Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel, by Ruth Hogan****

When I requested the galley for this book, I was taking a chance. I do love good historical fiction, but I seldom enjoy a cozy mystery, and this story is but a whisker away from being one. I was afraid the story might be cutesy instead of quirky, cloying instead of life affirming. And how delightful it is to be wrong! I received my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins. It’s for sale now.

The premise is that Tilda has returned to the town where she and her mother lived after her parents separated. She was an only child, and her mother is dead, and so it falls to Tilda to tie up the loose ends of her mother’s small estate. And at this point, my snark is already peeking its beady eyes out, saying Oh geez, another story that starts with an only child cleaning up the estate. Lots of those lately! And a mean mother? That’s got to be my number one eye-roller right now!  And I tell you these things, reader, because it underscores what a job Hogan had ahead of her in order to break down my resistance; and yet, she did.

The narrative is divided into two points of view which alternate. The first is young Tilly, the little girl that doesn’t understand what is happening between her parents, and is devastated when her father moves out. The second is the adult Tilda, whose capacity for trust in other people is limited.

The first part of the book is a hard read in places, because Tilly is in so much pain, and it feels drawn out, although one could argue that time passes more slowly when we are young. Tilly’s parents are always quarreling; then her daddy moves out, and Tilly, who was a daddy’s girl, takes out all of her hurt and rage on her mother. Her mother is brittle and not very stable, and she’s at wit’s end. First they move from the house where the family had lived to the hotel in the title; then, against her wishes, Tilly is sent off to boarding school. Tilly had loved living at the hotel and didn’t understand why she was exiled.

Tilda learns what her mother was thinking when she finds and reads the journals that her mother had left for her, and again, it’s not exactly an original device on the author’s part, but it’s done so well that it doesn’t matter. Tilda also finds one of her mother’s old friends, and she learns some things that way as well.  There are some genuine surprises that are also believable and fit the characters and setting. It’s artfully done.

As to the quirky bits, they are what makes the story unique and successful. For starters, Tilly (and Tilda) see ghosts, not just now and then, but in some cases regularly. Let’s take, for example, the little dog named Eli. Not everyone can see Eli; Tilly can, and some others can as well, but most cannot. And our suspicion that Eli is not a corporeal critter is affirmed by the fact that decades later, this woman still has exactly the same dog, and he is as spry as ever.

Then—and I have saved the best for last—there’s the child’s narrative. Tilly explains things to us in the language, and with the frame of reference, of a small child of six or seven years. She is a bright girl, but she’s a child, and so her explanations for things are often a bit twisted, and her conclusions are often far-fetched ones that are based on the limited amount that the girl understands. My favorite bits are the mondegreens, and there are many. (A mondegreen is the word or phrase that results from someone that hears words that aren’t in her vocabulary, and thus replaces them with words she does know; one well known example is the American Pledge of Allegiance, starting with “I led the pigeons to the flag.”) My favorite of Tilly’s mondegreens is when she attends church and sings “The Old Rubber Cross.” And the thing I love most about Tilly’s mondegreens is that Hogan doesn’t explain them or beat them to death; she drops them in and then moves on as if nothing unusual has occurred.

I started reading this book using the review copy provided me, but because I was running behind, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons when I was a short way in, and I alternated versions. I especially want to give a shout out to Jane Collingwood, who reads the audio version. I can think of no more challenging narration than that of a child. Collingwood had to sound like a little girl half the time, but nobody wants to hear an actor’s version of baby talk at all, and surely not for half of a novel, so she has to walk a very fine line, not sounding like an adult, but also not sounding inane. On top of that, she must also voice the adult version, sounding like the same child, except grown up.  It’s a tricky assignment and she carries it off perfectly; I tip my hat to her.

The ending is optimistic, yet credible. Those in need of a feel-good story—and there are an awful lot of us that do, right now—could do a whole lot worse. Recommended to those that enjoy quirky novels and historical fiction.

Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. I alternated my digital copy with the audio version I found at Seattle Bibliocommons; the reader does a fine job, and so if you want this book, you can’t go wrong in terms of print versus sound.

This is either exactly the right time to read this book, or exactly the wrong time.

Franny Stone has never been happy staying in one place, and now, when the walls are about to close in on her, she decides that one final voyage is in order. The Artic terns are about to make one final migration, and she means to go with them. Posing as a marine biologist, she persuades a fishing crew to take her along; she has the data to follow the terns, and the terns are following the fish. It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together here, now that so many species are extinct and the fish are so scarce. Once in motion, however, few things go according to plan.

