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.

Waisted, by Randy Susan Meyers*****

Randy Susan Meyers wrote The Murderer’s Daughters and The Widow of Wall Street. Her new novel, Waisted is a fiercely feminist story that skewers the weight loss industry and a society that “treats fat people like out-of-control horrors” and the war against women with its “intersectionality of misogyny, fat shaming, [and] faux health concerns.”  Thanks go to Atria and Net Galley for the review copy. You should read this book.

Alice married Clancy when she was “break-up skinny,” not knowing that he isn’t attracted to any woman that isn’t thin. Daphne is tormented by her 108 pound mother, whose toxic monitoring and obsession with Daphne’s eating have nearly driven her daughter over the edge.  Alice and Daphne meet at Privation,  a live-in weight loss program in rural Vermont. They and five other women sign on because they are promised rapid weight loss free of charge, with the caveat that they must agree to be filmed 24 hours a day for a documentary. The program is not only extreme; it is cruel and dangerous.

“Welcome to hell, ladies, where we recognize that life is unfair, and you pay the price for every action you take…You’ve eaten your way through pain, through loss, through happiness, and just for the plain pleasure of crunching calories between your teeth. Not one of you knows how to live with privation. So you landed here. The last stop.”

The women don’t know that there are no doctors here, or that they are part of a nasty experiment to see what women will tolerate in order to become thinner, even when it is obvious that such a program cannot be sustained. Each time one or another of them considers decamping, there’s a weigh-in that shows them to be even lighter than they were earlier in the week, and with dreams of a new, sleek, lovable body ever nearer realization, they persevere.

The readers that will relate to this story best are also the ones that will have a hard time getting through the first half of it. Meyers drives home so many uncomfortable truths that overweight women like me have trained ourselves not to think about most of the time because they are painful. Do it anyway. It’s high time someone wrote this book.

Apart from its very real underpinnings, the story is far-fetched and features an unlikely outcome, but that doesn’t matter. A more nuanced or realistic version would fail to deliver the message in as brilliant a fashion.

This is urgent, angry, and at times darkly funny prose. It will be available Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Highly recommended.

Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim*****

The buzz around this mystery started early, and it started loud. If it hadn’t I am not sure I’d have asked to read it. When I saw the premise—the use of a hyperbaric oxygen tank to murder an autistic child—I thought wow, this author is reaching. But a quick web crawl taught me that though controversial, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is actually used to treat autism. The treatment is controversial but the basis of the story is a sound one, so I have learned something already, and now that I’ve read it, I am glad I didn’t let it pass me by. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sarah Crichton Books for the review copy. Miracle Creek will be available to the public April 16, 2019.

The HBOT therapy device is owned by Pak and Young Yoo.  A lot of hard work and financial struggle went into procuring this device; there were years when they had to live apart, with Young and their daughter Mary in Baltimore, Young working round the clock for room, board, and her daughter’s private school tuition while Pak worked two jobs in Korea, squirreling away resources. Now the unthinkable has occurred—the chamber has gone up in flames with patients inside it. Two people are dead and others are horribly injured, and there’s an intensive investigation that leads to an arrest. Elizabeth, a single mother, is charged with starting the fire in order to murder her little boy and free herself from the difficult caregiver role. On the surface, the facts are damning indeed, but what the cops don’t know, at least in the beginning, is that every single person that was there that day is lying about it.

Elizabeth, Kitt, and Teresa are mothers of autistic children, digging deep and running up their credit cards hoping for miraculous transformations. The seventh patient is Matt, whose wife has pressured him into trying this treatment to raise his sperm count. The other characters in this story are the Yoo family that own and operate the chamber, and the legal teams assembled for the trial.

Most legal thrillers and courtroom mysteries hinge heavily upon what happens in the courtroom. In contrast, although what plays out in court is not unimportant, the real meat of this story has to do with the actions, thoughts, and memories of the townspeople that are involved, primarily when court is not in session. Although our point of view is the third person omniscient, specific critical details are revealed to us in stages, and what we learn at the end differs greatly from the conclusions most of us will have drawn at the outset, when we had less information.

Why do people lie, and in particular, why would anyone lie to the authorities investigating a deadly disaster like this one? Make a list of the possibilities, and as you read, you’ll see them all, a veritable potpourri of bald-faced lies and critical omissions of facts. At the end of it, we find just one (lying) person that has integrity and pure motives, and everyone else has crossed a line, not only legally but ethically. And although there’s just one character here that I’d describe as dynamic, the others are developed to an extent as their layers of rationalization, anger, fear, resentment, and greed are revealed to us.

This is an explosive debut, and Angie Kim is a force to be reckoned with. You want to read this book, and happily, you won’t have to wait long. Highly recommended.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T. Kira Madden***-****

3.5 rounded up. I received this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury in exchange for this honest review, and I am sorry to be late providing it. The truth is, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of buzz in advance, and indeed, Madden is a talented word smith. This is also one of the strangest books I have ever read.

In a series of essays, Madden discusses her childhood and adolescence, growing up as an heir to the Madden shoe empire, provided with every material advantage, but also strangely unwelcome in her own home. It’s the ultimate story of alienation, one in which her father’s primary goal as a parent seems to be to pretend she isn’t there—until he goes to jail, anyway. 

Kids that are ignored by their parents act out to get their attention. This is true across all social classes, though the form of the acting out varies. Kira isn’t invited to accompany her father anywhere, and he doesn’t talk to her when he’s home. He and her mother have frightening drug and alcohol addictions that increase the lack of contact and the dearth of affection their daughter receives. She can’t make friends and bring them home. So here’s this rich girl with money, unlimited time to burn, a house full of drugs and booze, internet access, and a head full of resentment. What could possibly go wrong? 

In many ways, Kira’s writing breaks up stereotypes right and left, and her prose is crystalline and heartbreakingly, brutally frank. There’s so much that is good here. At the same time, I have to say that being neglected while rich is nowhere near as bad as being neglected while poor. It sounds cold, but there it is. 

T. Kira Madden has lit up the literary world with her debut, and it will be interesting to see what comes next. 

Best Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.