That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

Heavy on the Dead, by G.M. Ford*****

Leo Waterman is one of my favorite detectives, but the opening of this twelfth entry finds him trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. In Soul Survivor, which precedes this one, Leo and his bodyguard, Gabe more or less destroyed a white supremacists’ compound in Idaho, and now they are both wanted men. They’ve traveled as far south as they can from their mossy, misty Seattle homeland without leaving the country, but even in Southern California, trouble follows them.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, and of course to author G.M. Ford, whose annual entries in this entertaining series have become one of the best parts of summer.

It’s a tricky thing, braiding dark social issues with humor, and Ford does it expertly. At the outset, Leo and Gabe find the body of a dead child on the beach. They are trying not to be noticed, but they can’t just leave him there. As the story progresses, cop Carolyn Saunders quietly encourages Leo to dig further into the incident, because the official story smells fishy; she can’t do it without risking her job, but Leo is retired, and as long as he can stay out of view of his would-be assassins, he can pretty much do as he likes. When the story concludes, the role of Saunders is left open. She may be back, or she may not. Her role here is to advocate that Leo stand on the side of justice but within sane limits; this is a role previously occupied by Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca. The real fun is had when Leo and Gabe team up, since neither one of them gives a single shit about their social standing or, when it comes down to it, their own personal safety.

As far as I know, the character of Gabe, a sidekick with loyalty, heart, and the tenacity of a pit bull, is the first gender-fluid character to show up regularly (okay, twice so far) in a long-running series. I love this character.

A longstanding hallmark of the Waterman series is the large yet sometimes invisible homeless population. This was true in 1995 when Ford published Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca, and that was before homelessness burgeoned and became a national issue. As far as I know, Ford is the first to feature homeless people in every book of the series; although his characters are often quirky and sometimes bizarre, they are ultimately human beings possessed of worth and dignity. I’ve believed every one of them, and so it’s no surprise that I believe the man with the barcode tattooed on his forehead, the one that bites Leo when he collides with him while running from cops. I like how this thread of the story resolves, too.

As the plot moves forward, we have assassins chasing the assassin that is chasing Leo, and it is simultaneously suspenseful and hilarious. This is important, because the crimes that are uncovered in pursuit of the truth about the dead child on the beach are dark indeed. In less skilled hands, the issue of human trafficking could well trip my ick-switch, that boundary line each of us possesses where the sordid but compelling central focus of a detective story suddenly becomes too sickening to be fun anymore; but the author’s less-is-more instinct is on point, and so once we touch that hot stovetop, we withdraw and move on to other things, circling back—briefly again—at its conclusion.

Anyone that reads the genre unceasingly across decades develops a mental list of overworked character and plot devices that we never care to see again; at the same time, a badass writer can take one of those elements and make it seem brand new and shiny. For me, the place where so many protagonists arrive, the one where they are knocked out, or drugged, or simply overpowered and tossed into the back of a truck (or van, or car) is one that can make me close a book. Nope; done.  But in this instance, the truck abduction is a critical component, and to try to carry off the climax and conclusion in any other way would be artificial and most likely hamper the pace. But to aspiring writers: Ford is an experienced professional; don’t try this in your book.

This book will be for sale July 23, 2019, and earlier entries in the series are selling digitally for a buck each. Get your plastic out now; you can thank me later. Highly recommended.

Alpha and Omega, by Harry Turtledove****

I greatly enjoyed We Install and Other Stories when it came out a few years ago, and so when Turtledove’s name came up again, I pounced on the chance to read and review Alpha and Omega. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

The Dome of the Rock, an ancient Islamic shrine, is about to be relocated so that the Jewish Third Temple may rise in its place. As the story commences, a rare, completely red heifer has been identified and will be used as a sacrifice for the occasion. Chaim, a youngster who has raised Rosie and regards her as a pet, is not entirely on board, but he is just one kid, and he has no authority at all.

Until he does.

