The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams***

Caroline lives with her father, Samuel, a writer and educator whose career and reputation have been sullied by a younger man that Samuel mentored many years ago. But Samuel is determined to revive his career by starting a school for girls. Girls can think. Girls can learn. They needn’t be limited to the traditional lessons that make young ladies into gracious hostesses. They can rise in this world, as long as he is there to guide them.

I read this book free and early thanks to Doubleday and Net Galley. It’s for sale now.

As the story opens, just a few ladies are signed up for the boarding school that will be run by Samuel and Caroline from their home. A former protegee, David, comes to join them also, and will teach the sciences. Running errands in town, however, Caroline and David run into Eliza, the daughter of the man that ruined Samuel’s career. Her father is now deceased; Eliza wants to attend the school. In a moment of mischievous rebellion that she will come to regret, Caroline accepts her.

At the outset, The Illness Lesson seems to be feminist fiction, and as school begins and I see Samuel mansplaining to his female charges about the things that women can and cannot do, should learn to do, should want to do, I lean in, ready for a rapier-sharp tale in which—I hope—the father and teacher that believes himself to be an educational gift to womankind will learn a powerful lesson.

Alas, not so much.

Before the halfway mark is reached, the story has wandered in various directions and has lost its cohesion and focus. I check my notes and change the genre for it over and over again; feminist fiction becomes historical fiction becomes romance becomes magical realism becomes horror and what the heck is this author trying to achieve? If the plan is to keep the reader guessing, I can honestly say that I am genuinely surprised (in the second half) by what Caroline finds in the woods. However, I am not a fan of surprise elements that fragment the plot. It almost feels as if it was written by a half dozen writers drunkenly passing a story around late at night. “Okay, now YOU write a chapter! Surprise me.”

I might not have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected such great things. The premise is a wonderful one. Beams could have done so much with it, and I can’t figure out why she didn’t.

Perhaps if you read it, you’ll come away with a more charitable viewpoint. My advice, however, is to get it free or cheap, or else give it a miss entirely.

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.

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

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

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

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.

Potions Are for Pushovers, by Tamara Berry*****

I loved Berry’s first Eleanor Wilde mystery, Seances Are for Suckers, and so I looked forward to this one. Ellie, our protagonist, makes a living as a sham medium and pusher of herbal potions. She arrived in this tiny English town in the last book, hired by the wealthy Nicholas Hartford to scam his family, but they fell in love and so she stayed here. Business is on hold, however, until the murder of the local battle ax has been solved; until Ellie can sell her potions again, she can’t make a living, and the heat is on.

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

The glory of satire is that the most tired, trite elements of a mystery can be trotted out and placed on full display, the more overdone the better. Add into it an overflowing supply of snark, swift pacing, a hint of confusion and the very teensiest, briefest moment of sentimentality and the result is, well, magical.

At the same time that Sarah is murdered, pets begin to disappear. A grisly surprise is left in Ellie’s herb garden, and her cat Beast, a menace if ever there was one, is nowhere to be seen. Cats, pigs…what’s next?  Her sometimes-friend the local constable is irritated that Ellie doesn’t pass along the finer details of what she learns, but she points out to him that witches and law enforcement have a problematic history. Crackle crackle, she says. Burn burn.

The best new element is Lenore, a pesky but gifted adolescent that wants to job shadow Ellie. Together with partner Rachel, she embarks upon local werewolf research, and this thread makes me guffaw out loud multiple times. (At one point Lenore decides she’d rather be called Lenny because it sounds more like a gumshoe; my reading notes suggest that Rachel should then become Squiggy. Boomers will understand this reference if nobody else does.)

My affection for Ellie increases when she eats an entire chocolate cake. I’d been watching that cake since she received it, waiting for the typical cozy plot point to play out. Most authors would either have Ellie serve or gift the cake to another recipient, or have it smashed in some sort of hilarious accident before she got a single bite. Berry, however, is not your typical cozy mystery writer. It’s the slightly edgy bits that make this series so successful.

The series is written for adults, but teachers and parents looking for engaging reading for their own gifted adolescent should be fine here. There are no torrid sex scenes, no use of vivid profanity.

