Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

The Santa Suit, by Mary Kay Andrews***-****

3.75 rounded up.

I love a good Christmas story, but so many of them are cloying or insipid. A friend recommended this one to me, and she wasn’t wrong. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.

Ivy is newly divorced, and she comes away from it with bruised feelings, but also money. Since she works from home, she has the choice to go anywhere, so she buys a farmhouse in a tiny town in North Carolina. She pays for it without ever seeing it in person, and it comes “as is.” At this point, I say, Welp, you’re in for it now, hon. And she is, sort of.

The realtor, Ezra, known locally as “The House Hunk,” has taken a shine to Ivy. He helps her with the heat; when she discovers that the old furniture is still there in the house, he and a friend cart it off for her, and when there’s a problem with her own furniture, he helps bring it all back in. And initially, she regards his attention as a nuisance, maybe even a stalker; but between the fine reputation he enjoys locally, and the number of times he helps her out of difficult situations, she gradually warms to him.

Ivy is a likable protagonist. She’s self-sufficient, but she isn’t cold. She sets about making friends right away. Her new bud, Phoebe, is in a state because she’s fallen in love with someone she met online, and has used a picture of someone else. Now the man Is coming to see her, and she’s panic-stricken. Other new friends include a local business person for whom she does some free, and very good, advertising, and a 96 year old man. Her dog, Punkin, goes everywhere with her, and she talks to him all the time, the way that some of us also do. When she needs assistance it’s because she doesn’t know the area, or because a job requires an extra set of hands, not because she is some helpless airhead. An engaging character indeed.

My rating reflects a couple of sloppy bits that the author and editor should have caught and dealt with immediately. They’re small, but they interrupt the magic, because they cause me to think about the two slackers rather than the story and characters. The first is when she offers Ezra coffee, but warns him that all she has is instant. Two paragraphs later, she is brewing the coffee. Oh, come on! Clean it up. A bit later, after Ezra and a friend have schlepped furniture in from the truck, he asks if she’s been out to play in the snow, and she tells him she doesn’t want to spoil its beauty. “It’s so beautiful, all that clean, untouched white.” And so I wonder: did they teleport the furniture indoors? Because otherwise, surely that snow would have been touched in a whole lot of places.

There are a couple of other inconsistencies, albeit smaller ones, and I am using a fair amount of ink to discuss problems that may seem trivial, but this is no debut author, this is a successful writer with a host of books in her repertoire, and she should know better.

The plot, on the other hand, is excellent. There was one development that I thought was obvious, but when I finished my eyeroll, I was surprised to see that she didn’t take it where I expected, and instead did something much better. I particularly like the way the romance unfolds, and the way that Ivy helps Phoebe out of her dilemma. There are other threads—involving a Santa suit, of course—that are equally delightful.

So, in spite of my complaints, I do recommend this charming, fluffy tale to you. It’s a mood elevator, and we can all use some of that. It’s for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden, by James Lee Burke****

James Lee Burke is a living legend, a novelist who’s won just about every prize there is, and whose published work has spanned more than fifty years.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden is a prequel to Burke’s Holland family trilogy. The time is the 1960s, and protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard is in Colorado working a summer job. He falls in love with a waitress named JoAnne, but there are obstacles to their happiness everywhere he looks. There’s a charismatic professor that won’t leave her alone, a bus full of drugged-out young people that have fallen under his influence, and of course, there’s corruption among the local wealthy residents, which is a signature feature in Burke’s work. Aaron is a Vietnam veteran, and he has residual guilt and grief that get in his way as well. He’s got some sort of an associative disorder, though I am not sure that’s the term used; at any rate, he blacks out parts of his life and cannot remember them. He also has anger issues, and he melts down from time to time; there’s an incident involving a gun that he forces a man to point at him that I will never get entirely out of my head, and kind of wish I hadn’t read.

I had a hard time rating this novel. If I stack it up against the author’s other titles, it is a disappointment; a lot of the plot elements and other devices feel recycled from his other work, dressed up a bit differently. But if I pretend that this is written by some unknown author, then I have to admit it’s not badly written at all. By the standards of Burke’s other work, it’s a three star book; compared to most other writers, it’s somewhere on the continuum between four and five. Since I have to come up with something, I decided to call it four stars.

All that being said, if you have never read anything by this luminary, I advise you to start with one of his earlier books–almost any of them, actually.

All We Are Saying, by David Sheff*****

This is a digital reprint of the last interview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, two days before John was murdered on December 8, 1980. David Sheff is a journalist and also a die-hard fan of the Lennon’s. Lucky me, I read it free. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. It’s for sale now.

This interview is a treasure trove for anyone interested in John Lennon, Yoko Ono, or the Beatles. 192 pages makes for a short book, but as interviews go, it’s a whopper. Lennon and Ono were about to release an album together, and so when Playboy requested an interview, they consented. The most wonderful thing about it is that because of the format, nearly everything is a direct quotation of either John’s or Yoko’s. Nobody knew during the course of the interview, which took multiple days, that John would be shot to death by a stranger two days later.

