Let’s Not Do That Again, by Grant Ginder*****

“Justice always comes first.”

Grant Ginder is one of the funniest writers alive. I read and reviewed Honestly, We Meant Well when it came out in 2019, and I knew then that I’d read whatever he wrote from that time on. Is Let’s Not Do That Again as funny? No, friend, it’s even funnier.

My thanks go to Net Galley, MacMillan audio, and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

Nancy Harriman is running for Senate in New York City, with the assistance of her loyal son, Nick, and hindrance from her rebellious daughter, Greta. She’s focused; she’s determined. And that’s a good thing, because her daughter is focused on ruining Nancy’s life.

Parents don’t always know what their children get up to online; this is doubly true when there’s only one parent, and she’s busy running for the public office her late husband used to hold. And so Nancy doesn’t know that Greta is in league with the devil, till Greta has obtained an ungodly sum of travel money from her grandmother, and has flown to Paris to be with him.

With Greta is Paris, one thing leads to another and in a breathtakingly short amount of time, the wicked little Frenchman has manipulated her into causing destruction on a level that makes international news. Nick, the good son, is sent across the Atlantic to retrieve his sister, who appears penitent, but isn’t.

From there things spiral further out of control, and it’s hard to imagine just how this story will play out, but when I see where Ginder takes it, I bow in awe.

I am fortunate enough to have received both the digital and audio versions of this delightful spoof. Susannah Jones is such a skilled narrator that at times, I forget that there’s only one person telling the story. On the other hand, there’s some creative, very funny spelling peppered into the narrative that you’ll miss out on if you don’t see the text. All told, I’d say it’s a toss-up. Go with whichever mode makes you happiest.

Highly recommended, especially if you lean a little to the left.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, by Sarah Bird***

I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Bird’s historical fiction since I read Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, which was published in 2018. When I saw that she had a new book coming out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to start reading it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and McMillan Audio for the recording. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Evie Devlin; the setting is in Texas during the Great Depression. This is a time before government relief exists. Jobs for capable men are scarce, and for women, nearly nonexistent. Evie’s father is dead, and her mother has let her know that she won’t support her efforts to become a nurse. When hard work and determination land her a scholarship, Evie is over the moon, and she makes her way to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Galveston. The director is not happy to see her; she disapproves of scholarship girls in general—a low class of girls, she believes—and in particular, a Protestant one! What is this world coming to? However, Sofia Amadeo likes Evie, and she wants her admitted, and since the Amadeo family’s money and power drive absolutely everything in Galveston, the director is forced to let Evie in. She and Sofie become roommates first, and then the closest of friends.

We follow Evie through nursing school, but on graduation day, she hits a snag and is sent away without her pin, which is the equivalent of a license to practice. Now homeless and nearly penniless, Evie is adrift, until she learns about the dance-a-thons that feature cash prizes. She was forced to dance for money as a small child and doesn’t care to do so again, but when she sees what passes for a nurse in the show—basically someone off the street recruited to play the role of nurse, but with no training of any kind—she persuades the manager to hire her instead. From there, romance and all sorts of other entanglements and complications ensue.

For roughly the first eighty percent of the book, I am enthralled. The plot is fascinating, the historical accuracy commendable. Soon this becomes my favorite galley. And this is why I feel such a colossal sense of disappointment, almost a sense of betrayal, in fact, when the ending is cobbled together with feel-good revisionism and wishful thinking. Without going into spoilerish detail, a member of an oppressed minority becomes Evie’s focus, and suddenly we roam so far from the historical truth that we never find our way back again. And make no mistake: the actual truth is ugly. But if you’re going to write in the kitchen, you have to be able to bear the heat. Or, something like that.

Sarah Bird is a badass writer. Just reading her figurative language alone gives me joy, and I am hoping fervently that this bizarre departure is an anomaly. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

As for the audio, Cassandra Campbell does a serviceable job, though the Italian accent sounds a bit like Dracula. This is a common issue, I find, and so I’m not terribly concerned about this aspect. Everything else she does is right on point. If you are going to read this book—which, sadly, I cannot recommend—I’d say it’s a toss up as to audio versus print. Go with whatever you’re most comfortable with, but do it free or cheap if you decide to acquire it.

Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.

Home Stretch, by Graham Norton***-****

3.5 stars, rounded down.

Home Stretch is Graham Norton’s third novel, and because I absolutely loved his first, Holding, and his second, A Keeper, I expected great things from this one. It’s not a bad book, but it didn’t delight me the way the first two did.

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

We start with a tragic accident, and our protagonist, Connor, is unhurt, but three of his friends are killed, and Connor is blamed by everyone, including his family. It’s a small town, so trying to keep his head up and avoid people that dislike him is impossible.