Sadly, my own review copy disappeared with no trace from my kindle, so I can’t access juicy quotes; happily. I did use the Goodreads update system, which provided me with the particulars listed above.

There are few authors that can make me laugh out loud every single time I read their work, and that alone makes this writer more valuable to me than most. I await the next Eleanor Wilde book with gleeful anticipation, and whether you have read the first book in this series or not, I recommend this one to you wholeheartedly.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

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 Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins***

Grace Wheeler is stuck. She has the perfect life; job, home, fulfillment. But filial duty calls; she is needed by her orphaned niece and her foster mother, who is showing signs of dementia. The obvious thing to do would be to take them back to the city and resume life as usual, but with adjustments; however, she can’t do that because a sense of place—Dove Pond, North Carolina, where she has always lived–is what ties Mama G to what’s left of her real world. Also, there’s a house they can have there.  When Grace proclaims loudly and often that she’s only staying for a year, we know right away that she will fall in love with Dove Pond and stay forever.

 I like the cousin who owns the house that Grace, Mama G, and niece Daisy will live in, but she is with us for just a short time before she hops in her RV and drives away. Mentally I am standing on the curb shouting, “Come back! Come back!”

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books.  I read the first thirty percent, skimmed, and then read the last twenty-five percent.

Sarah Dove is the town librarian as well as a book whisperer. Books speak to her—literally—and they have decided they like the looks of Grace. Sarah is lonely, and when the books speak, she listens, and she pesters Grace relentlessly as she tries to befriend her. Ultimately it is the Trojan Horse in the form of Daisy that creates the connection Sarah desires. Daisy is going through a rough time and is grieving and acting out; she and Sarah bond over Little Women. (Insert eye roll here.)  However difficult she may be, Daisy is actually quite clever, gifted even.

Ohhh goody.  My eyes roll again. Fictional children are always so precocious, aren’t they?

 Grace’s new next door neighbor, the bad boy on a motorcycle, as well as Sarah’s old flame, who’s come back around, create romantic side stories whose paths are clear from the get-go.

So here’s the thing.  I confess that the cozy genre is not my main literary lane. Usually when I find a cozy series that works for me, other cozy reviewers just hate it because it’s too edgy. This story will make a lot of cozy readers very happy. It’s wholesome and has a soothing tone; the narrative voice is charming. I know there is an audience that will eat this up, and when I step away from this cozy banquet, I won’t be missed.  

But for me, the story feels formulaic. If I can tell how the main story thread will go, and how some of the side business will turn out, by the ten percent mark, I’m not a fan. The one place I really connect is when the bad boy on the motorcycle gets his hair cut, and I am so sad, because I liked this character and now he’s ruined for me.

So for those of you that want a soothing, wholesome feel-good story you can read in a weekend, maybe this book is for you. If you aren’t sure, consider reading it free or cheap.  

It’s for sale today.

The Night Tiger, by Yangtze Choo****

Choo is a force to be reckoned with. Her dazzling second novel, The Night Tiger, crosses genres from historical fiction, to literary fiction, to mystery, to romance, to magical realism; it’s deeply absorbing and unlike anything else being published right now. My thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. It’s hot off the presses; get yours before they sell out.

We have two protagonists, Ji Lin, whose widowed mother has married a tin ore dealer, and Ren, an eleven-year-old orphan that works as a houseboy. The story takes place in 1931 in Ipoh, Malaya, which was the name of Malaysia when it was still occupied, part of the British Empire. As the story commences, Ren’s master, Dr. McFarlane, has died of malaria, and his last words instructed Ren to go to Dr. William Acton, find McFarlane’s amputated finger and return it to McFarlane’s grave. He has 49 days, and the clock is ticking. Go.

So powerful is Choo’s storytelling voice that I was most of the way through the book before it occurred to me to wonder: who puts that kind of responsibility on a little kid, especially since the task involves traveling alone to a different town? But Ren loved his master, and he’s a loyal kiddo. Despite an offer by his former master’s housekeeper to take him in, he forges forward, determined to do as bidden.

