Impersonation, by Heidi Pitlor***

My thanks go to Algonquin Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Allie is a single mother and a professional ghost writer. Because her income is sporadic, she picks up money between publishers’ paychecks substitute teaching and landscaping. She’s always broke, always paying the most pressing bill at the expense of others. Then her big break comes, and she’s over the moon. She’s going to write a memoir for a famous feminist, someone she has idolized for many years. The pay is more money than she’s ever earned before, and as a bonus, she will get to spend time with an icon.

Except she won’t.

Her icon is a busy woman, and she isn’t forthcoming with any personal information. Nothing. With deadlines looming, then passing, Allie desperately invents anecdotes drawn from her own experiences, hoping that if they don’t satisfy, her subject may part with some true stories of her own; but ultimately, she is the one that gets tossed under the bus.

The story begins well, witty and absorbing. If I were to review the first few chapters, this would be a four or five star review. However, in the middle of the book the plot bogs down and the pacing grinds to a crawl. I had hoped for a climax and finish that would make it worthwhile, but instead, the story becomes a pedantic manifesto. The feminist issues that are near and dear to Allie’s heart, and one may assume, Pitlor’s as well, are also mine. If anyone in this world should love this story, it should be me. And oh, how I wish it was. But because the protagonist has become such a nonentity, there is no inspirational melding of character and social issues that might have made it possible.

There’s a terrible irony here, or at least there may be. Perhaps Pitlor deliberately ceased developing Allie because Allie is a ghost writer, and her entire career is predicated on her ability to lie low. Perhaps we are meant to see her disappear, and perhaps that’s intended to be part of the message. But if so, it doesn’t work for me. I need more internal development, or more of something else.

Conceptually the story is strong; but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Africaville, by Jeffrey Colvin****

Narrated by Robin Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

The setting is resonantly described throughout.

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

When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy*****

David Joy writes some of the best Grit Lit published in the U.S. of A, and if you haven’t read him yet, it’s time to get started. This soaring, wrenching tale of addiction, community dysfunction, and miserable unrelenting poverty delivers some hard truths about the distribution of wealth in this country, and about the uneven way that justice plays out. Lucky me, I read it free and early; my thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It’s for sale today.

Ray Mathis is a big man with a big burden. His wife, Doris, has been dead for three years, but his grief hasn’t ebbed. A stoic man, he goes in and out of every day carrying out necessary tasks, but he feels as if his arm is missing, all the time. His companionship comes solely from his old hunting beagle, Tommy Two-Ton. His only child is Ricky, and although Ricky is in his forties, Ray still thinks of him as “the boy.” When the boy comes home, Ray is suffused with a sense of dread. Ricky is a hardcore addict, and all those stories you were told in junior high health class are true: a junkie has no loyalties and no shame great enough to override his need for the substance he’s come to crave. When he sees that Ricky is home for a visit, Ray’s first instinct is to check his few valuables that haven’t been stolen and pawned yet to see if they’ve vanished.

Is this all too familiar to some of you? Because it hit close to home for me.

Not long after he arrives, Ricky is gone again, and that’s not unusual; but later he gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know. The caller says that Ricky has failed to meet a payment and will die if Ray doesn’t pay up. Because Ricky has no shame, he has told them exactly how much is in his father’s savings account. And though he understands that it’s only going to postpone the inevitable, Ray pays up, but he tells the men that collect that he will be back for them if they ever sell to his son again. And when Ricky is back on opiates before he has even recovered from the savage beating administered by the dealer’s goons, Ray tells him, “I’ve thrown you ropes till my arms is give out, and I ain’t got no more to throw.”                 `               “            

Meanwhile, our second protagonist, Denny Rattler, a Cherokee burglar, is arrested and offered treatment for his own addiction, but he declines. It turns out that the very purest heroin is sold on the Cherokee Reservation, and so jurisdictional issues complicate law enforcement. Still worse, there are dirty cops right on the other side of the state line. Denny finds himself in the middle of it all.

One of the nastiest villains in literature is Walter Freeman, who goes by “Watty.” “I ain’t calling you that,” Ray tells him. “That’s the stupidest fucking name I ever heard.” Ray confronts Watty after his son’s death to deliver some “backwoods justice,” but Watty is entirely unmoved. He doesn’t even remember Ricky. He leaves the individual users to the minions beneath him. He tells the bereaved father, “Your son is small potatoes. They’re all small potatoes. It’s too much of a headache, dealing with junkies.”

It’s forest fire season in the Appalachian Mountains, and as the conflict between Ray and Watty, between Watty and local law enforcement, and among the addicts, law enforcement and Watty build, a conflagration begins on the reservation, encompassing the “Outlet Mall,” where drugs are sold.  The entire ordeal rises to a fever pitch that leaves me sitting forward, as if the outcome is just beyond my physical reach. At one point I am sure everyone will die, and I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as nothing happens to Tommy Two-Ton.

