Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

It’s the best of books, but it’s the worst of books. K-Ming Chang has made her mark on modern literature, and her debut novel, Bestiary, has already made a number of prestigious lists. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; sadly, its twisted edginess is too intense for me.

This much-buzzed-about book is for sale now.

How many triggers are packed into this one little book? All of them. Every trigger you can possibly think of, plus she may have made a few more up on the spot. There is violence a-plenty here, and the graphic child abuse and elder abuse provide such visceral imagery that I may never get it out of my head. I abandoned this book faster than just about any I can recall, and although I was certain it was the right thing to do for myself, I nevertheless experienced a twinge of regret along with it, because it is obvious from the first page that this author can write.

My gut hunch is that younger adult readers with cast-iron stomachs and level dispositions will be the most appreciative demographic for this one, but wimps like me will need to give it a pass. It is to the former that this book is recommended.

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 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.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

Firewatching, by Russ Thomas***

Firewatching is the first in the Adam Tyler detective series, and also the first novel written by Russ Thomas. It’s been praised by Lee Child, and published by Putnam Penguin, an auspicious sign. Thanks go to the publisher and Net Galley for the review copy.

All of the right elements are here for a rip roaringly great tale, but the execution fell short. When I found myself drifting off while reading the digital review copy, I went to Seattle Bibliocommons and checked out the audio book. Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to all of it, either. I kept with it to the 45 percent mark; skipped to 75 percent in hopes there would be something tantalizing that would reel me back in; and when that didn’t work out, I listened to snippets from there to the end.

Here’s what I like. Conceptually, it sounds promising. Tales of crazed arsonists are generally irresistible, and there haven’t been a lot of them published lately. Fiction writing is as prone to fad and whim as is anything else, as any reviewer can see. This story steers clear of dead, sick, or disabled siblings; Paris; alternate past and present narratives, and struggling alcoholic detectives. Detective Tyler resists his boss’s impulse toward stereotypes. There are two elderly women side characters, one of whom struggles with dementia, and Tyler is told that old women in small towns always love gossip; he refers to them often as “the old dears.” I know I am not the only Boomer that wants to smack that obnoxious character, and so Tyler endears himself to me by not going there. And actually, I like the two older women in this story a great deal. I also like the brief—maybe too brief—passages where we are inside the head of the firebug.

But alas, the story’s protagonist isn’t the arsonist, and it isn’t either of the elderly women. It’s Tyler, and Tyler just bores the snot out of me. I want him to just do something. I don’t need to know what he is wearing, what he is thinking, what he is feeling, wearing, feeling some more, thinking….

During my teaching career, I recall one impatient girl that was sent home for a few days because of her tendency to walk up to a teacher that was standing in her way—tutoring, or speaking to another student—and barking at him, “MOVE!” And I found myself channeling this student as I read and/or listened to this story. I don’t care about your damn wardrobe, Tyler, just move! Move it! Do something, for the love of…

Fine. Whatever.

A possible silver lining occurs to me, and that is that with this first in a series, all of the personal details of wardrobe and emotion may be emphasized in order to introduce the protagonist, and perhaps with the second in the series, the pace will pick up and we’ll be on our way. I surely hope so.

But for now, I can only write about what I know, and I know it would be wrong of me to urge you to purchase this book at full jacket price. If you’re going to read it, get it cheap or free, because most of the joy I see here is in potential, and future maybe-joy makes a thin soup indeed.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg***

Ortberg wrote The Merry Spinster, a work of dark humor that convinced me that he is a genius. This book is a lot different, although at times the same voice peeks through. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Many of the essays in this book are recycled from Ortberg’s blog, but since I never saw the blog, all of it is new to me. The essays describe his experience as a trans man, and though it is funny in places, most of the pieces ooze pain and bitterness. And to be fair, a trans man brought up female in an evangelical Christian home, taught to consider the Rapture in every choice made, every road followed, is bound to have these things in spades. However, there is a good deal of redundancy here. After awhile I found my attention wandering, and by thirty percent of the way in, I was watching the page numbers crawl by. How much longer…?

Some of the chapter titles are full of promise, but then the chapter itself disappoints. What, this again? I did enjoy the passage on parallel parking, and the chapter on Columbo (the only man Ortberg has ever loved) cracked me up.

I have rated this title three stars for general audiences, but I suspect that for those transitioning to manhood, or for those close to someone doing so, the rating will be higher.

Recommended to those transitioning, considering transitioning, and their loved ones.

The Museum of Desire, by Jonathan Kellerman****

I’ve been reading the Alex Delaware mysteries since Kellerman wrote the first in the 1980s; The Museum of Desire is the 35th installment in a successful, long-running series. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Kellerman was a child psychologist before he became an author and he brings his knowledge of children and families when he creates characters and situations. This is a reliably strong mystery series and I always smile when Alex’s BFF, Detective Milo Sturgis, barrels into Alex’s kitchen and starts eating his food. I feel as if I am receiving a visit from an old friend also.