Ji Lin has a different set of problems. She recently reached marriageable age, but the only man she’d have considered desirable is engaged to someone else. Her stepfather is looking for candidates so he can be rid of her, and Ji Lin doesn’t like the same men her stepfather prefers for her. And in 1931, there are very few respectable alternatives for women to support themselves. She might like to train as a teacher, but she needs money right this minute, before her stepdad finds out about her mother’s Mahjongg debt. That man beats her mother savagely over much smaller things, and this gambling debt is potentially ruinous. Ji Lin takes an apprenticeship with a dressmaker, but secretly makes a lot more money as a dance instructor, a risky job that can lead to assault, a ruined reputation, or both. One night on the dance floor, as she skillfully parries a handsy salesman trying to make a move on her, her hand brushes his pocket and a little glass tube rolls out. She pockets it so she can check it out later, and oh hey, there’s a finger in there!

Ji Lin’s stepbrother, Shin is an intern at the local hospital, and that place is seriously messed up: “There’s a secret, white and yeasty maggot, which threatens to undermine the neat and orderly life of the hospital.” Just for starters, what happened to all the amputated fingers that are supposed to be in the storeroom with the other medical specimens?

At the same time, an unusual number of deaths have occurred lately, and there’s concern that it’s a weretiger that’s behind them. A weretiger is like a werewolf in reverse: instead of originally being a human that changes to a monstrous sort of wolf when the moon is full, a weretiger actually is a tiger that can at times become human.

Choo is masterly at weaving a complex plot, developing characters, and using imagery and possibly allegory as well; the river is a symbol that has been around as long as literature. But her greatest contribution here is in the way she uses all these things to create suspense. Once the possibility of the weretiger is raised in more than a passing way, I find myself examining every secondary character—and some fairly important ones—whose whereabouts are unknown at about the same time a corpse is discovered with tiger tracks nearby. Could that person be a weretiger? Could this one? No. Well, maybe. We learn that a weretiger is distinguished by a limp or otherwise deformed back foot, and so then I am eyeing anybody with a hurt foot or a limp or a wheelchair.

There are a number of threads that weave in and out of the story: troubled dreams are shared by Ren and Ji Lin, who have never met, and Ren’s dead twin, Yin, speaks to him. Ren’s “cat sense” guides him away from trouble and toward the finger. I often struggle with magical realism, because I’ll be trying to solve the story’s main problem using real world information, but then someone will do something people cannot do, and I yelp with frustration. But Choo sells me on the notion that there’s a weretiger, because now I know that a dead twin that magically communicates here; who’s to say there can’t be a magical tiger monster that’s killing the local folk too? Somebody sure as heck keeps leaving tiger tracks, and I know it’s not me.

The author provides information about Chinese folklore, including the weretiger, in notes following the story, and about halfway through the book I read the author’s notes before finishing the story.

The only part of this book that I don’t like is the romance that pops up between Ji Lin and her stepbrother. Ew, ew! Why does Choo find this necessary? It doesn’t add interest so much as distraction. When their mother goes bonkers and tells them to stay the hell away from each other, I’m right there in her corner. You tell them, honey. Hit them again. You can borrow my umbrella. Let them have it! Sick little bastards. The author goes to pains to stress that they aren’t biologically related and that Shin’s father never legally adopted Ji Lin, but who the hell cares? The incest taboo has nothing to do with biology; it’s a social construct. We don’t screw the siblings we grow up with, period. This aspect of the story is just plain tasteless, and if I were her editor, I would cut it clean out of there, making Shin the fantastic brother that he had been when they were younger and nothing else.

That said, I nearly went for a five star rating anyway, because it is so gratifying to see a well written story about any part of Asia during the colonial period that is not written from the point of view of the colonists and whose main characters are native residents rather than the occupiers. By showing the ignorant, patronizing way that local Brits—many of whom are expatriates because they aren’t decent enough people to be accepted socially back home—Choo exposes the true nature of colonialism, and for this alone, I could stand up and cheer.

With the single caveat emphatically mentioned, I recommend this story to you.