The setting is the future, at a time when humanity has depleted most of the world’s wildlife. It is bleak, bleak, bleak.

Much of the story revolves around Franny’s character, and since we know from the get-go that she doesn’t intend to return alive once this trip is done, there are two questions that keep me turning the pages. I want to know why she wants to die, and of course, whether she does. The reason for her morbid plans is spooled out to us in small bits; whether she dies at the end is something the reader must learn for herself.

As for me, I had huge expectations by the time I began reading, because this novel shot up to bestseller level almost overnight. Perhaps that’s why I felt a trifle let down when it was done. It’s a good story, but I wouldn’t call it one of the year’s finest. Certainly, there is moral gravitas behind it, and yet those most likely to read it are not climate change deniers. For me to have loved this story, I would have needed more hope and less utter despair. When a story starts sad and ends sad, the little places in which it is slightly less sad aren’t enough to bond me to the narrative.

On the other hand, I am just one reviewer. There are a whole lot of readers out there getting all the feels and loving them. I recommend this story to anyone looking for a catalyst for a good ugly cry.

Behind the Red Door, by Megan Collins**-***

I enjoyed Collins’s debut, The Winter Sister, and so when I was invited to read and review this second novel, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Have you ever had someone in your life that’s a hot mess and makes terrible decisions, one after another? This felt a little bit like that, at least during the periods when I believed the character; and I did, some of the time. But whereas The Winter Sister held together beautifully until the implausible ending—a common issue with mysteries and thrillers—this one is riddled with difficulties throughout.

Fern had a traumatic childhood. Her father used her to conduct cruel experiments, deliberately terrifying his daughter in a variety of ways so that he could write about her responses. Now she’s grown and gone, though not surprisingly plagued by serious mental health issues, but healing nonetheless, and he summons her home. He says he needs her. Against the advice of stable people in her adult life, Fern packs her bags and comes a-runnin’. Who knows? Maybe her daddy wants to say sorry; perhaps he is terminally ill and set on making amends.

Well, um, no.

Upon her return, three terrible things happen almost immediately. First of all, her father, Ted, has not changed a bit, and he only called her back because he’s moving and doesn’t have time to pack. He wants her to pack for his move. He doesn’t plan to help pack his own crap, and he doesn’t plan to pay her for her time. Plus, he still plays cruel tricks on her, just like bad old times.

On top of this, her best friend’s sadistic brother, Cooper, is still around, and he’s still not a real nice guy. She discovers this almost immediately firsthand.

And on a trip to the store, she runs across a book, a memoir written by Astrid Sullivan. Flash! Bang! She knows that face, doesn’t she? Did she know Astrid?  Now Astrid has been murdered, and Fern has been having dreams about her, which might be flashbacks. Has she buried memories of the murder? And…WHO would have DONE such a thing?  Nobody SHE knows would do a mean thing like that! Unless…naw.

Oh dear.

The story is told in alternate narratives, Fern’s and Astrid’s, courtesy of her memoir. This method does build a sense of dread, but it feels a little choppy in the telling.  In addition, I had difficulty believing the character’s motivation. I could see reflexively running home—I’ve known people that would do the same—but what I cannot understand is why, when she found out what Ted’s big emergency was, she didn’t toss her bag back in her car, say Buh-bye and good luck with the move, and hightail it home.

There’s a lot of extraneous business here; we have Fern’s mental health problems, and on top of it all, she’s pregnant. (Oh, good idea. A baby. What could possibly go wrong?)

I believe Collins has a great book in her, but this isn’t it. That’s okay; back to the drawing board. Life is long. But reader, as for you, I recommend you either pass this one up, or read it free or cheap.

The Split, by Sharon Bolton****

My first book by this author was The Craftsman, which came out in the fall of 2018. That story blew me away, and after that I made it a point to watch for new books by Bolton. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title is a double entendre: our protagonist, Felicity, is avoiding someone, and she is certain he’s found her. Since her field is glaciology, she decides to travel to Antarctica with an expedition. He’ll never find her there, and even if he should, he’d be at a distinct disadvantage to her. Those are her stomping grounds. Thus, she is about to split.

The catch, however, is that her superiors are uncertain she is mentally stable enough for this journey. She keeps missing time; there are whole blocks, an hour, an afternoon, a weekend, when she doesn’t recall where she was or what she is doing. She finds evidence that she has done things she does not remember doing. As we perch in her psychologist’s office, veritable flies on the wall observing her therapy sessions, it soon becomes clear what the issue is, or at least it did to me; and thus, the second meaning of the title.