What Joy does with the conclusion is tremendously satisfying. When I reviewed his last book, I felt as if he had wimped out on the ending, but this time it’s rock solid. It isn’t predictable, yet there are no new people or facts introduced at the last minute to prevent us from foreseeing the outcome, either.

In fact, this may be his best book yet.

I’ll offer a final word about genre. This book is billed as Crime Fiction, and that’s not how I see it. I consider this novel to be gritty Southern Fiction at its finest. The fact that it happens to involve crime as an integral part of the story is almost beside the point. But call it what you will, this book is one of the year’s best, and you should get it and read it.

A New Cathedral, by James Lee Burke*****

A Private Cathedral is the twenty-third in the immensely popular Dave Robicheaux series, which began in the early 1980s. James Lee Burke has been called “America’s Best Novelist” by the Denver Post, and his books have been made into movies. Lucky me, I read this one free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Fans of this series—and there are many—will recognize all of Burke’s signature elements. Set in New Iberia, Louisiana, a small working class enclave about an hour from New Orleans, we find the usual wealthy, sleazy bad guys, in this case the Shondell family and the Balangie family; their victims, ordinary people with no money that scrape by the best they can; a pair of grizzly murders; and in this instance, a case of human trafficking. There’s always a woman or two ready to fling herself into Dave’s arms, even though he and Clete are supposedly getting old, and as usual, one of the women stands on the tops of his feet before she seduces him, or vice versa. (This has got to be some sort of private joke or reference on the author’s part, because you know that a writer with this level of skill cannot be inadvertently ascribing the identical quirky behavior to all of his protagonist’s romantic interests across over three decades of a series.)

And of course, best of all perhaps, we have Dave’s fiercely loyal best friend, Clete Purcell, a man that looks “like an albino ape” and whose impulse control is even worse than Dave’s, at least most of the time. He shows up in his pink Cadillac wearing his signature porkpie hat, and I smile. I can’t help it. Clete does this to me every single time, and I’ll bet a whole lot of other readers feel just the same way.

                “He was the trickster of folklore, a modern Sancho Panza, a quasi-psychotic jarhead who did two tours in Vietnam and came home with the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts and memories he shared with no one. Few people knew the real Clete Purcel or the little boy who lived inside him, the lonely child of an alcoholic milkman who made his son kneel all night on rice grains and whipped him regularly with a razor strop…Nor did they know the NOPD patrolman who wept when he couldn’t save the child he wrapped in a blanket, ran through flames, and crashed through a second story window with, landing on top of a Dumpster…He hated evil and waged war against it everywhere he found it. I sometimes wondered if he was an archangel in disguise, one with strings of dirty smoke rising from his wings, a full-fledged participant in fighting the good fight of Saint Paul. “

My sole complaint, a key one I probably wouldn’t give any other writer a pass on, is the way the author deals with his female characters. All the women and girls are mothers, whores, lovers, or children, and in some cases more than one of the above. No woman comes into the stories on the merit of her occupation, her character, or her abilities, aside from Helen, a long-running character that is exempted by virtue or being a lesbian and androgynous in appearance. (God forbid she be gorgeous and gay, or gorgeous and straight and completely sexually uninterested in Dave.) But the fact is, Burke has been writing and publishing great novels since 1965, and now he’s an 83 year old author and it seems unfair to expect him to change direction with regard to his female characters, or to suddenly regard them as equals in all respects rather than to nurture the whole pedestal package.

Moving on.

The story commences with Dave suspended from the sheriff’s department, and he’s behaving badly, embarking on a series of “dry drunks,” a term used liberally throughout this series and that I’ve never seen or heard of anywhere else. He’s so far out of line that Clete has to reel him back, when more often it’s the reverse. A teenager named Isolde is being sold by her parents, and Dave is attempting to rescue her. But it’s a useless endeavor because there is so much money and power buffering the offenders. Meanwhile, Clete is kidnapped and hung upside down and tortured by a being that seems otherworldly to him—mostly because it is. And this is a departure for Burke, a good one, as it turns out.

Those familiar with the series and the author know that redemption is at the core of every story he writes, and given the amount of mystic imagery that appears in his prose, it isn’t a long stretch to go from imagined spiritual beings to actual ones, which is what he does here. And I can only bow in awe at a writer—even one with residual sexist attitudes—that can take a long-running, iconic series like this one, a series that has run for more than 30 years, and decide to expand it across genres now. This would be remarkable for anyone, but for an octogenarian, it’s jaw-dropping.

I also enjoy the way he develops the side character, Father Julian, who is heroic and who pursues pedophiles and brings them to justice. Way to fight stereotypes.

I love the ending.

Highly recommended to Burke’s many fans, and to new readers as well.

A heartfelt tribute, featuring a lot of famous writers:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cwNHIsoHG0

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.