The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman**-***

2.5 stars rounded upward. I was invited to read and review this novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

World War II fiction is a crowded place, and I have left it, for the most part, having had more than my fill. I am initially interested in this story because it takes place in 1950s New York, and that’s a setting I haven’t seen much. However, this setting alternates with the protagonist’s memories of Paris during the war, and so there I am again, back in Europe during the war.

Charlotte is a young widow, working in a bookstore to make ends meet. Her infant daughter, Vivi, is often with her. A German soldier is drawn to her, and she snubs him repeatedly, but when he brings food and milk for her starving child, she caves. When Vivi becomes sick, he smuggles in medication. Yes, this is one of those I-hate-you-but-I-love-you stories. This isn’t new; I’ve seen plenty of forbidden love stories, especially with regard to German soldiers. I’ve also seen plenty of love-hate romances.

But what strength I see in this one is in the grey areas. Is it all right to fraternize with the soldiers that are responsible for the deaths of loved ones, if those you’re befriended by can save other loved ones, particularly children? Is it all right to let someone think you’re Jewish, once the war is over, if that means they will save you? Is it acceptable to be Jewish, whether inobservant or otherwise, but pretend you are not, if it increases your odds of survival? What if that means taking other Jews prisoner, serving your enemy?

I’ve said this before in other reviews, and I’ll say it again here. It irritates the bejesus out of me, this World War II forbidden-romance storyline that is always, always, always between a Caucasian European, or Euro-American, and a German. Maybe someone has been wildly creative and included an Italian, but I haven’t seen it if they have. What do we never, never see? Ever? Never? (I could go on all night like this, and don’t provoke me or I’ll do it!) We never, ever see a WWII relationship between a Caucasian civilian from an Allied nation and a Japanese soldier. Or civilian. Or anything. It’s almost as if there’s a whispered subtext that insists, “It’s okay. After all, we’re both white, and that’s what really matters.” And authors that are far too progressive, too modern, too civilized to use any of the zillion ugly epithets that were common usage at the time by Allied service people and citizens toward Germans and Italians, nevertheless decide it’s somehow acceptably authentic to use the J word for Japanese. You know the one I mean. And Feldman is a serious offender here.

Because I was having trouble plodding through this story’s text, I visited Seattle Bibliocommons and borrowed the audio version. (Laurie Catherine Winkel does a fine job as the reader.)  I had listened to about seventy percent of this story when Charlotte has a conversation with her landlord, sponsor, etcetera about his own war experience, and boy does he pour it on. I think I must have found the J word on damn near every page, sometimes more than once. I nearly stopped reading, and I nearly gave this book a single star. I fast-forwarded a bit, and when the passage involving this veteran’s way-too-long speech ends, I don’t hear the word again, so I take a deep breath and forge onward to see how it ends.

The ending is bittersweet, and it’s not formulaic.

So there it is. This book is for sale now, but my advice is to either give it a miss, or read it for free or cheap. And if another forbidden WWII white-on-white romance turns up in my inbox, it’s going straight to my round file. Stick a fork in me, cause I am done.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel, by Ruth Hogan****

When I requested the galley for this book, I was taking a chance. I do love good historical fiction, but I seldom enjoy a cozy mystery, and this story is but a whisker away from being one. I was afraid the story might be cutesy instead of quirky, cloying instead of life affirming. And how delightful it is to be wrong! I received my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins. It’s for sale now.

The premise is that Tilda has returned to the town where she and her mother lived after her parents separated. She was an only child, and her mother is dead, and so it falls to Tilda to tie up the loose ends of her mother’s small estate. And at this point, my snark is already peeking its beady eyes out, saying Oh geez, another story that starts with an only child cleaning up the estate. Lots of those lately! And a mean mother? That’s got to be my number one eye-roller right now!  And I tell you these things, reader, because it underscores what a job Hogan had ahead of her in order to break down my resistance; and yet, she did.

The narrative is divided into two points of view which alternate. The first is young Tilly, the little girl that doesn’t understand what is happening between her parents, and is devastated when her father moves out. The second is the adult Tilda, whose capacity for trust in other people is limited.

The first part of the book is a hard read in places, because Tilly is in so much pain, and it feels drawn out, although one could argue that time passes more slowly when we are young. Tilly’s parents are always quarreling; then her daddy moves out, and Tilly, who was a daddy’s girl, takes out all of her hurt and rage on her mother. Her mother is brittle and not very stable, and she’s at wit’s end. First they move from the house where the family had lived to the hotel in the title; then, against her wishes, Tilly is sent off to boarding school. Tilly had loved living at the hotel and didn’t understand why she was exiled.