One of the things I appreciate about this story is that there is no coy effort on Bolton’s part to deflect the reader’s awareness of what ails Felicity. I would have liked at some point to see or hear the correct name used; Felicity has a dissociative disorder. But this is a small quibble.

What I appreciate the very most is that Bolton doesn’t sensationalize this disorder, but sticks closely to the truth. Why not? The real thing is dramatic enough all by itself to keep our interest. And when I realized where we were headed with this I regretted, if just for a brief while, having signed on, because this topic cuts close to the bone for me. I have a close family member with this disorder, and hearing the voices of people that were, and yet were not, my relative’s voice is one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. After a few weeks of it, I had to pull back and ask to only be phoned by the dominant person in my relative’s body, the one that I, like the rest of the family, was acquainted with. And so, once I decided to continue reading this book, I listened closely for inaccuracies in its telling, using my relative as a baseline (a sample size of one, which I’ll admit is sketchy,) and I found none. Most readers won’t have this experience for comparison.

Although the mental condition is revealed, bit by bit, fairly early in the story, there are still surprises aplenty, particularly with regard to the stalker. The climax is a bit farfetched, but nevertheless this is a solid job, and Bolton gets big props from me for dealing with a difficult premise accurately and fairly.

I flipped back and forth between the printed review copy and the audio version I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons. Both versions are well done and easy to follow, so you can’t go wrong. Recommended to those that love a good psychological thriller, and that have no triggers that might conflict with your enjoyment.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib*****

Anna isn’t eating, and she’s so weak that she faints from time to time. Her husband, Matthias is afraid for her; this isn’t the life they envisioned when they moved from France to the States. She is admitted to a facility for women with eating disorders, and it is that address that gives the book its title. Big thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my feedback.

I never would have expected to want to read a novel about an anorexic protagonist. In real life, Anna would have offered me her fries and her dessert, and I would have cheerfully accepted them. She in turn would inwardly shudder, my stocky grandma body providing her with a cautionary example of what happens to those that eat such things.

When I was a sweet young thing growing up in the 1970s, there were rumors that some of the girls at school kept their figures slender by throwing up after they’d eaten; a friend and I commiserated over our own lack of self-discipline. We had scarfed down our Halloween candy and not even considered ralphing it back up in the bathroom. Now we could barely fasten our jeans, while those classmates were smaller than we were.

We thought that some girls have all the luck.

It wasn’t until the death of singer Karen Carpenter that anorexia became well known, and even then, it took us awhile to clue in on the details. Because it’s about body image, and yet it isn’t. And Zgheib does a wonderful job of educating the reader using that approachable medium, fiction.

In Paris, Anna was a dancer. When she and Matthias married, she planned to go on dancing professionally, at least until they had children. But when he was presented with a prestigious promotion that required him to relocate to the United States, they packed their things; Anna had expected to continue her career in America, but she was never chosen.

The in-patient facility where she is treated has strict, clear rules about every aspect of daily life, and most of the privileges hinge around timely consumption of the food that’s provided. Anna’s struggle is profound, and her story is moving. Because it’s about food, but not really. She has buried a trauma involving the deaths of her brother and her mother, and she’s channeled her self-hatred into this eating disorder. We catch glimpses of this as she expertly dodges questions raised in therapy. One of the most moving moments, strangely, has to do with a bagel and cream cheese. She’s supposed to eat it, and she throws a pluperfect hissy. She never eats dairy, she says. She wants the vegan option! No dice, honey. But as time moves forward and this difficulty continues, she finally reveals that actually, this might have once been her favorite food. It was so delicious, and it took her such iron self-control to forget its taste. All that work, she thinks, and now it’s ruined. And she is genuinely shattered by this.

Only one sufferer in three recovers from anorexia.

Due to a backlog of galleys, I checked out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the voice actor that reads it is perfect.

Highly recommended.

Dead Land, by Sara Paretsky*****

Detective Vic Warshawski was born in 1982, a time when a woman advocating for herself, or another woman, or women on the whole were few and far between. Such a woman often spoke softly, hesitantly, and to reassure the listener that she wasn’t stark raving mad, she might begin by saying, “I’m not a feminist or anything, but…” And so for the lonely few of us that were uncloseted, audacious feminists, this bold, brazen, unapologetic character was inspirational. Vic is fictional, but Paretsky is not. It was leading lights such as hers that made me feel less alone. I have loved her from then, to now.