The premise here is more shocking than most, and I find myself a bit squeamish when reading it. In reviewing the others he’s written, however, I can see that this isn’t a lot more extreme than usual, and so I conclude that perhaps I am more sensitive than I used to be. Those with doubts should read the promotional blurb carefully before making a purchase.

That said, the dialogue here is first rate, and pacing is brisk, as always.  Kellerman maintains credulity deftly by avoiding having Delaware tote a gun or tackle bad guys. In real life a kiddy shrink would be in his office, in the police station, or in court, period. But that’s dull stuff, and so the author has to strike a balance, creating fictional situations that don’t strain the reader’s ability to believe. He doesn’t wear a Kevlar vest or carry out other tasks that are clearly the work of on-duty cops; he provides his professional insights and does some extracurricular research, but the latter is the sort that a semi-retired professional might choose to do for a good friend. I had no trouble engaging with the story.

If I could change one thing, I would include more of the affluent, troubled teenager. Crispin is an interesting kid, but he pops in and out of the story in two very brief spots. Kellerman’s strongest suit is developing abnormal child characters, and I think this story would be more compelling if it had more of this bizarro kid in it.

One way or another, this is a solid entry in an already solid series, and I recommend it to you.

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

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

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves***-****

This mystery opens a brand new series by Ann Cleeves. I haven’t read this author before, but when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review, I hopped on board. This book is for sale now.

Detective Matthew Venn is called upon to investigate the murder of a man found on the beach. His queries force him to return to the strict evangelical Christian community in which he was raised. The Brethren cast him out because he is gay, and so returning in a professional capacity brings back all sorts of memories and feelings.

The last person to see the victim prior to his death may have been 30-year-old Lucy, a woman with Downs Syndrome. This character is engaging as is her adoring father. Lucy rode the bus to The Woodshop each day with this man, and this produces some consternation when her father learns of it. As a mother, I can appreciate his concern.

This is a solidly constructed mystery fashioned by a pro, and yet for some reason I had difficulty engaging with the protagonist. I’m rounding my rating up to 4 stars because I have a hunch that if I had read the printed galley provided me, I might have understood it better and therefore might have found it more interesting. I fell behind in my reading and reviewing over the summer and obtained audio books of a few titles whose publication dates had passed, figuring to catch up. It took me a long time to figure out that The Woodyard was actually not a lumberyard or hardware store, and so some of the plot left me scratching my head. If I’d read with my eyes instead of my ears, I might have caught on sooner. Once I figured out all the pieces, I could follow what was happening and recognized the red herrings as they passed by. The ending was reasonable and the whodunit surprised me.

This is a decent work of crime fiction and I recommend it to the author’s faithful readers.

Right After the Weather, by Carol Anshaw****

Carol Anshaw has written a good deal of fiction, but this is the first time I have read her work. Right After the Weather turned up on Net Galley when I ran a search for humor; thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy.  This book will be available to the public October 1, 2019.

Cate is a set designer working in Chicago. She’s divorced and looking for the right woman to settle down with. She’s in her early forties, and the clock keeps ticking; Dana is the one she wants, but she wants to be more than Dana’s woman-on-the-side, and Dana isn’t leaving her girlfriend for Cate. Cate meets Maureen who is actually fairly awful, but Maureen makes her life easier and wants her desperately, and so she is trying to persuade herself that Maureen is the woman she wants. Meanwhile her ex-husband, a nice guy that she dumped when she came out, is camped out in her apartment. All of these things make it hard for Cate to move forward.  Her role model is her best friend Neale, a single mother that lives nearby, but all hell is about to break lose at Neale’s place.

Alternately with Cate’s narrative, we have infrequent but unsettling blurbs from a different point of view.  Nathan and Irene are addicts, “casual sociopaths.”  Every now and then there’s a page or two– distinguished by a different font—that articulates their priorities and plans, such as they are.  Anshaw is clever as hell, planting these tiny landmines that let us know that at some point, Cate and our criminals’ lives will intersect; at the same time, when it comes to people like this, less is more, and so they pop into the story just long enough to leave me feeling a little jarred, and then it’s such a relief to return to Cate’s story that I immediately forget about these other guys. The author plays fairly in letting us know that something is coming, but it takes awhile before I start anticipating what their role in this story will be. It’s so much easier to not think about them.

There’s some very uncomfortable material about Maureen about ten percent of the way into the story, and if I hadn’t had a review copy I might have stopped reading. However, that business gets put into context right away, and the rest of the story, though edgy, isn’t in that same out-of-bounds zone. Instead, Anshaw makes me laugh out loud several times with her dry humor and the perception that goes with it; in particular the scene with Cate’s mother is uproariously funny. I am ordinarily not pleased by bad-mother humor because it’s becoming a cliché, but when Anshaw goes there, she outclasses others and there’s no putting this book down.

I would read this author again in a heartbeat.