Turtledove is a master writer of alternative history, which I confess isn’t my usual wheelhouse, but I do love me some old school science fiction now and then, and this book is that, too. A three-way conflict develops between the Orthodox Jews of Israel; the Muslim Grand Mufti—and the Islamic nations with which he is aligned—and the evangelical Christians of the American South, led by the Reverend Stark. Archaeologist Eric Katz, a secular Jew with no religious axe to grind, provides the reader with an objective, every-man perspective, accompanied by his girlfriend, Orly.

If I could change one thing about this story, I’d like to see a female character developed well outside of the traditional pigeonholes; journalist Gabriella almost gets there but doesn’t. However, this is an issue that’s endemic to the genre.

All told, the miracles that unfold within this witty tale are delightfully provocative; this is a story that will rocket to the top of the banned book list, and you’ll want to know why. I recommend it to fans of the genre.

Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder****

“All art is appropriation.”

Sue Ellen Wright is a professor of Greek classics; she’s headed for Greece to deliver lectures and reminisce about the experiences of her youth. At the last minute, her philandering husband Dean and the couple’s lovesick son Will decide to tag along. Grant Ginder has made a career of writing hilarious prose about disastrous families, and Honestly, We Meant Well made me laugh out loud more than once.  Thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The book opens as Sue Ellen is conferring with a freshman who’s come to her office to challenge his midterm exam score:

“’I’m pretty sure I got this one right.’

“Connor points to a picture on his midterm…it’s an artifact that he was meant to identify.

“’That’s not a bong, Connor. That’s a Corinthian urn from the fifth century B.C.E…’

“But can’t you see how it could have been a bong?’

“’No,’ Sue Ellen says, ‘Actually, I can’t.’”

Teachers, are you experiencing flashbacks here? And those of you that aren’t teachers can appreciate that Sue Ellen needs a break, one that takes her as far away as possible. Her bags are packed.

Dean is a professor as well, and he’s a celebrated one. As the writer of a bestselling novel, The Light of Our Shadows, he is permitted to cherry-pick which students may enroll in his seminars. He knows he ought not to have sex with any of them, but they’re so insistent; and why shouldn’t they be? He’s a genius. At the moment, though, he’s a genius with writer’s block, and he thinks a Grecian holiday might just be what he needs; it will strengthen his marriage and get his creative juices flowing as well.

Will is a student, but who can chart a course, academic or otherwise, when his heart has been shattered? His boyfriend broke up with him and has instantly turned up on Instagram with kissy-face photos of himself with his new squeeze. It’s humiliating. It’s horrifying. Worse: everyone is liking those photos. Meanwhile, he has committed an unforgivable academic sin, one he’s desperate to keep his parents from learning.

Ginny Polonsky works at the university, and she knows where the bodies are buried. Readers know what Ginny knows—well, most of it anyway—and as the family unknits itself and copes with one unforeseen event after another, we are waiting for Ginny’s other shoe to drop on them. It’s immensely satisfying when it does.

There’s not a lot of character development here, but not much is needed. I believe each of these characters, which are written with admirable consistency. The prose is tight and the resolution surprises me. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The Wrights are Caucasian and middle class, and this is the demographic most likely to enjoy this book. It’s just the thing to toss into your suitcase or carry on when you’re headed on a trip of your own.

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

Waisted, by Randy Susan Meyers*****

Randy Susan Meyers wrote The Murderer’s Daughters and The Widow of Wall Street. Her new novel, Waisted is a fiercely feminist story that skewers the weight loss industry and a society that “treats fat people like out-of-control horrors” and the war against women with its “intersectionality of misogyny, fat shaming, [and] faux health concerns.”  Thanks go to Atria and Net Galley for the review copy. You should read this book.

Alice married Clancy when she was “break-up skinny,” not knowing that he isn’t attracted to any woman that isn’t thin. Daphne is tormented by her 108 pound mother, whose toxic monitoring and obsession with Daphne’s eating have nearly driven her daughter over the edge.  Alice and Daphne meet at Privation,  a live-in weight loss program in rural Vermont. They and five other women sign on because they are promised rapid weight loss free of charge, with the caveat that they must agree to be filmed 24 hours a day for a documentary. The program is not only extreme; it is cruel and dangerous.

