The Winners, by Fredrik Backman*****

“Do you want to understand people? Really understand them? Then you need to know all the best that we are capable of.”

The Winners is the third book in the Beartown trilogy by the iconic philosopher-novelist, Fredrik Backman. In the afterward, he tells us, “To you who have read this whole of the saga, I’d just like to say that I hope it gave you something, because I gave it absolutely everything I had.” I am one of them, and I believe him, and yes, it did. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review. It’s been an honor.

I began reading with a certain amount of trepidation, because everything I’d heard and read, some of it by the author himself, suggested that this wasn’t going to be gentle reading. Here’s how he opens it:

“August ends with sultry, ominous heat before autumn kicks the door in at the end of the month and the temperature tumbles in free fall. The natural world around us becomes erratic and aggressive, the dogs and hunters feel it first, but soon everyone else does too. We notice the warnings, yet still the storm arrives with such force that it knocks the breath out of us. It devastates the forest and blocks out the sky, it attacks our homes and our towns like a grown man beating a child.”

Woof.

The characters we’ve met in the first two books, Beartown and Us Against You, are all present and accounted for, and now that his faithful readers already know most of the central characters, Backman gives us a few more. The new hockey coach is Elizabeth Zackell, a quirky individual if ever there was one, and smart as hell. We are introduced to a family from Hed, the nearby town whose club is Beartown’s archrival; we become attached to these people, too. But ultimately, we see the way that great love and passionate loyalty can go hand in glove with violence and even evil.

It’s a story that can take your breath away.

I won’t try to address the whole story or individual characters; that’s Backman’s job, and he does it quite nicely. I had a quibble with the way the first book ended; I said in my review that it was over-the-top, bordering on glib. I see now that this was deliberate, and he wants us to see that not every family responds to a crisis as well as the Andersons have, and not every victim of a violent crime is able to see justice done; not everyone has the heroic instincts of Amet, the player that runs toward the fire rather than away from it.

The hallmarks that make Backman’s work so special are all here. I can count on one hand the number of male authors that genuinely respect women and are willing to go to the mat for women’s rights, and he is one of them. He is a vocal champion of the rights of gays and lesbians, and his prose shows keen understanding of the struggle they face, even now that their legal rights are protected in much of the world. His capacity to juggle a large cast of dynamic characters, developing nearly every one of them in a way that is consistent, along with their relationships with each other, makes me feel as if I could recognize them on the street; I don’t mean one character, or two. I mean at least a dozen of them. There are a number of characters that do bad things or make bad choices, but only a couple are genuinely bad people, and though we see little of them, they cast long shadows on these two communities.

He got the ending exactly right.

Can you read this book without reading the other two first? Don’t be a dick. Of course not. Without familiarizing yourself with the characters in the first book before the second, and the second before the third, you won’t be able to keep everyone straight; also, this third volume is about the same length as the first and second combined. Start with the first one.

Highly recommended.

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land***-****

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land marks the debut of a talented writer. Omer Friedlander’s short story collection has already made reviewers sit up and take notice. My thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This collection is for sale now.

All of Friedlander’s stories are set in Israel, and all of them evoke their setting in a way that is fresh and immediate. My favorite stories are the title story; High Heels (except for the ending; more on that in a minute,) and Alte Sachen.

Here’s my issue with these stories, and it’s true of nearly all of them: the author uses endings that don’t feel like endings, leaving the reader to figure out for herself what happens. This is particularly painful when a story builds in a most suspenseful manner and then ends on a cliff hanger.

I don’t think so.

I understand that this is considered a valid choice in literary fiction, but I doubt it will ever become a popular one. When an author leaves the rarified world of literary journals and writers’ groups and opens his work up to a general readership, adjustments need to be made.

The sweetness of a well-built story that culminates in tremendous frustration when the end is left dangling finally got the better of me, and I didn’t read the last story.

Now you know; if you want it, go get it.

Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett*****

There are indifferent writers; good writers; outstanding writers; and then there are writers like Hartnett, that leave me with my jaw dropped down to my knees, thinking that I like to write, and you probably do, too, but friend, neither one of us will ever write like this. Not ever.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy.

Emma Starling is our protagonist, and she was born with healing powers in her hands. She went away to medical school, but was expelled for reasons that we don’t understand until later, and her healing touch is gone. She has quietly left school without telling a soul back home. She hasn’t even returned for a visit, but now she has been summoned unequivocally; her father is dying, and her mama wants her to come home. NOW.

There are enough points of view in this story to make your head spin. We have the graveyard crowd, for example, and since Everton, New Hampshire is such a tiny town, everybody knows everybody, dead or alive. When I first see that the dead are discussing the affairs of the living, I am dismayed, because the legendary Fannie Farmer has already done this in The Whole Town’s Talking. But soon it becomes obvious that this story isn’t derivative in the least; Hartnett takes this device and uses it in a different way, and it doesn’t dominate the story as Flagg’s does; these characters are there to provide a slightly more objective perspective than those that still live.

