Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi**

Ah geez. I had such hopes for this one, but in the end I was relieved when I finished it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio book that helped me push through to the end.

Conceptually, it sounds like a winner. (And to be fair, it did win the National Book Award.) Students enrolled in a citywide magnet school live in a cloistered bubble, isolated from the city—and the world—around them. The time is the 1980s. The drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, has an oversized role and influence in their lives, not only academically but emotionally. Boundaries, not so much. And when Sarah and David fall for each other, and then un-fall, Mr. Kingsley serves as a sort of puppet master, telling them what to do. The same applies to friendships turned sour.

The premise is believable. This reviewer recalls a respected public school with a strong performing arts program that operated in real life in the late 1970s. Some of the teachers didn’t seem to know about boundaries, and the students—of which I was one—never complained, because it made us feel like respected adults. A student and teacher had an affair while I was there, and they married after she graduated. They remain so. And so when I saw the teaser for this book, I was ready to jump right in, because it spoke to me.

Sadly, it stopped speaking to me by the twenty-five percent mark. I tried restarting a couple of times, but I hit a wall. Finally, determined not to miss out on an award-winning novel, I ordered the audio version from the library and listened to it while I sewed my family’s first set of COVID masks. Both were grim tasks.

While there must be art present here for Choi to win such a prestigious award, the plot is convoluted and difficult to follow, and the characters, which are the heart and soul of this novel, never come alive. In the last half it becomes clear that we’ve had an unreliable narrator all along, but if anything, it makes the story muddier.

This might be a one star read for me, but I still say the premise is meaty, and for that I tack on the second star.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book.  

The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for this much-buzzed-about novel, and I am sorry it took me so long to plow through it. Haddon is a gifted writer and it shows, yet for me, this one was more pain than gain; I read part of my galley and then, after publication, received an audio version via Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s for sale now.

Our protagonist is Angelica, the only child of the extremely wealthy Phillipe.  Her mother, Maya, dies in a plane crash and her father, wild with grief, withdraws from the world. He substitutes Angelica for Maya, sexually molesting her from a very young age; he is magnanimous enough not to “penetrate” her until she is fourteen. What a champ. When she is an adolescent, a handsome young visitor tries to liberate her, but Phillipe makes short work of him.

The story is modeled upon a Greek myth, and a second story is told alternately with Angelica’s, rendering a complex story more so. The prose is beautifully rendered, and I think if I were a student tasked with writing an essay involving allegory in a novel written in the twenty-first century, I might have enjoyed using this one. However, as a popular read it is both largely unpleasant and a great deal of work. The one passage that I found deeply satisfying was around the halfway mark, and it involved the revenge of rape victims.

Those looking for skillfully written literary fiction will likely appreciate the artistry Haddon unspools, but I didn’t find a lot of pleasure in reading it.

Marley, by Jon Clinch**-***

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy of Marley, a retelling of the Dickens classic told from a different point of view. This book is for sale now.

This work of historical fiction took off with a bang, and then fizzled.

I have not read any of Clinch’s earlier work, and at the outset of this novel, I am electrified by his prose. I love a good word smith, and Clinch’s facility with figurative language is impressive as hell. I was ready for a good Christmas book, and the October release date was right on the money. I snuggled beneath my favorite fleece blanket and immersed myself, savoring the clever phrasing and rereading parts of it before moving on.

There are two aspects of this work that hold it back; one is a quibble, but one worth mentioning, and the other is more significant. The quibble is that so much of the story isn’t about Marley. We know about Scrooge. If the author wants to write about Scrooge from a different angle, then the book’s title should reflect it. Instead, Marley’s effort at winning Scrooge’s sister Fan pulls us back into the Scrooge family, and there we stay for long stretches of the book. I echo other reviewers in asking, “But what about Marley?”