Paretsky is no longer a young woman. I know this because I am a grandmother myself, and she is older than I am. For her readers that wonder if she’s still got it, I have great news. She’s better than ever.

By now I should have thanked William Morrow, Net Galley, and Edelweiss Books for the review copies. You can get this book April 21, 2020.

Victoria’s young goddaughter, Bernie Fouchard appears in an earlier story, and now she returns. Bernie’s youthful passion and impetuous disposition counter Vic’s experience and more measured responses. I liked Bernie when she was introduced, and am glad she is back. Chicago’s shady politicians are about to quietly sell a prime chunk of the city’s park lands to developers; the corrupt nature of the deal makes it essential that the whole thing be done fast and with as little publicity or public input as possible. Bernie and a handful of others learn of it, and they protest at a meeting at which the city fathers had hoped to slide this oily project through. There are arrests, and soon afterward, Bernie’s boyfriend is murdered.  

At the same time, Bernie tries to help a homeless singer named Lydia Zamir. Zamir is brilliant and was once very famous, but everything crumbled around the time that her lover was shot and killed; she’s been living under a bridge, filthy, disoriented, playing her music on a child’s toy piano. Now Lydia is missing. Lydia’s champion has been a man named Coop, and Coop is missing too. Before pulling a bunker, Coop deposits his dog outside Vic’s apartment, earning her the enmity of neighbors that are already up in arms over the barking of Vic’s own dogs when she is gone. Now Vic has every reason to help find Coop, Lydia, and the murderer. At the same time the reader must wonder how the sleazy deal, the murder, and the disappearances are connected. The pacing is urgent and my interest never flags; the haunting mental image of Lydia and her small, battered piano tug at my social conscience, all the more so as the world is hurtled into quarantine.

Long-running characters Lottie and Max, who are like parents to Vic, and newspaperman Murray, a close friend of Vic’s, return here, and I love them all. No doubt this colors my response as well. I have known these characters longer than my husband of thirty years; at one point I realized that somewhere along the line, I had separated the other books I was reading (some of them quite good) from this one. I had my books-to-read category, but I had mentally shifted this story into the same category as my family business. I should check on my sister, who’s been ill; I wanted to set a lunch date with one of my kids; and I should check and see whether Vic is having any luck finding…oh hey. Wait a minute.

Can you read this story as a stand-alone? You sure can. However, this bad-ass, hardboiled Chicago detective is an addictive character; once you’ve read it, you’re going to want to go back and get the other 21 in the series. I swear it. You probably won’t experience the nostalgia that I do, but a damn good read is a damn good read, any way you slice it.

Highly recommended.

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker****

Happy anniversary, Doubleday. This is my thirtieth review for you.

Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy.

I wanted to read Kolker’s book because so little is written about schizophrenia for the general readership. My best friend’s older brother was schizophrenic, and sometimes she would phone me crying and whispering from the floor of her bedroom closet. The bro—let’s call him Marco–was a large person, over six feet tall with a towering red afro that made him appear even larger. He and my friend were both adopted, and their parents weren’t nearly that big. Marco hated taking his medication, and once he reached his teens, he self-medicated with every street drug he could get his hands on. As a result, he often became violent, breaking out all of the windows of the family home and assaulting his poor sweet mother with a crowbar before the cops arrived to haul him off to the hospital again.

And so I wondered, when I saw this book, whether this was a common experience (yes,) and what inroads had been made in the decades between then and now (very few.)

The Galvin family is an anomaly, a very large family of twelve children, half of whom were stricken and the other half traumatized from growing up with them. The family participated in The Human Genome Project, a compilation of genetic samples and other information aimed at unlocking Mother Nature’s terrible secrets. Of course, researchers were also absorbed in the question of nature versus nurture.

Kolker does an outstanding job of chronicling the Galvin family’s history alternately with passages about what was known about this disease at the time when the eldest sibling began to show symptoms, and what has been learned since. It’s a lot of information to organize and share, and who knows what information he weeded out as unnecessary, because one has to stop somewhere.