There are several points of view from among the living, too. And there are references throughout to the writings of Harold Baines, a naturalist instrumental in shaping the town and in particular, the iconic yet bizarre Corbin Park, which is open only to a chosen few. There are points of view offered from the critters as well; not all of the critters are real, however. And at the EXACT moment when I begin to think that the author should have pared this thing down, for heaven’s sake, because the organization appears to be all over the place, the narrative explains that “A good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent…It might seem unrelated, but sometimes a minor character doesn’t become important until later…The lives of the living often get tangled up in unexpected ways, especially in a town as small as ours, even when a ten-foot electrified fence splits it up.”

I howled, because it felt as if the author had read my mind!

An important plot point is the disappearance of Crystal Nash. Crystal was Emma’s best friend, and had lived with the Starling family as sort of an informal foster child. Crystal developed an addiction and disappeared; Emma and Crystal had had a falling out, and Emma tries not to think about her too much now. Clive, Emma’s father, seldom thinks about anybody else. He’s turned over every rock; slapped a poster on every telephone pole.

To say the least, it’s an interesting homecoming for Emma.

As if the many points of view don’t make for a complex enough story, Hartnett takes us back in time—sometimes just a few years, at other times, way back in the past—and I am awestruck at the way she pulls all of it together at the end, with no loose ends hanging. At the outset I had been sure that this story should have been streamlined, but at the end, when I look back to see what, if anything, could be cut without detracting from the story, there is nothing that’s superfluous. Not one thing. All of these odd bits and pieces are essential to the story she is telling; “meandering,” indeed.

Because I had fallen behind in my reading, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it is brilliantly performed. Usually a story this complicated doesn’t work for me as an audiobook, but this one is outstanding and not hard to follow (although I did go back over the DRC for some quotes.)  Mark Bramhall and Kirby Heyborne do an exceptional job as narrators.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest novels we’ll see in 2022. Highly recommended in whatever format makes your heart happy.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich*****

I wasn’t able to get a galley this time, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This turned out to be the best possible way to read it, because Erdrich narrates it herself.

The Sentence is set in Minneapolis during the pandemic, from November 2019 to November 2020. It starts with the world’s most hilarious crime, one which sends our protagonist, Tookie, to prison; however, most of the meat of the story takes place once she’s out again. Tookie develops a love of writing (“with murderous intent,”) while she’s incarcerated, and so, once she is released, what more natural place is there for her to look for work, than a bookstore? But this bookstore is special. It’s haunted.

Tookie’s story is wrapped around a number of social issues and current events; most prominently, of course, is that of American Indians’ rights; this is the time and place of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, and so the demonstrations of outraged citizens are folded into the novel as well. And of course, this is not one bit funny.

I came to read Erdrich late in the game, when The Night Watchman, which won the Pulitzer, came out in 2020. That one novel persuaded me that from now on, I would read every blessed thing Erdrich writes. The Sentence strengthens this resolution.

Highly recommended.

The Ogress and the Orphans, by Kelly Barnhill*****

This book is not at all what I expected; it’s much better than that. My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin Young Readers for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

This lovely story is told in the second person omniscient, and we cannot tell, until the end, who the narrator is. Our setting is the sweet (fictitious) village of Stone-in-the-Glen, and it’s told in linear fashion. Because its telling is straightforward, with no changes in point of view or time period, and no heart-hammering suspense, it is ideal for bedtime reading. It’s marketed as a children’s book, and here I disagree, in part anyway. The vocabulary is too advanced for an early reader, but would serve well as a story to read aloud to students in upper elementary classes, or as a read-alone for the gifted child. There is no sexual content, drugs, or bad language.

Because I believed this was going to be a children’s book, I thought I’d whisk through it in no time and review it the same week I started, but I sensed immediately, once I’d begun, that this was not that kind of story. Its length, density of page and paragraph, and content call for a more leisurely pace, but also, it’s just too good to rush through. I am a sucker for excellent alliterative language (see what I did there?) and Barnhill is a champion in this regard. I found myself going back a page or two to reread, highlighting the best passages for no reason but my own pleasure.

The plot is easily summarized. The lovely little village is friendly and flourishing until the town library, which has magical powers, burns down. Without benefit of the library, villagers keep to themselves, and they become secretive and greedy. The mayor could help, but chooses not to do so. He’s a real piece of, um, work.

The orphanage in particular is in dire straits. They haven’t been getting their promised funding lately, and the place is starting to fall apart. The children are hungry. Were it not for the largesse of an anonymous donor, one that leaves big boxes of vegetables at the gate for them to find in the morning, they would starve.

The Ogress is their benefactor. We know this early on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. However, due to the misconceptions of the villagers, which the mayor feeds shamelessly, the Ogress soon becomes a scapegoat. These two problems—local poverty, and the hostility toward the one among them that is different—form the basis of the story.

