The Sweet Spot, by Amy Poeppel*****

“Brood parasites, like certain birds, intentionally lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.”

Amy Poeppel is fast becoming one of my favorite authors; she wrote Small Admissions, Limelight, and Musical Chairs, and I read and loved them all. Her new novel is The Sweet Spot, and it is destined to become one of the best books of 2023. My thanks go to Net Galley, Atria Books, and the author for the review copies.

One of the aspects of Poeppel’s writing that sets her apart is her ability to create female characters that are so dynamic, so well developed that I feel as if I know them. Here we have four that span a wide range of ages and income levels, yet somehow wind up forming an unlikely sorority. The first, Lauren Aston-Shaw is an artist, and she’s in the midst of moving into a brownstone in New York City’s famed Greenwich Village, along with her husband, children, and large dog, Bumper. The boxes are only partially unpacked when she receives a mostly-delightful surprise: a prominent businesswoman and influencer has decided to place a massive order of Lauren’s handmade porcelain for her boutiques. The house is already in a state of happy chaos, and it’s about to be more so.

During a conversation with Felicity—the retailer in question, who is pregnant—Lauren makes an offhand remark, which Felicity interprets as an engraved invitation to break up the decades-long marriage of the baby’s father, Russell. Miranda, the spurned wife, learns of Lauren’s role and decides, in a fit of grief and rage, to burn Lauren’s life to the ground. Miranda, then, is our second of the four women.

Olivia, our third main character is one of Felicity’s employees. She is in her twenties, low on the management chain, but she is ambitious, hardworking, and determined to climb; that is, until she becomes a casualty of Miranda’s rampage. Olivia is also the beloved daughter of Dan, who runs The Sweet Spot, a neighborhood bar located in the lower level of the brownstone currently occupied by the Shaw family. Dan is a lovable, level-headed sort, and through his eyes, we see the drama unfolding between Lauren, Miranda, and Felicity through a more objective lens.

The novel’s promotional blurb tells us that these are the women that the story is about, but I would add one more. Evelyn is Lauren’s mother; they have a complicated relationship. But under the strain of the sudden and unexpected increase in work, Lauren reaches out and begs her mother to come assist her with the children until she has things in hand. Evelyn can only stay for a weekend; she has so many social obligations back home. And yet, a weekend grows to a long weekend, and then to a week. Evelyn is far too interesting to be considered a side character; she is our fourth main character.

Despite her despair and fury, Miranda finds herself caring for Russell and Felicity’s baby; it is supposed to be for a couple of hours, but in the solipsistic way of the wealthy and entitled, both parents depart for the West Coast without making childcare arrangements, and Lauren and Olivia find themselves also assisting as hours turn to days, and then to weeks.

This story has everything I want in a novel, and when I got a go-to-bed-and-die flu virus, I curled up in bed and spent my waking time there reading it. I’ll tell you from experience that it’s good for what ails you. The plot is deftly managed, and that is no small feat given its complexity. The pacing never flags and no balls are dropped (except possibly Russell’s.) The dialogue sizzles. But the thing that turns a good novel to a great one is Poeppel’s insight into the human condition. Her level of perception is what makes the characters shine, and it’s also what makes the entire book drop-dead funny. Lastly, Amy Poeppel is one of a very few authors that can write a feel-good story that never insults the reader’s intelligence.

Admit it. You need this book! Happily, it will be available to the public January 31, 2023, and you can pre-order it now. Highly recommended.

Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stephenson****

When life gets you down, it’s time to kick back and relax with a nice little book about multiple murders. Benjamin Stevenson’s nifty little mystery is just the ticket. This book is for sale now.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy.

Once in a while, a novelist will disarm his audience by speaking to them directly; this is known as breaking the fourth wall. Stevenson doesn’t just chip a corner of plaster; he comes in with a wrecking ball, because that’s just the kind of writer he is. The product is as funny as the title. Each chapter is devoted to a family member, and some of them get more than one.