Tilda learns what her mother was thinking when she finds and reads the journals that her mother had left for her, and again, it’s not exactly an original device on the author’s part, but it’s done so well that it doesn’t matter. Tilda also finds one of her mother’s old friends, and she learns some things that way as well.  There are some genuine surprises that are also believable and fit the characters and setting. It’s artfully done.

As to the quirky bits, they are what makes the story unique and successful. For starters, Tilly (and Tilda) see ghosts, not just now and then, but in some cases regularly. Let’s take, for example, the little dog named Eli. Not everyone can see Eli; Tilly can, and some others can as well, but most cannot. And our suspicion that Eli is not a corporeal critter is affirmed by the fact that decades later, this woman still has exactly the same dog, and he is as spry as ever.

Then—and I have saved the best for last—there’s the child’s narrative. Tilly explains things to us in the language, and with the frame of reference, of a small child of six or seven years. She is a bright girl, but she’s a child, and so her explanations for things are often a bit twisted, and her conclusions are often far-fetched ones that are based on the limited amount that the girl understands. My favorite bits are the mondegreens, and there are many. (A mondegreen is the word or phrase that results from someone that hears words that aren’t in her vocabulary, and thus replaces them with words she does know; one well known example is the American Pledge of Allegiance, starting with “I led the pigeons to the flag.”) My favorite of Tilly’s mondegreens is when she attends church and sings “The Old Rubber Cross.” And the thing I love most about Tilly’s mondegreens is that Hogan doesn’t explain them or beat them to death; she drops them in and then moves on as if nothing unusual has occurred.

I started reading this book using the review copy provided me, but because I was running behind, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons when I was a short way in, and I alternated versions. I especially want to give a shout out to Jane Collingwood, who reads the audio version. I can think of no more challenging narration than that of a child. Collingwood had to sound like a little girl half the time, but nobody wants to hear an actor’s version of baby talk at all, and surely not for half of a novel, so she has to walk a very fine line, not sounding like an adult, but also not sounding inane. On top of that, she must also voice the adult version, sounding like the same child, except grown up.  It’s a tricky assignment and she carries it off perfectly; I tip my hat to her.

The ending is optimistic, yet credible. Those in need of a feel-good story—and there are an awful lot of us that do, right now—could do a whole lot worse. Recommended to those that enjoy quirky novels and historical fiction.

The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.

Africaville, by Jeffrey Colvin****

Narrated by Robin Miles

My thanks go to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy; after publication, I used an audio book to finish it, thanks to Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s available to the public now.

There are two reasons I was drawn to this story. The first is the setting, which is primarily in Nova Scotia’s Black community. I have never read or heard a story set there, and so I was intrigued. There’s also a Civil Rights Movement tie-in, and for me, that sealed the deal.

The book starts out as a rough read, involving dead babies and “bad luck” babies that weren’t dead but needed killing. I was so horrified that I had to restart the book several times to get past it. Now that I have, I can assure you that once you’re past the introduction, that’s it. The dead babies are done. I’m not sure I would have lead off with this aspect, because I’m probably not the only reader to pick the book up and put it down fast. In fact, had I not owed a review, I would not have returned to it. I’m glad I did.

The story itself is ambitious, covering three generations of a family there. At the outset we have Kath Ella, who has ambition, but also a mischievous streak. I find this character interesting, but there are times when I don’t understand her motivation. The story is told in the third person and not all of her thoughts are shared with us, and so there are times when I’m left scratching my head. When the end of the book arrives, I’m still wondering.

Kath’s son and grandson comprise the second and third parts of the story; apparently the term used back then for passing as Caucasian was called “crowing,” and we see some of that. There are too-brief passages involving the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow in the Southern U.S., and I am disappointed not to see more about this or have the characters involved more deeply. What I do see of it is the surface information that most readers will already know.

Toward the end there’s a subplot involving getting an elderly relative out of prison, and I like this aspect of it, in particular the dialogue with the old woman.

The setting is resonantly described throughout.

All told, this is a solid work and a fine debut. I look forward to seeing whatever else Colvin has to offer. As to format, although Miles does a lovely job reading, something of the triptych is necessarily lost when we don’t see the sections unfold. For those that can go either way, I recommend the print version.