As to the allegory, which is dropped in midway through in a fairly heavy-handed manner, I am of two minds. On the one hand, my philosophy is similar to the author’s, and so I snicker when I see what she’s doing here. On the other hand, this is exactly the book one reaches for when one has had enough, enough, enough of current events and the outside world, and allegory becomes something of a distraction. When I see who the mayor represents, I start eyeing the other characters. Does the Ogress represent someone in the real world as well? What else am I missing? These musings are more likely to lodge themselves in the mind of a language arts teacher; I recognize that. But my preference would be to either turn the whole thing into a piece of political satire and own it, or to leave it alone and have a sweet story devoid of political content, one that readers on both ends of the political spectrum can enjoy—maybe even enjoy together.

These minor issues aside, I love this story. It’s my first taste of Barnhill’s writing, but it surely won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout*****

Nobody writes more convincing characters than Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novel, Oh William!, she brings back Lucy Barton, the protagonist in My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; this book is for sale now.

Reading Strout is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s a glorious thing to read writing this strong. On the other, poor Lucy Barton has endured a tremendous amount of pain, and Strout’s skill enables her to communicate every inch of Lucy’s pain and suffering to the reader. I wasn’t sure if I was up for it, but now I am glad I read it, because in this installation, most of her dreadful early years are left in the past, where they belong, and she is a successful novelist that can afford to provide for herself and when necessary, her adult daughters.

The premise is that Lucy’s ex-husband, William, has once again been left by his most recent wife; this is what happens when a man can’t keep his zipper shut. But he has taken an ancestry test, and he’s discovered that he has a half-sister that lives in Maine. His mother is dead, so there’s no asking her about this. Should he contact this sister? Well, probably not. But he’s curious. Should he? Maybe. Well, no. Unless.

Lucy is recently widowed, and she is hurting. Her second and last husband, David, was a wonderful man, and it was a terrific marriage. She misses him terribly. But she has remained friendly with William; after all, they had two daughters together, and so there are occasions. William calls Lucy to ask her advice about the half-sister, and later, he wonders if she’d drive with him to Maine. He’s not sure what to do.

I am always astonished at people that can divorce, yet remain so friendly. It’s hard enough to be courteous on occasions involving children and grandchildren; to be chummy enough to chat on the phone, to seek each other’s advice, to go on a road trip together, for heaven’s sake, seems to me like a tremendous gift. At any rate, Lucy and William are friendly, and she agrees to go with him to scope out the land of his forefathers, and do a little recon on Louise, the secret sister.

The magic of Strout’s prose is in her sterling character development. Earlier here, I was discussing how amazing it is that Lucy and William are on such good terms; these are fictional characters, but to me, they have become flesh. Lucy’s first person narrative is so intimate that I feel as if I am talking with an old friend over coffee.

If I could change one thing, I’d tone down a couple of Lucy’s mannerisms. The title, Oh William!, is used so frequently in the narrative that by the last quarter of the book I want to say, Yes, okay, I get it already. The other one is “What I mean is…,” and “…is what I was thinking.” These are legitimate devices that contribute to the writer’s voice, but I would use them less often.

Because I had fallen behind–or more truthfully, I had been avoiding this galley because I expected it to be grim—I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. Kimberly Farr is an exceptional reader, and for that reason I recommend the audio book over the print, although both are excellent.

Highly recommended to those that treasure fine literary fiction.  

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.

Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart*****

Gary Shteyngart is a funny guy. In Our Country Friends, he tells a story in which Sasha, a former literary luminary, up to his eyeballs in debt, invites five friends to join him and his little family at their country estate to weather the pandemic. The results are not at all what he anticipated.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is available now.

Shteyngart does us the favor of listing the cast of characters (“Dramatis Personae,”) at the book’s opening, and I relied on it heavily. Because all of the characters are introduced at the outset, I took a ridiculously long time getting them straight, but it was worth it. The group’s dynamic would be fairly stable but for the introduction of “The Actor,” someone he knew back in the day but who is an A-lister now. But frankly, some, if not all, of the other guests would probably not have come but for the mention of The Famous One as a possible addition. When he comes, the women practically swoon in his presence, and then nothing is the same for the rest of the story.

The first third of the book seems relatively formless, but I suspect the author (should I say, “The Author?”) is warming us up, letting us get to know the characters before a lot of other action takes place. The promotional blurb tells us that this story encompasses six months and four romances, and that it’s about love, friendship, and betrayal, and that sums it up.

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy novels about rich people, but because Shteyngart is setting them up for satirical misery and angst, I dive in, and I emerge shortly afterward, laughing. This sly humor is unmissable.

Because nearly all of the characters are over forty, I highly recommend this story to readers of a literary bent—if you know Chekhov, it’s even funnier—who are forty or over.

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.