My larger objection, one that took awhile to gel as I read and ultimately prevents my recommending this book, is that the entire premise, the sacred message imparted by Dickens, is ground beneath Clinch’s authorly heel as he reframes Marley as a forger, smuggler, and criminal of the highest order. Dickens, in writing the original story, took pains to demonstrate that it is possible to be a “sound man of business,” to function entirely within the letter of the law, and still be morally bankrupt. A Christmas Carol was written to let readers know that those that succeed in legally building fortunes may nevertheless be damned if they are unwilling to extend themselves, whether through private charity or humane governmental programs. Scrooge made a point of telling his nephew that he pays his taxes, after all, and that’s the end of it.

In painting Marley as a man that brings money into the partnership through a multitude of illegal practices, Clinch not only ignores Dickens’s timeless moral and social message, but torches it, leaving only so much ash and cinder.

The chains that bind Marley in the afterlife reflect the chains of human bondage in his corporal one, as he invests the assets of Scrooge and Marley in slave ships, is a lovely literary device. I wish the author had found a way to use it without laying waste to the heart and soul of a timeless classic whose message is needed more today than ever.

Not recommended.

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger*****

“God is a tornado.”

Odie and Albert are orphans, the only two Caucasian children at the hellish Lincoln School in Minnesota, which is primarily a boarding school for American Indian children. The year is 1932, and the Depression is in full swing. As things unravel, the two brothers sneak away, together with a mute Indian friend and a small girl whose parents have recently perished during a storm; the odyssey on which they embark raises questions for all of them about what they believe about themselves and the natures of God and man. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is the first of this author’s work that I have seen, and it’s clear that he is one gifted individual. At the same time, however, this is not easy to read. The first fifteen to twenty percent is brutal. There are triggers all over the place including sexual assault, child abuse, and both put together. I read only a few pages at a time because more would have wrecked my head, and I never let it be the last printed material my eyes saw before bed. Those that soldier through the beginning can be assured that the worst is over, although there are many other passages in which Odie, Albert and friends are tried severely. For me, though, it was worth it.

The get-away trip takes them down the mighty rivers of the North American interior. There’s a lot of rich historical detail along the way, and it will be especially interesting for those unaware of the culture that existed before anyone in America had food stamps, or subsidized housing, or a social worker, or compulsory education.  There was no safety net of any kind; people existed at each other’s mercy. The travelers meet all sorts of interesting people, but when others get too close or ask too many questions, they leave rather than be identified. Albert points out that others are often untrustworthy, and that those we love are often taken from us; he says that if God is a shepherd, He must be the sort that eats his flock. But a man that hires them to do farm labor says that God is in the land, the air, the trees, and in each person.

Ultimately the journey is a search for home, for family, and for a role in the world. The original destination is St. Louis, Missouri, where Odie and Albert’s families live, but as they make their way toward it, they find out that there is more than one kind of family, and more than one kind of home.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and have robust literacy skills.

2019 Best Book by a Pacific Northwest Author: Old Newgate Road, by Keith Scribner

Scribner held me in thrall with this one. I’m surprised it hasn’t turned up on more lists. This is the first of 20 best-of posts for this year; to keep track, check the Best Books page listed on my header.

Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky***

It was the best of books; it was the worst of books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Chbosky met fame twenty years ago with The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower. He takes a bold step—and I would still argue, a good one—in switching genres with Imaginary Friend. The whole thing is written in accessible language and mostly short, simple sentences with the overall effect of the world’s creepiest bedtime story. At first I wasn’t sure I was down for 720 pages of simple sentences, but he makes it work. I like the horror of it, and I like the voice too. And so when I saw the mixed reviews, I was preparing my heated defense of this work before I was even halfway in. And halfway, sadly, it where the thing begins to weaken.

The premise is that seven year old Christopher is learning disabled, but his mother urges him to keep trying. Nothing much works until the day he is lost in The Mission Street Woods. He is called by a friendly face in the clouds; once he is there, he is incapacitated and held for six days. When it’s over, The Nice Man leads him out. He goes home; the perpetrator is never identified because Christopher recalls none of the six days nor who took him. But suddenly he is the world’s cleverest kid. His grades rise, and he graduates from the special classroom. Later in the story, he is called again to build the tree house to end all tree houses; he must do it furtively at night, because he is no longer allowed in those woods, and naturally that’s where the project unfolds.

