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.

 

The Comedown, by Rebekah Frumkin***

thecomedownThanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy.  This debut tells me that Frumkin is an author to watch. This book is now available to the public.

The story begins with Leland, an addict with a suitcase, and Reggie, the dealer that hates him. There’s Melinda, the unhappy ex-wife, and a host of other characters, including Melinda’s daughter-in-law Jocelyn. The suitcase is the hook; everyone wants it, and so of course the reader must wonder what is in it and who has it now.

This novel grabbed me at the get-go, darkly funny and brutally frank. It struck me as angry fiction, and the energy behind it was fascinating. But ultimately, there are too many characters and too many social issues wrapped into this one story, and rather than making it complex and tight, it wanders in too many directions. There’s an overly lengthy narrative toward the end, and it’s followed by some regrettable dialogue. And there are too many characters named Leland.  The story is an ambitious one, but this should probably have been more than one story, or perhaps a series. The result is a lack of focus.

I would love to see the author write something else using Melinda as the central character, and fewer guys named Leland.

This I Know, by Eldonna Edwards*****

“Sometimes I wish I could catch Mama’s voice in a jar and keep it beside my bed at night, let each note light the darkness like a captured firefly.”

ThisIKnow Eldonna Edwards makes her debut with the best written child protagonist since Scout Finch appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the digital review copy.

Grace Carter is eleven years old, one of several daughters of a strict evangelical preacher.  Her mother has come undone, slowly unraveling from grief that began with the death of Grace’s twin brother, Isaac. Grace misses Isaac, too, but she has the comfort of his counsel; she hears and knows things that most other people do not. Her mother and Aunt Pearl call it “the knowing”, but her father calls it the work of the devil. Grace grows up understanding that she must keep her head down and avoid getting into trouble. It’s a treacherous path, and now and then things pop out, as they will with adolescents.

Edwards is a gifted writer, and she’s tackled an ambitious project in writing a first person narrative. It’s hard to voice a child in a way that is developmentally appropriate and consistent, and she’s nailed it spot on. Many writers would try to dodge this literary obligation by creating a precocious, academically gifted character, which is so common that it’s clichéd, and as I read this story and see that Grace is just an average kid, apart from her supernatural talent, I hold my breath to see if she can carry it off all the way through, and she does it masterfully. The way Edwards develops Grace, adding layers to her personality and melding it with the dead-accurate setting—the Midwest during the 1960s—makes her one of the most exciting new voices to emerge this generation.  The plot never slows, but with a character and setting this resonant, Edwards could send Grace to sit in her closet for the whole book and her readers would be captivated regardless.

I would have preferred a more nuanced ending, but it’s a small concern. Everyone that loves strong fiction will want this book. Order yours while you can get it on the first printing.

Gods of Howl Mountain*****

GodsofHowl“Christ’s father let him die on that cross,” she said. “I understand why he done it.” She leaned closer, whispering, “But Christ never had no granny like me.”

Rory Docherty has come home from overseas “with war in his blood”; he’s come home to the mountains of North Carolina, and home to Granny May, the local herbalist—some also say she’s the local witch. His mother Bonni is in a mental institution, which was even a worse place to have to go in the 1950s than it is now.  Rory doesn’t know for sure what broke her, because she hasn’t said one word in the years between then and now; Granny May knows, and withholds this powerful secret for reasons of her own. The life of the Docherty family is seldom easy, having Bonni erased from their midst has hit them hardest of all.

I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I’m not permitted to share my galley with anyone else, but I can do this: I can read it as many times as I damn want to. And although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that, out of the five or six hundred free novels that I’ve received in the last few years, I’ll do it with this one.

But back to Rory, to Granny May, and to Eustace, the wily, ruthless old bootlegger that owns Howl Mountain and almost everyone on it. And back to the sweet-faced preacher’s daughter that has lit a fire under Rory’s troubled heart. Granny May would have him stay away from those snake-handling holy rollers, but Rory is utterly bewitched, and when the lights are on at the storefront church, he finds himself there too.

The characters and the setting are what drive this novel, but what also drives it are the cars, most specifically Maybelline, the custom-made vehicle that can outrun Federal revenue agents.  I’m generally not interested in cars; if they run, that’s good, and if I will be comfortable inside them, that’s better. But Brown has some magic of his own, and the way he crafts this ride, which is the family’s main source of income and their most valuable piece of property apart from the mountain itself, is magnetic. It is almost a character itself.

The balance of power is shifting on Howl Mountain now. Rival Cooley Muldoon seeks to unseat the Docherty clan; threats to Granny May have taken ominous forms, and she waits on the porch with her pipe and her gun late into the night. She storms into the brush to find what, exactly, has made the cry like a panther on her roof.

“Death, which walked ever through these mountains, knew she would not go down easy.”

This is likely the go-to novel of 2018. I cannot help but think that Rory Docherty, Eustace, and Granny May will join the ranks of beloved literary characters whose names are recognized by a wide swath of the English-speaking world.

If nothing else, Brown has taken the hillbilly stereotype that some still cling to and in its place leaves believable characters with nuance, ambiguity, and heart.  It’s a showstopper, and you won’t want to miss it.

White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.

Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys***

dangerouscrossingDangerous Crossing is an historical mystery set at the outset of World War II. I was invited to review it by Atria Books and Net Galley; it was published earlier this month, and you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Lily Shepherd, a young woman in need of a fresh start. Her family’s scant resources are tapped in order to send her via cruise ship to Australia, where she is to enter domestic service. On board she meets Max and Eliza Campbell, wealthy, obnoxious, and carrying some skeletons of their own. We have Maria, a Jewish refugee, along with George, a Nazi sympathizer.  Helena and Edward are adult siblings, and there’s romantic tension crackling between Lily and Edward. Along the way are exotic ports of call such as Cairo, Egypt and Ceylon; these are places Lily would never have hoped to see under ordinary circumstances, but fate surprises her.

Rhys does a fine job of managing historical details, and in particular the social stratifications that existed in British society during this time period and the limitations they imposed.  The ending has more than one interesting twist. On the down side, I find the figurative language to be stale at times and the relationships overwrought in places. I felt that the story could do with some tightening up. However, fans of a traditional mystery will find this is a fine mystery to curl up with on a chilly winter night. The varying perspectives of the cruise’s passengers dovetail in many ways with those we see today, and many will notice an eerie familiarity in these characters from an earlier time.

Recommended to those that enjoy cozy mysteries and traditional historical mysteries.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford****

“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”loveandotherconsolation

Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.

The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.

But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:

He had never once been near the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way, a street better known as the Deadline. His teachers had talked for years about sewer rats that plagued the area, and rattlesnakes, and about the wolves that prowled the White Chapel District, waiting to sink their teeth into the good people of Seattle, which a local song had dubbed the Peerless City. Ernest had imagined lanky, sinuous creatures with sharp claws and tangles of mangy fur, but as he looked out at the avenue, all he saw were signs for dance halls and saloons.


Ernest’s years at the brothel prove to be the best of his young life, primarily because the rest of it was so much worse. Every time a rosy glow starts to form around the brothel and the condition of the women that work there, Ford injects an incident that is stark and horrible to remind us that trafficking in human beings and their most intimate acts is criminal and should never be condoned. Miss Flora is a relatively benign madam because it is better for business, not because of any sentimentality toward the women she employs. This comes to us all the more starkly when her own daughter’s virginity is raffled off to the highest bidder.

All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.

I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today.