His family feels the same, and so he is abruptly packed off to Liverpool, and from there to bigger and in many ways, better places. And in many ways this is a favorable development, as he is no longer forced to hide his sexuality; and yet, it’s a tough thing to live a life that’s separate from your family, one that you know would horrify them.

The story is set in the 1980s, the era of the AIDS epidemic. This reviewer lost friends to it during that time; a lot of people did. Norton does a serviceable job with setting, and with character too; and yet, this book lacks the spark of his earlier two novels. The pacing is not as brisk, and the surprising bursts of humor that made me laugh out loud never materialized here. At times it felt like work to read it, and I wonder if he found as much joy in writing it.

I still believe in Norton as a novelist; everybody has a “meh” moment now and then. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

The Guncle, by Steven Rowley*****

How do you spell instant parenthood? It’s the last thing GUP—the appellation bestowed on Gay Uncle Patrick—expected, and the transition is hilariously rocky. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Patrick’s whole life appears to be on hold. He was on television for a good long while, and so both fame and fortune are his. He doesn’t actually have to do anything, and since the demise of his beloved partner, he hasn’t wanted to. Then one of his closest friends, Sarah, who had been his college roommate, dies, and everything changes.

Grant and Maisie, Sarah’s children, are six and nine years old respectively. When the memorial service concludes, Patrick is blindsided by Joe, Sarah’s husband. While she was on her deathbed, she made Joe promise that when she was gone, he’d go into rehab—but of course, someone has to take the children. Joe wants that someone to be Patrick.

The humor is ribald at times, but never over-the-top. Patrick knows nothing about children. Nothing! In a daze, he returns home with his charges in tow, and he has to learn on the job. Maisie is at a somewhat bossy age and is only too happy to tell him what to do and how to do it, and oh is it fun to watch. As the fog lifts, Patrick begins making small changes to create a more child-friendly space, but mostly, he embraces his unconventional situation. There’s a Christmas celebration in the middle of summer; there’s a party. And as he steps up to his new role, he realizes that he should return to work; he has heirs now, after all.

Aunt Clara arrives, and she demands the children return with her. She knows how to do this. She frowns on nearly every aspect of Patrick’s life. But Patrick is amazed to realize he is willing to fight to hang onto them.

Some may be surprised to find a book like this earning a five star rating; it’s not serious literature. It’s fun; it’s fluffy. But this reviewer rates each book on its excellence compared to others of its genre. As a humorous novel, it shines. As a feel-good book, it’s terrific. As beach reads go, what can be better?

Perhaps it’s indicative of Rowley’s skill that I have found myself writing review notes in his voice. This doesn’t happen often. But as for you? You should get this book and read it, because all of us need a mood elevator, and in that respect, it’s a bargain. Highly recommended!

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.

The Recent East, by Thomas Grattan*****

The Recent East introduces novelist Thomas Grattan, and it’s an impressive debut. It follows a family of German-Americans from 1965, when the eldest emigrates from East Germany with her parents, to the present. I initially decide to read it because of the setting; it’s the first fiction I’ve read set in the former Soviet satellite country. However, it is the characters that keep me engaged to the last page.

My thanks go to Net Galley and McMillan for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The story opens in 1965 as Beate and her parents are defecting:

Everyone talked about the West as if it were a secret. They leaned in to share stories of its grocery stores that carried fresh oranges, its cars with bult-in radios. Covered their mouths to mention a Dusseldorf boulevard that catered to movie stars and dictators, whole Eastern month’s salaries spent on face cream. There were entire, whispered conversations about its large houses and overstuffed stores, its borders crossed with a smile and a flick of one’s passport. Some talked about it as if it were the most boring thing. Others like it was an uppity friend. But everyone talked about it…

The first chapter makes me laugh out loud. Teenage Beate is mocked when she enrolls in school in Cologne, because her clothing is nowhere near as nice as what the kids in West Germany wear. Since her parents cannot afford to upgrade her wardrobe just yet, Beate comes up with the genius idea to alter the clothes she owns to make them look as Soviet as possible, and she “put on her Moscow face, worked on her Leningrad walk.” Sure enough, the kids at school are terrified of her now. She still doesn’t have friends, but she isn’t bullied anymore.

Morph forward in time. Beate is a mother now, living in upstate New York with her two adolescent children and unhappy husband. When the Berlin Wall falls, so does her marriage. Soon afterward, she is notified that her late parents’ house now belongs to her. She packs up her belongings and her children, then buys tickets to Germany.