“Welcome to hell, ladies, where we recognize that life is unfair, and you pay the price for every action you take…You’ve eaten your way through pain, through loss, through happiness, and just for the plain pleasure of crunching calories between your teeth. Not one of you knows how to live with privation. So you landed here. The last stop.”

The women don’t know that there are no doctors here, or that they are part of a nasty experiment to see what women will tolerate in order to become thinner, even when it is obvious that such a program cannot be sustained. Each time one or another of them considers decamping, there’s a weigh-in that shows them to be even lighter than they were earlier in the week, and with dreams of a new, sleek, lovable body ever nearer realization, they persevere.

The readers that will relate to this story best are also the ones that will have a hard time getting through the first half of it. Meyers drives home so many uncomfortable truths that overweight women like me have trained ourselves not to think about most of the time because they are painful. Do it anyway. It’s high time someone wrote this book.

Apart from its very real underpinnings, the story is far-fetched and features an unlikely outcome, but that doesn’t matter. A more nuanced or realistic version would fail to deliver the message in as brilliant a fashion.

This is urgent, angry, and at times darkly funny prose. It will be available Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Highly recommended.

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, by Adrian McKinty*****

I listened to the audio version of this quirky, darkly funny mystery, set in Belfast. I only use audio books while I use my exercise bike. I hate exercise like grim death, and so my audio book is my incentive. My rule for myself is that it’s okay to stop cycling early, but if I do, I have to stop the book also. I never quit early while I was listening to this book.

The reader has a lovely Irish accent, and while I don’t know accents well enough to know whether it’s a Belfast accent, it certainly worked for me.

McKinty develops Sean Duffy in a way that is believable and sympathetic, and there are a couple of surprise twists that made me laugh out loud. I wonder whether McKinty made himself laugh while he was writing. It must have been immensely satisfying.

My thanks go to the Goodreads friends that persuaded me to try this book. I seldom dive into an unknown series this far in, but I had no trouble keeping up with it, and will certainly watch for future installments. I read enough mysteries that most of them have a sameness to them. This one doesn’t.

Highly recommended.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

The author of the renowned #1 Ladies Detective Agency books has begun a brand new series, and when I found a chance to get in on the ground floor, I hopped onto it. This one is the first in the Detective Varg series, and the author’s signature drollery is in full effect. Big thanks go to Edelweiss and Random House Pantheon for the review copy. It’s for sale now. 

Detective Varg works for the sensitive crimes unit of the Malmo police. The unit exists for the purpose of investigating cases that require research. The setting is one of mind numbing blandness; Martin, our investigator’s dog, is growing deaf, and Varg is teaching it to lip read. We read about skin problems, a dairy farm, aging bikers, and my eyes begin to glaze over. And then, eureka! A case! There’s been an assault in the market. Someone has entered the puppet theater and stabbed its proprietor in the back of the knee. Not only a crime, but a crime of violence! Everybody wakes up and roars into action. Varg and Anna, his partner, head for the scene of the crime; they could conduct their interviews at the station of course, but Anna needs to buy eggs anyway. 

The stabbing is the first of three stories, but each piggybacks on the last, so you should read them in order. Once the stabber has been caught, tried, and has tearfully confessed, we move onto a missing person’s case featuring an imaginary boyfriend that can’t be found anywhere, followed by other disappearances. Yes, things are hopping at the Department of Sensitive Crimes. 

Smith has a dry, sneaky sense of humor, so if you read this while you are partly thinking about something else, you’ll miss a lot of the funniest bits. This is what I appreciate most about this author. Some humor writers assume that the reader is as stupid as a sack of rocks, and they drop the joke, but they can’t leave it there, and so they drop it again and then explain it, and it ruins the whole thing. Smith is the opposite. He’ll include a remark that is almost offhand, and then there’s a beat of about three seconds where I start to read on, and then it hits me, and my eyes scroll back. Did he say…oh my god. That is hysterical. And so if you’re paying attention you’re in for a treat, and if you’re checked out, it’s your loss. 