The premise is this: narrator Ernest Cunningham is invited to a family reunion at an out of the way mountain lodge, a ski resort in the dead of winter. The event is timed to coincide with Ernest’s brother, Michael’s, release from prison, where he was sent for…well. You know. And as is true with all families, there’s all kinds of baggage, both literal and figurative; there are grudges, guilt, and oh yes, secrets. So many secrets!

The first body turns up in less than twenty-four hours. Is there a mass murderer at large, perhaps the one in the news dubbed “The Black Tongue?” If so, is s/he a Cunningham?

The whole story is told in a jocular, familiar tone, explaining to the reader what the rules are when writing a murder mystery. He assures us that he is a thoroughly reliable narrator, which immediately makes us wonder, because if so, why bring it up? Most narrators are reliable. So…?

I enjoy reading this thing, and am impressed at how well the author juggles a sizeable collection of characters. It doesn’t take me long to straighten out who everyone is, and this may be because we are apprised of who is annoyed with whom over what, fairly quickly. When he brings in reasons why certain people avoid each other, it helps me recall who they are.

There are two things I would change if I could. The book would be even funnier if he cut back on the side remarks to the reader long enough to let us forget he’s doing it; then, when it surfaced again, it would get more laughs. I note that toward the end, he tells us—in another side reference—that his editor has suggested he pare back some of the chatty parts, and that he isn’t going to do it. That makes me laugh too, because I have been harboring the same notion.

The other thing that I’d change is a detail that distracts me. The author refers early on, and then another time later, to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, but he never tells us what it is; possibly the detail that distracts me is the thing he refers to. Early on in the story—so probably not a spoiler—Ernest is badly injured, to the point where one of his hands isn’t usable. Yet throughout the story, when he could go to a hospital, he doesn’t do so, and he doesn’t even address the possibility. People come; people go. Yet there’s Ernest, with an oven mitt stuck over one hand to protect it, and nobody suggests he hop into town and have it looked at. Toward the end of the story there’s a general reference to the Cunningham stubbornness preventing family members from leaving the reunion, but it doesn’t hold water with me.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book. While I was reading it, I was reading several others, but this one became the go-to at lunchtime and whenever I had a spare minute, and so I recommend this book to those looking for a light, amusing read.

The Furies, by John Connolly*****

The Furies is #20 in the Charlie Parker detective series, by John Connolly. Several entries ago, Connolly began introducing supernatural elements so that each novel now is either a detective story laced with elements of horror, or else a true hybrid. Friends, nobody does this better than Connolly. Nobody.

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

This particular book is singular in that it is a pair of novellas in one volume, but they share the same characters, and flow so smoothly that I forget, at times, that it’s two different stories. Each of them has women that are either at risk of death or grave bodily harm, or that appear to be. The characters are brilliantly crafted; some are old favorites that Connolly’s faithful readers will recognize. We have Angel and Louis, not much, but enough to satisfy; the Fulci Brothers return, and these guys make me laugh out loud. (Notice that I don’t say that Connolly makes me laugh. I believe the characters enough that most of the time, my readerly relationship isn’t with the author, but with the characters themselves.) And we have some brand new baddies as well.

I won’t even tell you about all of the ne’er-do-wells that frequent these pages, because there are a host of them, but the most memorable and salient are Raum Buker, a career criminal, and Bobby Wadlin, an opportunistic slumlord who runs a boardinghouse for the formerly incarcerated. Let’s take a look at Raum:

“There are men who are born into this world blighted, men who are blighted by the world, and men who are intent upon blighting themselves and the world along with them. Raum Buker somehow contrived to be all three in one person, like a toxic, inverted deity….Raum became his own worst enemy by election, and decided by extension to become the worst enemy of a lot of other people, too….Gradually, like fecal matter flowing down a drain, gravity brought Raum to Portland. He kept company with men whom others avoided, and women who were too foolish, desperate, or worn down by abuse to make better life choices.”

Unfortunately for Raum, he has obtained, extralegally, of course, a rare coin that is also a supernatural talisman. It’s a bit like the ring that Bilbo Baggins and Gollum vie for in The Hobbit, but the coin is loose in modern society among humans during the pandemic.