Adela and Michael have always been close, but the move shakes their relationship. Their usual routines are shattered, and their mother, reeling from the divorce, becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. What a terrible time to disengage from parenting! Both Michael and Adela roam the city of Kritzhagen at will, at all hours of the night. Michael is just 13 years old and gay; sometimes he doesn’t come home at all at night. I read these passages, written without obvious judgment or commentary, with horror. A new house, new city, new country, new continent, and it’s now that their mother forgets to set boundaries? I want to find this woman and slap her upside the head (though I guess that’s a different sort of boundary violation.) Half the houses in town stand empty, and since they have no furniture of their own and their mother is doing nothing to acquire it, Michael breaks into houses and steals furnishings. Look, Ma, I found us some chairs.

My jaw drops.

Adela goes in the other direction, becoming a conscientious student and social justice advocate. But their mother pays her no attention, either.

For the first half of this story, it seems like a four star novel to me; well written, competent, but nothing to merit great accolades. This changes in the second half, because all three of these characters are dynamic, and the changes in them are absolutely believable and deeply absorbing.

I have friends that do social work, and what they have told me is this: children that are forced to become the adults in the family, taking on responsibilities they’re too young for when a parent abdicates them, often appear to miraculously mature, competent beyond their years. Everything is organized. They may do the jobs as well as any adult, and sometimes better than most. How wonderful!

But because they aren’t developmentally ready for these things yet, what happens is that later, when they are grown, they fall apart and become breathtakingly immature, because they have to go back and live their adolescent years that were stolen from them. (As a teacher, I saw this in action a couple of times.)  And so I am awestruck by how consistently our Grattan’s characters follow this pattern.

As the second half progresses, I make a couple of predictions, one of which is sort of formulaic, but Grattan does other things, and they’re far better than what I’d guessed. We follow these characters for several decades, and at the end, we see the relationship that blooms between Beate and her grandson. When it’s over, I miss them.

Because Michael is gay and is one of our three protagonists, this novel is easily slotted into the LGTB genre, but it is much more than this. Instead, one should regard it as a well-written story in which one character is gay.

But whatever you choose to call this book, you should get it and read it if you love excellent fiction.

The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, by Pamela Terry*****

Pamela Terry’s debut novel, The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, had me at hello. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. You can buy it now.

Lila Bruce Breedlove (I even love the characters’ names) hasn’t gone home to Georgia in a good long while, and it’s not accidental, either. Her home in Maine with her dogs and fond memories of her late husband are the furthest thing from her mama’s censorious gaze and the smallminded thinking of the people of Wesleyan, Georgia. But now Mama has been found facedown in the Muscadine arbor, and Lila knows there’s nothing else to do. She packs her bag, gets a friend to look after the dogs, and buys a ticket. Her brother Henry, who has also made a permanent home up north, does the same, but he advises his life partner, Andrew, to stay put. Their sister, Abigail, is the lone family member that didn’t flee. She and Mama were best friends, as they told everyone  constantly, including Lila and Henry. Still,  duty calls. It wouldn’t be fair to leave Abigail to do this on her own.

The whole story is told by Lila in the first person limited. I find this refreshing. The tone is intimate, confidential at times, and downright conspiratorial at others. Lila lets us know that “Growing up in the South is not for the faint of heart…When you’re the slightest bit different, you stand out like a monkey in a chorus line.”

Before they’ve even touched down, Lila and Henry have questions. For example, why was Mama in the Muscadines at all? The arbor is nowhere near the house, and she never chose to visit it when she was a younger woman. It had been Lila’s special place. Once they arrive in Georgia, they confront more questions, and though not all of them are answered, a plethora of surprises greet them, some of them hilarious, others shocking. Lila tells us that

Secrets are spilled at southern funerals. Death, particularly when its inevitability has been ignored for generations, possesses a power to snap diffidence and dignity right in two, causing those left behind to be overcome with the need to unburden their consciences before they themselves are found sleeping in a slick, shiny coffin in their best Sunday suit.

The first surprise, it turns out, is that Geneva Bruce left an advance directive specifying no funeral at all upon her demise, which she had known to be imminent. For the widow of a Southern Baptist Georgia preacher to bail from her own funeral is unheard of! However, the lack of a proper funeral does not, cannot prevent family secrets from unspooling, and some of them are bombshells, too.

Terry is a gifted wordsmith, and her figurative language is original and at times, drop dead funny. The pacing never flags, and the transitions that take us from raucous levity, to bittersweet reflection, to aching sorrow, and then back again are buttery smooth. It was like hearing from my best friend. I generally read several books at a time, but this one proved to be the one I read when I would not be interrupted, and I was sorry to see it end.

It was only at about the eighty percent mark that I realized that one of my least favorite elements was included here, that of the Bad Mama. This is a trend right now, and I’m ready to be done with it. Novelists far and wide have enjoyed crafting stories centered around unworthy mothers, and when I see one coming in advance, I consider it a deal-breaker. But almost any device, character, or plot point can be forgiven when a novel is of exceptional quality, and that is what I see here.

Highly recommended.

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.