche item for art aficionados, and I am cheered by this, since I have little to no interest in art. As we travel to Milan, however, the art lectures become oppressive. By the forty percent mark I find myself watching the page numbers roll by, oh so slowly, and cursing myself for having taken the galley. Brush strokes? Historical nature of paint color? Who the hell cares? The travelogue aspect of the book also starts well, but eventually the level of detail slooows this story to a crawl. I find myself cynically wondering whether this series is simply a ruse for the author to claim his globe-trotting expenses on his tax returns.

Elkin has a solid reputation built on an earlier series, and at some point I may give that one a whirl, but Val Caruso and I are done.

Across the Great Lake, by Lee Zacharias***

AcrosstheGreatLakeI received this book free from Net Galley and University of Wisconsin Press in exchange for this honest review. It will be available for purchase on September 18, 2018.

Conceptually this story has great promise.  The Great Lakes are where important American naval battles have taken place, and yet very little fiction is set there. This reviewer lived near Lake Erie for most of the 1980s, and I thought this novel would be a sure fire winner.

An elderly woman is looking back at her life, and the story starts with her earliest memories, when her parents separate and her father, a sea captain, takes her from her unstable mother and the girl goes to sea with him. Sailors mutter dark things. There’s a ghost ship that the crew speaks of ominously.

Zacharias nails Fern’s developmental stages, which is critical for anyone writing about a child, particularly if that child is going to voice some of the narrative. Failing to do so breaks the spell entirely, and I am cheered when I see it done correctly. There’s also a great deal of painstaking historical and nautical detail here. As a history teacher I appreciate it, and I learned some things.

Sadly, the character feels weighted down by the setting instead of developed by it. I never feel as if I know the protagonist, but rather as though the author has a great deal of research done and is going to use as much of it as is humanly possible. I pushed my way through it until just before the halfway mark, and then I abandoned ship.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.