It makes for interesting reading. There are passages I love and others that make me see red, but I am not irritated with the author, who’s done a bang-up job, but rather, in places, at things said by his subjects. Most of it is tremendously entertaining. And in some places, it is almost unbearably poignant. At the outset, John makes a comment, almost off the cuff, about how the way to be really famous as an artist is to die in public, which he surely isn’t planning to do. Later, he quotes someone that says it’s better to burn out than to rust, and he says he disagrees, that “It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out.” And he notes that he has another forty years or so of productivity ahead of him.

Lennon was a happy man when this interview took place. He’d been a “house husband,” staying home and taking care of Sean, their son, although they acknowledge that it’s easier to do that when there’s a nanny available anytime he needs to go out for some reason, and someone else that will clean the house and so forth. Ono, on the other hand, is the one who’s handling their finances, and it’s a princely fortune at that.

And to me, the most interesting aspect of this interview isn’t him, it’s her. I was a child in elementary school when John left his first wife and married Yoko, but I remember the virulent, nasty things that appeared in the media. Those that don’t think any progress has been registered regarding race and gender should look through some archives. And John comments that the press treated their relationship as if he were “some wondrous mystic prince from the rock world dabbling with this strange Oriental woman.”

Ono said, “I handled the business…my own accountant and my own lawyer could not deal with the fact that I was telling them what to do…”

 John continued that there was “…an attitude that this is John’s wife, but surely she can’t really be representing him…they’re all male, you know, just big and fat, vodka lunch, shouting males…Recently she made them about five million dollars and they fought and fought not to let her do it because it was her idea and she’s not a professional. But she did it, and then one of the guys said to her, ‘Well, Lennon does it again.’ But Lennon didn’t have anything to do with it.”

There’s a lot that gets said about the women’s movement and all of it is wonderful. Once in awhile John holds forth about something he knows nothing about (anthropology and the early role of women) and he makes an ass of himself. He may have been more enlightened than most men, but he still hadn’t learned to acknowledge that there were some things he just didn’t know.

There are passages that make me grind my teeth, and all of them have to do with wealth in one way or another. Ono is from a ruling class Japanese banking family, and the airy things she and John say about being rich make me want to hit a wall. People shouldn’t pick on them for being wealthy. And oh my goodness, when Sheff mildly suggests that John and the other former Beatles surrender and do a single reunion concert for charity, his response is horrifying. He points out that the concert for Bangladesh that George Harrison roped them into doing turned out to raise no money at all for the cause because all of it went to red tape and lawsuits; ouch! But the truly obnoxious bit is when he whines about how the world just expects too much of him. He wants to know, “Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to get crucified again? We are not there to save the fucking world.”

The part that makes me laugh is when Ono describes how The Beatles broke up at about the same time she and John got together: “What happened with John is that I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked and suddenly the next morning I see these three guys standing there with resentful eyes.”

Those that are curious about Lennon and Ono, or that are interested in rock and roll history, should get this interview and read it. There’s a good deal of discussion about the roots of the music, and about the music he made that the radio never played. There’s a good deal here that I surely never knew. For these readers, I highly recommend this book.

Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

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

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

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

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

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman**-***

2.5 stars rounded upward. I was invited to read and review this novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

World War II fiction is a crowded place, and I have left it, for the most part, having had more than my fill. I am initially interested in this story because it takes place in 1950s New York, and that’s a setting I haven’t seen much. However, this setting alternates with the protagonist’s memories of Paris during the war, and so there I am again, back in Europe during the war.

Charlotte is a young widow, working in a bookstore to make ends meet. Her infant daughter, Vivi, is often with her. A German soldier is drawn to her, and she snubs him repeatedly, but when he brings food and milk for her starving child, she caves. When Vivi becomes sick, he smuggles in medication. Yes, this is one of those I-hate-you-but-I-love-you stories. This isn’t new; I’ve seen plenty of forbidden love stories, especially with regard to German soldiers. I’ve also seen plenty of love-hate romances.

But what strength I see in this one is in the grey areas. Is it all right to fraternize with the soldiers that are responsible for the deaths of loved ones, if those you’re befriended by can save other loved ones, particularly children? Is it all right to let someone think you’re Jewish, once the war is over, if that means they will save you? Is it acceptable to be Jewish, whether inobservant or otherwise, but pretend you are not, if it increases your odds of survival? What if that means taking other Jews prisoner, serving your enemy?

I’ve said this before in other reviews, and I’ll say it again here. It irritates the bejesus out of me, this World War II forbidden-romance storyline that is always, always, always between a Caucasian European, or Euro-American, and a German. Maybe someone has been wildly creative and included an Italian, but I haven’t seen it if they have. What do we never, never see? Ever? Never? (I could go on all night like this, and don’t provoke me or I’ll do it!) We never, ever see a WWII relationship between a Caucasian civilian from an Allied nation and a Japanese soldier. Or civilian. Or anything. It’s almost as if there’s a whispered subtext that insists, “It’s okay. After all, we’re both white, and that’s what really matters.” And authors that are far too progressive, too modern, too civilized to use any of the zillion ugly epithets that were common usage at the time by Allied service people and citizens toward Germans and Italians, nevertheless decide it’s somehow acceptably authentic to use the J word for Japanese. You know the one I mean. And Feldman is a serious offender here.