This aspect of it is very cleverly conceived and executed. Christopher does all manner of things that no seven year old child, however advanced intellectually, would be able to do but it is plain to us that this is part of the supernatural effect that is part and parcel of The Nice Man and that face in the clouds. Likewise, there are many areas where he infers adult meanings and feelings, but we know that these are also supernaturally bestowed. Meanwhile, he is in most ways the way one would expect a child his age to be. As his friends—the twins and Special Ed—are drawn into the project, they too become capable students with unusual talents. But as to the tree house, that’s a big damn secret. Parents and the public are not in the loop for a long, long time.

As the story unfolds we have numerous subplots and several characters that have significant roles here. They are largely bound together by the children’s school, although we also have the sheriff and a handful of people from the nursing home where Christopher’s mother, Kate works. I have no difficulty keeping up with this large cast of characters, and Chbosky deserves kudos for creating so many distinct characters that stay consistent throughout the story. We see the ways that people become warped, often by the disappointments that life has meted out, and sometimes by mistaken goals, particularly where the children are concerned. I liked this a good deal too. We see a great deal of kickass figurative language, although I would have preferred to see a lighter hand with regard to the repetition. At first when the song “Blue Moon” is used, it gives me chills, but by the end of the story, whenever music enters a scene I find myself grumbling, “Oh let me guess. I bet I know what song is playing.” (The MAD Magazine of the 1970s would have had a field day with this book.)

A number of other reviewers have suggested that the second half of the story could do with some serious editing down, and I echo their concern. It would be stronger if it were tighter. But there are two other more serious concerns that dropped my rating from four stars to three. They have to do with mixed genre, and with Chbosky’s depiction of women and girls.

It is a brave thing to combine horror and literary fiction, but there is such a thing as trying too hard. The last twenty-five or thirty percent of this story becomes tortuous, confusing and overlong with the heavy use of allegory along religious lines. There are multiple places where the plot just doesn’t make sense at all, but because the author is determined to provide us with a virgin birth, stigmata in multiple characters (what?), sacrifice and redemption and yada yada yada, what has been a good horror story becomes a little ridiculous and a lot pretentious. It’s a crying shame. Had the author let the horror story be a horror story, or had he been satisfied with a more subtle level of allegory rather than the screaming-red-flags variety that is shoehorned in here, this would have been a much better book.

The other aspect , the one that made my feminist heart simmer is the way that women are depicted here. We have several important female characters, and none of them is developed in even the tiniest way beyond their relationship to men and their capacity to be nurturers. Our greatest female hero is Kate, mother of Christopher, and I have not seen as two-dimensional a character in many a year. The only thing that matters is her child. The only. The only. Gag me with a stick, already.  And had the author been content to have a horror story that is just a horror story I would cut him a little slack, because most horror stories do not have brilliantly developed characters. Even so it’s ham-handed, but I might have been tempted to call this a 3.5 star read and round it upward. But this is the most reactionary treatment of women—the girlfriend that feels filthy because she rendered oral sex; the women coming unstuck because of husbandly inattention; the stereotypical mean-old-broad at the nursing home—that I have seen in decades. It’s appalling, and it bothers me that other reviewers haven’t mentioned this at all. What the hell, guys?  And with literary fiction, a responsibility for nuance and character development is conferred in a way that horror novels do not require.

In other words, don’t talk the talk unless you’re gonna walk the walk.

Should you buy this book? Probably not, unless your pockets are deep and you have a good deal of free time. For the curious, I recommend getting it cheap or free. But if you are going to read it, read it critically, and don’t hand it off to your middle-schooler until you have read it yourself.

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry*

I have never in my life dropped a galley so quickly. Thanks still go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, but I couldn’t finish this thing. Actually, I couldn’t even hold to my own reviewing rules.  This book is horrible.