Bobby Wadlin runs The Braycott Arms where Raum lives, along with some other questionable people. Wadlin is too lazy to be truly evil; he inherited this pile from his late daddy, and he rents rooms to former convicts because they are the least likely to make a fuss over repairs and such that most people expect from their rental lodgings. Wadlin sits behind the front desk during most of his waking hours and sometimes other hours, too, watching endless Westerns on his little television. When things start to go sideways, he turns to an herbal product that is named in the book, and as I read, I became sold on its anti-anxiety attributes and bought some for myself. It works, too! As long as it doesn’t turn me into Bobby Wadlin, I’ll be okay.

There are small but important ways in which Connolly’s skill sets him apart from other writers. An essential component is his timing. Less experienced and analytical authors might create an amusing character or situation, and it’s funny, and then it’s over. For others, they know they’ve struck gold, so then they beat it to death to where it’s stale and loses its magic. Connolly seems to know precisely at what point to bring back the humorous bits for maximum effect. He lets us forget all about that hysterical situation or person back there, earlier in the novel, and so when he brings it out again, the hilarity hits us right in the funny bone. There’s never a wasted word, with everything carefully measured and edited down for maximum effect.

If there is one area in which this author might improve, it’s in the way he writes female characters. When I finish a Parker novel, it’s always the men that I remember. Connolly demonstrates tremendous respect for women, but he doesn’t fully develop any of them. There it is, a challenge.

Nonetheless, The Furies is brilliant and entertaining, and I recommend it enthusiastically to you.  

The Deluge, by Stephen Markley**

Markley’s debut novel, Ohio, came out in 2018, and it was one of the year’s best that I promoted at the end of the year. I loved it so much that I was convinced that anything this author wrote would be golden. So when Simon and Schuster invited me to read and review his next book, The Deluge, I was delighted. But although I am grateful to the publisher and Net Galley for including me, I cannot bring myself to finish this thing. I suspect Markley may have bitten off more than he can chew, because it’s kind of a mess.

To be fair, I have only read the first twenty percent, but since the book is 900 pages in length, that’s a chunk.  After all of that, I can’t even keep the characters straight, let alone bond with them. One character, Kate, seems to hold the most promise, but just as I begin to develop interest, we transition to a different character—or news article, or whatever—in a manner that feels abrupt and jerky. Some of these characters appear more than once, and other may have, but I’m not even sure of it. There’s one horrifying rapist that speaks to the reader intimately and in the second person, and he gives me the heebie-jeebies so badly that I am glad to move on to someone else. That guy—whatever his name is—and Kate are the only two I can identify, sort of. I’m a language arts teacher. Good luck to everybody else.

I do understand that the overall message has to do with the environmental ruin that is marching toward us at an alarming pace. Markley isn’t wrong to sound the alarm, although it may in large part be a case of preaching to the choir; the most concerned among us are probably the most likely to read this book. At the same time, some of us have been following this horrifying debacle since the ‘70s, or the ‘80s, and when one is already virtually hyperventilating with alarm over this issue, reading this novel doesn’t do much good.

But more to the point, fiction is an excellent medium to promote an urgent political cause, but it’s only effective when the other story elements are outstanding. When the format doesn’t do justice to the characters or provide clarity to the reader, the effort is wasted.

I read other reviews saying that if one patiently reads the chaotic scramble at the beginning, eventually it will all come together and make sense, but honestly, if nothing makes sense two hundred pages in, then you can stick a fork in me, cause I’m done.

Murder Book, by Thomas Perry*****

Harry Duncan is a former cop, now a private investigator. His ex-wife, Ellen, is the U.S. Attorney for the region, and she asks him to check out a small town that appears to have a racketeering problem. Is it serious enough to warrant the attention of the FBI? Harry agrees to explore the situation, which turns out to be far more serious than either of them imagined.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This high octane thriller is for sale now.