Because I was having trouble plodding through this story’s text, I visited Seattle Bibliocommons and borrowed the audio version. (Laurie Catherine Winkel does a fine job as the reader.)  I had listened to about seventy percent of this story when Charlotte has a conversation with her landlord, sponsor, etcetera about his own war experience, and boy does he pour it on. I think I must have found the J word on damn near every page, sometimes more than once. I nearly stopped reading, and I nearly gave this book a single star. I fast-forwarded a bit, and when the passage involving this veteran’s way-too-long speech ends, I don’t hear the word again, so I take a deep breath and forge onward to see how it ends.

The ending is bittersweet, and it’s not formulaic.

So there it is. This book is for sale now, but my advice is to either give it a miss, or read it for free or cheap. And if another forbidden WWII white-on-white romance turns up in my inbox, it’s going straight to my round file. Stick a fork in me, cause I am done.

A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler*****

Therese Anne Fowler is a complete badass. I have never read her before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll read her next book. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. You can buy this book now, and you should.

I don’t usually begin by discussing the narrative voice, but I’m doing it this time because it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this novel. The story is told in the second person, but the point of view shifts seamlessly from that of the neighbors that are friends with a key character—I’ll get there in a minute—to an omniscient narrative, and I never catch the shift; by the time I realize a change has taken place, we’ve been there awhile. So, one minute, the narrative will say things like “All of us thought…” and “Everyone knew…” but later, we’ll be told what a protagonist is thinking. This is a risky way to write, and she’s carried it off so well that I can only bow in awe.

The story is, to some extent, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a tragedy, and we’re told this at the outset. The neighborhood in question is Oak Knoll, an old, established one in North Carolina. Valerie Alston-Holt is a forestry professor with a deep dedication to the environment; her son Xavier is gifted. Xavier’s father was Caucasian, but died when the boy was small, so it is just the two of them, mother and son. The new folks next door, the Whitmans, are a blended family. Julia, the mother, was living a hardscrabble life as a single parent with her daughter, Juniper, when the wealthy, charismatic Brad Whitman, who was her boss, married her. They have a small daughter together, but Brad has also adopted Juniper so that they can be a real family. Julia can hardly believe her good fortune. Her standard of living has risen beyond anything she ever dreamed.

The tension is there from the start. The Whitman home is out of character in comparison to the neighborhood, a garish, over-the-top McMansion built on a large lot created by tearing down the existing home that had been there. And the outcome of the construction is that a tree—a beloved tree—on the Alston-Holt property next door—is now dying.  The forestry professor sees an attorney, and the battle is joined.

Despite the tension between the adults, Xavier and Juniper are drawn to one another. They are teenagers, upperclassmen in high school, and they’re both squeaky clean kids, serious students. Neither has been in a serious relationship before. As we see their romance blossom, the narrator reminds us that this won’t end well.

I began this novel using my review copy, and although I could see it was going to be good, I was falling behind my reading for unrelated reasons. I scooped up the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the reader does a wonderful job, and the story is well suited to this medium.

Fowler is an experienced writer, and it shows. There are several lazy stereotypes she deftly avoids. The Alston-Holts are middle class, not struggling financially. (Here I think of the new book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, who reminds us that only one in five African-American families is poor.) Brad Whitman, who is a complete horse’s ass, is a charismatic Christian, but he is not a preacher, he’s a businessman.

Of course this story has a great deal to say about race and wealth, and how society empowers us according to these parameters. But because the characters are so intimately developed, so brilliantly fleshed out, the message integral to the story never feels like a manifesto. And reader, I’ll tell you, I’m a tough old granny who rarely is undone by a sad story, but I grew a little misty at the end of this one, and I thought about it for quite awhile afterward.

Highly recommended in whatever form you enjoy.

Dear Emmie Blue, by Lia Louis***

I read this copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. From time to time I find myself reading too much dark material, which is the direction I’m generally drawn toward. I found this title and thought that it might balance my selection. And for what it’s worth, it did that.

The premise here is that Emmie has fallen hard for a young man that she met years ago by pure chance. At age 16, she had written a secret that she needed to share on a scrap of paper, along with her email address, stuffed it into a balloon and launched it into space. (How does one get a slip of paper inside a helium balloon without losing the gas inside it? But let’s not dwell there.)  Rather than falling into the ocean and choking a seabird to death, the balloon makes it to dry land, and Lucas finds it. The two become fast friends, and as time progresses, she is sure they are meant to be more.  She is devastated to learn that his plans are different from hers.

This story is a quick read with lots of dialogue. One of my pet literary peeves right now, however, is the terrible-mother-who-ruins-everything. Oh. Come. On. You can do better than this. However, other aspects of the story are more congenial. In the end Emmie takes control of her own life, as she should have done all along, and good things result.

Those looking for a pleasant beach read could do worse. However, the publicist that compares this book to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is completely delusional.

It’s for sale now.