This satirical series is off to a strong, vastly amusing start, and I rate it five giggles. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are right around the corner; could your parent use a laugh or two? Who knows. If you buy it for your parent, they might let you read it when they’re finished. Highly recommended. 

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Delicious! This book is straight-up fun. McMahon—a successful author, but new to me—takes an old school ghost story and drops it into a contemporary setting, while providing alternating glimpses of what happened in this same place long ago. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. You can get this book Tuesday, April 30, 2019, and I don’t know how you can stand the suspense until then.

Helen and Nate are ready for rural life. Using recently inherited funds, they purchase a chunk of land in Vermont, quit their jobs, sell their Connecticut condo, and head for the hinterlands. They will build their own house. They will get chickens and sell eggs on the side. They will grow their own food and be almost self-sufficient. Just smell that fresh air! Oh, aren’t they adorable.

Meanwhile, Olive, who has recently lost her mother and whose father is unraveling, is channeling Wednesday Addams, lurking in trees nearby and wishing these new people gone. “I banish you,” she says quietly. No one hears; well, nobody alive does anyway.

Nate and Helen are hurt and perplexed by the local residents’ reception. Why is everyone so surly? Why are they looking at them side-eyed all the time?  Turns out the locals don’t want them upsetting Hattie’s ghost. Everybody knows that Hattie is in the bog that is part of Helen and Nate’s land. The last owner, an elderly man that fled to Florida and won’t talk about it, apart from advising the new owners to get out of there also, saw some things. Not everyone does, though. Hattie chooses who will see her, hear from her. And Hattie isn’t happy.

At first, Nate and Helen are oblivious. Their belongings disappear, but that turns out to be Olive, whom they will befriend. But the more Helen learns about Hattie—who reveals herself to Helen and Olive both—the more distracted she is by her. Time and money that should be directed toward the house and improvements to the new property are instead spent on deep research, and on carrying out Hattie’s wishes. It becomes an obsession; first she procures a hunk of wood from the tree on which Hattie was hanged, thinking it will be perfect to frame the doorway she and Nate are building. Hey, who wouldn’t want something like that in their new home? Next, she finds old bricks from the mill where Hattie’s daughter died. And Nate can see this is just nuts, and he tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t let him in. She is lying to him now. But Nate has an obsession of his own: he keeps seeing an albino deer that visits him, and then leads him into the swamp.

A man could get lost in there. Nate wouldn’t be the first.  

Olive is on a mission of her own. She wants to find the treasure that Hattie buried somewhere near the bog. She is sure it is there, and it was a project that she and her mother worked on together. She secretly hopes that if she can find the treasure, her mother will come home to her.

The mystery of where Olive’s mama has gone segues in and out of the ghost story, and the plotting is deft and surefooted, never slowing, never inconsistent, and relentlessly absorbing. Helen is obsessed with Hattie; Nate is obsessed with the deer; Olive is obsessed with the treasure and her mama; and I am obsessed with this story.

The typical way for a book like this to end would be with the discovery that some sketchy character has somehow created all of the events that seem otherworldly in order to profit materially or achieve revenge. Although I am impressed with McMahon as we near the climax, part of me is expecting this. But this writer doesn’t use tired plot points or tired characters, and she sure as hell doesn’t end this tale in a way that is trite or expected. I guessed one aspect of the ending, but by the time I saw it coming, we were closing in on it, and I can’t help but believe the author means me to see it just before it’s revealed. And this is a hallmark of an excellent thriller: there aren’t brand new characters or plot points tossed in at the end that make it impossible for the reader to have guessed what’s going on. McMahon is a champ, and her respect for her readership is evident in the way she spins the climax and conclusion.

The book’s last paragraph is masterful.

Highly recommended to those that enjoy a classic, well turned ghost story. As for me, I’ll be watching for this author in the future, and….oh hey. Did you hear something just now?