Perry’s feet have hardly hit the ground in this tiny Indiana backwater before he discovers a protection racket. A local businesswoman is determined not to pay; how can a bar or restaurant pay $300 daily and still stay open? The profit margin just doesn’t allow for it. And the thugs know that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that there’s more to this than meets the eye in this tiny, out of the way burg.

Perry is king when it comes to details involving stealth and unobtrusive investigation. Whereas a cop cannot use the unorthodox (and okay, illegal) methods that Duncan employs, a consultant can and does, or at least, he can and does in this story.

And if one were to criticize this novel, that’s the soft spot—because almost nothing about this tale is realistic. It’s so much fun to read, though, that by the time I thought, “Wait a minute…” the rest of my thoughts shushed my inner cynic as if it were a noisy jerk in the back row at a movie theater.

Highly recommended.

Earl, Honey, by D.S. Getson*****

“Ever since Pa hit him in the head with the two-by-four, Earl had lived with blinders.”

If you can read that opening line and not be curious about what comes after it, check your pulse, because there’s a good chance you are already dead. As for me, I was drawn to it immediately, and I thank Net Galley and Matador Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

When we meet Earl, the year is 1921 (although occasionally, we skip forward to 1970.) Earl is in the courthouse watching his father’s trial:

‘I di’nt fornicate with no donkey. Es ist eine dirty lie!’ From the back of the darkly paneled room, he feels his pa’s rage like a ground tremor rippling its way through the crowd the crowd to the spot where he sits, surrounded by family. Well, except for Rose. She’s up front in a special seat…

‘And what about the other charge, Mr. Hahn? Is it true your daughter, Rose, is carrying your child?’

Boom. So right in the first chapter, you can plainly see that if you are someone that needs to know about triggers before reading a novel, this may not be your book. And that’s a shame, because the quality of the writing is phenomenal, from the riveting opening line, all the way to the last.

Earl’s pa does, in fact, go to jail; even if he wasn’t guilty as sin (and of it,) which he clearly is, everyone in town hates him with an abiding passion, most of all his wife and ten children.

“There wasn’t a man within a hundred miles of Sampson County who would stand up for Reinhardt Hahn.”

It is unusual for me to include so many quotes in a review, but as you can see, the writing is so clear, strong, and resonant that I cannot do it justice any other way.

As the title and first line suggest, the story is Earl’s, and we follow him through the remainder of his childhood and adolescence. At its end, I am thunderstruck when I read the author’s note explaining that the whole story is based on the truth. Earl was her grandmother’s brother; Reinhardt Hahn, or “Pa,” was her great-grandfather.

Friends, this is easily one of the best novels to come out of 2022, and I am convinced that the only reason it isn’t parked on the New York Times bestseller list is because it was self-published, and therefore it didn’t receive the kind of publicity that a major publisher could have provided.

I won’t say more; to do that, I’d have to fish out some more quotes, and they are even better when read in context. Highly recommended; D.S. Getson is an author to watch.

Mad Honey, by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan*****

Mad Honey is the joint endeavor of bestselling author Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review.  This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to you.

The hallmarks of Picoult’s work are immediately evident. She frames her story around a particular area of interest, and so when one of our main characters, Olivia, is a bee keeper, I figure I am in for an education with regard to bees and honey; I am not wrong. Of late, Picoult has also used some of her fiction to promote social justice causes, and that’s here, too; I did a quick search on Boylan, her co-author, and learned that Boylan is one of the first transgendered Americans to write a bestseller, and this is the other focal part of Mad Honey, which features a trans character.

We have Olivia, then, the bee keeper, and her son, Asher, who is the light of her life. She took Asher and fled an abusive marriage, and enjoys her new life. She is close to Asher, and they talk openly and often; yet, there are things that Asher isn’t telling his mother, and she doesn’t see that.

Then there’s a new girl in town, Lily Campanello, a cellist, and Asher falls for her. Later, Lily is found dead, and suspicion falls on Asher. Olivia stands behind her son, and yet a corner of her mind has doubts. What if, when push comes to shove, Asher is his father’s son after all?