When the Galvin children were diagnosed in the mid-twentieth century, professionals in the field leaned heavily toward the idea that there was no hereditary cause for the condition, but instead embraced a “mother-as-monster” theory. Because of this, Mimi Galvin, the mother of all of those children, was inclined to stonewall rather than seek help. But who could blame her? Our society was only slightly removed from the days when the ‘crazy’ family member was locked in the attic. (“That thumping sound? Oh dear heaven, perhaps that old raccoon has snuck back in. Enjoy your pie; we’ll chase him out of there after you’re on your way.”) To make matters more complicated, Don, father of the brood, had a high profile position in the U.S. military, and rumors of family drama could have impacted his career.

Like my friend’s family, the Galvins dealt with the noise, the horror, the disruption by moving to the far edges of town, seeking geographical isolation so that neighborly complaints need not be an added worry.

Here’s the difficult part of writing about schizophrenia: readers want to find a grand discovery at the end; if not a cure, then a new and impressive treatment, or an historic advance in eliminating the problem. But solutions are elusive, and because of the stubborn nature of this disease, what may seem ground breaking to a researcher looks like a big, fat so-what to the average reader.

All told, Kolker has done a fine job describing what has taken place within the family and within the field; I thought he was a little hard on Mimi, who made a lot of errors but was facing a terrible dilemma during a period when our culture was very different from today. That aside, I do recommend this book to you. It will be available April 7, 2020.

Best Overall Fiction 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

Today We Go Home, by Kelli Estes**-***

I expected to love this book, and I wanted it to be great. The premise is terrific: Larkin, a wounded warrior home after falling apart while on tour in Afghanistan, finds the diary of Emily, a woman that fought in the American Civil War (albeit in drag.) It’s a cool idea, and between the feminist moxie and my enthusiasm for local writers, I was ready to be wowed. It didn’t work out that way, but my thanks still go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

The contemporary component is the part I found strongest and most appealing. I haven’t seen a lot of novels featuring women in uniform (or freshly out of one,) whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the pain that Lark carries for her best friend, Sarah, is visceral and in places, haunting. Sarah served with Lark and died in an ambush that Lark believes she could have prevented. Lark sees her die, and then has flashbacks and nightmares that make my gut roil. Lark’s mama is dreadful, and I am heartily weary of seeing mothers take it on the chin in fiction, but I like the relationship between Lark and her grandmother and the way it is developed.

I had hopes for the second thread, the one about Emily fighting alongside her brother in the Civil War, but this part is unfortunately plagued by historical revisionism and too much convenient coincidence. For a woman to be as forward-thinking as the politically correct Emily—and this is the first time I have ever used this term in a negative way, leaning much farther to the left than your average American—would have been very unusual indeed, and for Emily to have slipped beneath the social radar in other regards would have been nearly impossible. Emily thinks at one point that her brother David is gay, for example, but she worries only for his safety, because she herself is sure that gay people are just made that way by God. And while this is a lovely sentiment, a researcher could turn under every historical rock and go through every collection of Civil War diaries and letters, and she would probably not find this sentiment in any of them. And in another case, Emily is sympathetic toward a runaway slave, not only in the sense that slavery is wrong or that the runaway is toast if his pursuers find him; she views him as her social equal. Aside from the late and admirable John Brown, and possibly his sons, it would be a hard thing indeed to find such a Caucasian person in the early 1860s, North or South. Many that fought against slavery assumed that former slaves would be deported to Africa; nearly nobody is on record during that period suggesting that Black folks were equal to whites, or that they could become friends and neighbors on equal footing.

I imagined Ta-Nehisi Coates reading this novel and howling with laughter at its naiveté.

To round it out, Emily virtually trips over another woman-disguised-as-a-male soldier, and given the vast numbers of men fighting in the Civil War, even the most generous estimate of women that served covertly makes this unlikely enough to be ludicrous.

I am not sure whether the pacing of the novel is also slow, apart from these inaccuracies and inconsistencies, or whether it was slowed by them, that sad moment akin to one in which Toto has pulled the curtain aside and revealed that Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little dumpy bald guy talking into a microphone. All I know is that by the thirty percent mark, I was forcing myself to continue reading because I had a review copy and an obligation. I actually like having one galley with a sedate pace that I can read before I turn out the light, but my frustration with the issues noted above prevented me from reading it and then dropping off into peaceful slumber. At the sixty percent mark, I let myself off the hook. I took a quick look at the denouement to check for mitigating developments at the end, and then closed the book.

Estes is a talented writer, but I believe she has tried to do too much here. A simpler novel focusing exclusively on Lark would likely have been stronger. However, she is a writer to watch, and I believe she will do fine work in the future.

This book is for sale now.

When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.