The promotional description mentions several qualities that appeal to me.  I like literary fiction; dark humor; Irish fiction; and the Booker Prize nomination sealed the deal.  I was also aware that there would be violence and and that the characters would include terrible men, but I read grit lit—in small frequent bites when I can’t deal with longer stretches than that—and have reviewed many titles that include these things. But this is something else.

The distinctive writing style doesn’t appeal to me; I like a good paragraph, and having vast yawning spaces in between single brief entries seems wasteful to me. But that isn’t the deal breaker. The deal breaker is the hostility toward women.

Now of course one could say that twisted misogyny is not the author’s perspective but that of the characters, and blah-de-blah-blah, but let’s extend this a step further, for the sake of those that buy that kind of bilge as an excuse. Let’s write the whole thing, the whole book, as repeated child rape, with graphic descriptions and maybe a quick comeuppance or two at the end to make the reader feel better.

Would you buy that? Would you read that?  Then maybe you should give this a miss as well.  After all, this is fiction; its two purposes are to entertain and to convey ideas through the art of literature. How do either of these jibe with ugliness such as this?

My usual practice for a galley I don’t favor is this:  I read up to about 30% in order to give the author a chance, and then if I am still not engaged I skip to the last 25% to make sure there isn’t something wonderful about the climax and the conclusion that might make me reconsider. Fair is fair. But this book feels like a form of violence against women all by itself. I had trouble sleeping after having read five percent; I gave it a couple of days and came back, read another four or five percent, and queasily realized that this novel is the exception to my policy. I am not reading more of it for anyone or anything.

Usually when I don’t recommend a book, I consider whether there’s a niche audience that might still like it. Sometimes a lukewarm book gets a recommendation to read the book free or at a deep discount. But for this thing I confess that I would rather not be around anyone that wants it any time for any reason.

Inland, by Tea Obreht*****

This memorable novel is my introduction to Tea Obreht, and I read it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House. The combination of word smithery and whimsy creates the purest literary magic, and I recommend it to anyone that has a high vocabulary level and stamina. It is for sale now.

The tale takes place just after the American Civil War, and the narrative is divided between two characters, Lurie and Nora. Lurie begins his life in Arkansas; he is orphaned early and the man that takes him in is a grave robber that uses Lurie and other boys to assist him in his nightly plundering. Lurie grows up hard, fast, and mean; he wishes that he did not see and feel the dead, but he does, and most of all he senses their cravings.  I am immediately drawn by his second person narrative as he relates his memories to someone named Burke. You don’t see many writers use the second person, and I am curious as to who Burke is. When I find out, I am even more fascinated.

Nora is one of the early (Caucasian) Western settlers, and here Obreht uses the third person omniscient. Nora is unlike any Western protagonist I have ever read, and it is delightful to see the way this author turns stereotypes and caricatures squarely upside down. Nora has her hands full, trying to care for the aged, wheelchair bound Gramma; fighting a political battle in the press that is run by her husband and sons, none of whom she has seen lately; and carrying on a running dialogue with the ghost of her daughter Evelyn, who died in infancy. To add insult to injury she is saddled with Josie, a relative Emmett insisted they must take in. Nora is carrying a heavy emotional load, but the slow revelation of the secrets that weigh her down and the way that these impact the decisions she makes and the way she solves problems is completely convincing.  Whereas Lurie’s narrative is mostly about setting, Nora’s is about character. Both are rendered brilliantly.

I initially rated this novel 4.5 stars because of a few small areas where historical revisionism has crept in, but ultimately it is too fine a work to deny all five stars. I am reluctant to say more because the surprises start early, so to relate details that occur even twenty percent of the way in feels like a disservice both to the reader and the writer. 