It’s tricky to write fiction that focuses on a controversial topic, and the critical ingredient is characterization. If the characters feel real to us, the story flows and the message becomes an integral part of their lives. We can’t reject the theme without rejecting the character. But it would take a true Grinch to step away from Olivia, Asher, and Lily. I want what’s best for the characters, and so I’m not focused on the authors and what they have chosen to discuss within this framework, but on the story. The writing flows like melted butter, smooth and inviting, and later, the suspense ratchets up almost unbearably, and I have to know what becomes of Olivia and Asher.

Because I am a bit behind, I check out the audio version of this novel at Seattle Bibliocommons.  There are multiple narrators, but the one that resonates most for me is the reader voicing Lily. I say this, despite the fact that she butchers the pronunciation of place names in the Pacific Northwest. Eugene, Oregon is not hard to say. Siuslaw and Willamette are trickier, but there’s only one pronunciation for each, and the reader should have done due diligence.

And now that I’ve said this, I can urge you to get this book and read it. For those unfamiliar with trans people, there’s some good information, and the story is a compelling one. There’s a twist at the end, and I would probably have left that out, as it doesn’t add much, although I can also see the reason it is included. Nevertheless, this is a story worth your time and money, whether as an audiobook or in print.

Now Is Not the Time to Panic! by Kevin Wilson****-*****

Now is Not the Time to Panic is, according to its author, Kevin Wilson, “a book about friendship, about memory, and about what it means to hold on to the person who we were, even as we become someone else. It’s about the ways in which art is the door that lets us walk into a new life, one that never seemed possible.”

Frankie is kind of a quirky kid, friendless and grieving her parents’ divorce and her father’s abandonment of his kids. She has nothing but time this summer, and so when Zeke, an even quirkier new kid, moves into the tiny town of Coalfield, Tennessee, the two are drawn together.

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

Frankie invites Zeke over one day; her dad has flown the coop, and her mom is at work, so in order to make it clear that she hasn’t invited him over for carnal purposes, Frankie talks to him about her love of writing. Zeke says that he likes to draw, and so together, they make a poster. The words are Frankie’s, and they are indeed well written for a kid of sixteen years: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Zeke fills in the rest of the page with his artwork, and for good measure, they prick their fingers and comingle their blood on the poster. Then they dig out an old photocopy machine in Frankie’s garage, and make copies with which to furtively festoon the whole town. (After all, Coalfield isn’t a big place.) They don’t tell anyone it’s theirs, and enjoy the reactions to their guerilla art as sly observers.

The two teens share a lot in common. Both are outsiders; both are creatives; and both are living through the implosions of their families, with fathers that cheat and then leave, and mothers that are beside themselves with anger and shame.

Once the posters become noticed around town, rumors begin, and then copycats come along and make improvements, sometimes. There’s a hysterical piece in the local paper suggesting that their work is Satanic. Frankie and Zeke don’t say one word to anyone. They watch and they listen; they talk about it only with each other.

The crafting of these two characters, and their relationship, is well done, and I ache for both of these kids. The only time I see character slip is with regard to Frankie’s attitude toward sex. Her dispassionate take on it—she isn’t sure she really wants to, but maybe she should just do it and get it over with? Is not a mindset I’ve ever seen in a teenage girl, and believe me, I’ve known plenty of quirky ones. No, that’s a male attitude, and I suspect that Wilson would do better to use male protagonists, or else run his female ones by several very honest females in his chosen field, prior to publication.

As the summer goes on, I keep expecting the two to launch another joint project, but they don’t. She does some writing, and he draws, but there is no sequel, no follow-up. The poster is the poster. Shantytown, gold seekers, fugitives, hunger. Boom. That’s it. But years into the future, Frankie is still putting these damn things up. The heck…? I believe this of her; she is one strange person. Zeke’s mental health deteriorates that summer, and where that goes is completely credible. Those that work in the field will recognize Zeke, who is by far the better drawn of the two main characters.

This fascinating novel can be enjoyed by young adult audiences, because both of the protagonists are teenagers; however, this is also fiction that can be enjoyed by anybody. If you don’t read YA—and the truth is, I don’t, not anymore—you can still appreciate this one, and I recommend it to you.

On Spine of Death, by Tamara Berry****

The By the Book mystery series began earlier this year with Buried in a Good Book, and I knew right away the series was going to be a winner Author Tamara Berry is on a roll, with On Spine of Death, the second in the series, already on the shelves. Tess Harrow is our protagonist, and her teenaged daughter, Gertrude, helps more than she hinders, while also keeping us entertained.

The premise here is that while renovating and remodeling her late grandfather’s hardware store, multiple sets of human remains are unearthed. It’s hard enough to be accepted into a small town, but now half of its denizens are convinced that her granddad was a serial killer! Now Tess is on a mission to find out whose bones those are, and how they got there.

There are tropes here that usually make me cranky. We’ve got the hot-for-sheriff trope, and the must-clear-my-name (or that of a loved one) trope, but it’s testament to Berry’s authorial chops that I don’t think about either of them much until the book is over. Her droll humor and nicely turned out characters keep the pages turning. This is a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s just what I need sometimes.

I recommend this clever little cozy mystery to anyone needing a break from the world around us, along with a good chuckle, and I look forward to the next in the series.

The Night Ship, by Jess Kidd****

Jess Kidd can write. I read and reviewed her debut novel, Himself, which I loved so much that I bought a copy to give as a gift; I called it “Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny.” I have read and reviewed her others as well:  Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (The Hoarder in Britain,) and Things in Jars. Her most recent novel, The Night Ship, is technically as good or better than any before, but I love it less, largely because of the expectations I brought to it, based on the other three before it. I’ll explain that momentarily.

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

The Night Ship is based on a true story, the sinking of the famous ship, the Batavia, in 1629. Our protagonist is Mayken, a child whose mother has died; she is being sent to her father in the company of her elderly nurse maid.  When the ship goes down, she is marooned on an island near Australia.

Over three hundred years later in 1989, a boy named Gil has also lost his mother, and is sent to live on the same island with his cantankerous grandfather. There isn’t much to do there, and he finds his imagination is captured by the tales of a shipwreck that occurred here hundreds of years ago.

The way that Kidd braids the stories of these two children into one well crafted novel is admirable. They are separate, and yet together, and the nearer we get to the conclusion, the more commonalities reveal themselves. Clearly, Kidd is at the height of her craft—so far, at least. Goodness knows what else she’s got up her sleeve. Her eccentricity and her appreciation of working class struggle sets her in a class beyond most authors.

And yet. When I read her debut novel, she captured my whole heart. I couldn’t stop talking about it, the way her adroit word smithery combined with a hilarious tale of sheer, spun magic. It remains a favorite of mine some five years and hundreds of novels later. And when the next, Mr. Flood, came out it wasn’t quite as magical, yet really, nothing else could be, and it was still vastly superior to what anyone else was writing, and I adored it. And the next one after it, while not as humorous, was wonderfully dark, and the ending made me smile. The author’s message was rock solid.

Every single one of her previous novels had an uplifting quality, and when I read the last page, I was smiling. And so I began to feel that I could count on Kidd to raise my spirits. In fact, I rationed this story out to myself, and when, given my penchant for reading multiple books at a time, I found myself buried in dark works—in one, I was freezing and bloody in the Ardennes Forest during World War II; in another, the devil had possessed a psychiatrist in a high security asylum; add into the mix a bio of a falsely accused prisoner in the U.S. that lost his entire youth before he was exonerated, and another young man being ‘re-educated’ in a North Korean prison camp; I figured I needed a good dose of Jess Kidd right now. Now. This instant!

And so I got her book, and then the ship went down.

So, I didn’t get what I wanted from this novel, but it had more to do with my own expectations than with any defect in the quality of her writing. Still, I cannot help feeling a trifle disappointed.

If you’re ready to go dark, this is your book. If you just love good writing, this is your book, too. But if you need a feel-good book to lighten your heart, get her debut novel.