One feature that is present throughout both of the narratives is thirst, and it’s related so well that I found myself downing extra water in sympathy and thanking my lucky stars that I live in Seattle rather than somewhere dusty and drought-stricken. In fact, there are places in Nora’s narrative where she is busy with other tasks or discussions of an urgent nature and I find myself telling Nora to just go ahead and ask the person she’s talking to for a sip of water. Nora won’t do it because she is proud and self-reliant, and the fact that I am already talking to the character instead of the author tells you how convincing the story is.

The reader is also advised that it’s a violent, gritty tale, particularly in the beginning but in other places also, and it’s loaded with triggers. To tell it otherwise would be to deny history, but if you are a mealtime reader or avoiding harsh prose for other reasons, it’s worth knowing. But I also think that the whimsy is all the sweeter for it.

Perhaps one of every ten novels I read becomes that book, the one that I can’t stop talking about. My spouse understands that to pass through a room when I am reading it is to guarantee he will be hijacked, at least momentarily, because I am either  going to paraphrase an interesting tidbit or read a particularly arresting passage out loud. This works well for me, though, because I find myself with more uninterrupted reading time. Inland is that sort of book.  Highly recommended.

The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell*****

Annie Clements is a badass union warrior, nearly six feet tall with fiery red hair and a voice that carries.  When the men that work the Quincy mine strike for better wages, an eight hour day, and an end to the treacherous one man drill, Big Annie leads the women’s auxiliary, and her role makes headlines around the world. This magnificent novel, which holds closely to events as they unfurled, came to me free and early, thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s for sale right now.

The Quincy mine is owned by Calumet and Hecla, and it is one of the deepest underground—and therefore one of the most dangerous—in the US.  It’s on the upper peninsula of Michigan, an isolated location closer to Canada than to other states or even the rest of Michigan; the winters are fierce. The only thing crueler than winter there is the heart of the general manager, James McNaughton, a vicious, vindictive man, who vows that “Grass will grow in the streets of Calumet before C&H recognizes the Western Federation of Miners.”

Charlie Miller is our union organizer, traveling from camp to camp, gathering support from working families. He intends to attack the smaller, more outlying mining companies first and save the huge, wealthy ones like Calumet for after inroads have been made around them. But miners are angry about the one man drill, a recent change that saves the company on wages, but leaves a single miner at risk of being injured or buried without a second miner present to help get him out of there. The company won’t send workers in after the injured, so working in pairs is a critical part of what little safety exists. Too many have gone home dead or maimed, and emotion is high. The women’s auxiliary organizes the wives and other family members of miners, and the women are rising up as well. Miller doesn’t see a strike as winnable right now, but if the union doesn’t get behind them soon, it may well become a wild cat strike, one in which the workers strike without union backing; that would embarrass the WFM.

Russell combines beautifully woven prose with careful attention to historical detail; not much has been changed here, but in her end notes she explains what has been altered and why. Where possible she uses direct quotes, and this is above and beyond what most novelists will do.

Although the story is about Big Annie Clements, my favorite part is when Mother Jones comes to Calumet. (Those interested in labor history should also read Mother Jones’s autobiography, which is shorter and better than what any biographer has done for her.)

This is the first time I have read Russell’s work, but it won’t be the last. A measure of how much I love a book can be found in how much I read, quote, and carry on about it right here at home. My husband could scarcely enter a room without my demanding whether we have any other materials about the copper strikers, and does he know about (this, that, the other thing)? I was reading ten different books, but he was hearing about only one of them. My own grandfather was a miner and died of Black Lung many years ago, but I felt him beside me as I read; I find myself hungry for pasties, the recipe preserved from my Finnish great aunt. But I digress.

Finally, readers should also know that this is a tragic read, positively miserable in places. There are dead and dying children, and the ending isn’t heartwarming. Yet it contains elements—an unlikely romance, and in James McNaughton, a villain of monstrous proportions—that could not be written into a purely fictional tale because nobody would believe them; and yet, these are aspects that stick closely to historical reality.

For those that love excellent historical fiction, this is a must read. For those that love both historical fiction and labor history, it provides the sweetest of crossroads. Highly recommended.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.