Falling Onto Cotton, by Matthew E. Wheeler*****

“This is the most famous thing to happen in Milwaukee since Laverne and Shirley got cancelled.”

Chance McQueen is a musician and restauranteur, an honest man doing his level best to tiptoe around the morass of organized crime that exists around him without getting his toes wet. It isn’t easy. His ancient Uncle Vinny is the local don, and he’s dying. Chance has told him many times that he would prefer to avoid this part of the family business, but he’s been dreaming. Uncle Vinny has stage four lung cancer, and he summons his nephew to share some hard truths:  “It’s simple. Either you take over the family before I’m dead, or Frank will have you killed before my body’s cold…Charles, when did you ever get what you want?”

This oddly charming debut came to me free and early, and my thanks for the review copy go to Net Galley and M.D.R. Publishing. This book is for sale now.

Wheeler’s debut reads as if scribed by a seasoned novelist, and he introduces a lively collection of memorable characters. He serves as mentor and father figure to Winnie, a dapper young man that has it bad for a sweet young thing named Alex; Geoff, his best buddy, who is Black and gay, and endlessly loyal; a homeless veteran living behind the restaurant, who is never a caricature; and Chance’s nemesis, Frank Bartallatas: “Frank Bartallatas was pure evil in a massive frame. More than one little fish had disappeared after swimming too close to Mr. Bartallatas.”

The story is set in 1990, and each of the agreeably brief chapters is headed with the title of a rock song from the 1970s and 80s, which is a portent of what the chapter brings. I like this guy’s playlist, and I stopped reading more than once to add his songs to my own collection.

Here are the things I like most, apart from the playlist: I like the strong, resonant characters, which are well enough developed that they are easy to keep straight; the setting, which hasn’t been overused by other writers, and is a credible choice; the selective use of violence, which cannot be left out of a story like this, but never feels excessive, sickening, or prurient; and the pacing, which never flags. In addition, I like the mobster aspect of this story, an angle that we aren’t seeing much in new fiction.

I have no serious complaints, but if I could change anything here, there are two things I’d tweak: First, Geoff practically can’t have a conversation with Chance without making awkward race jokes, and Caucasians that spend time with African-American people will tell you that never happens, no matter how close you are; and second, the alcoholic protagonist is becoming trite, so I’d either let Chance kick his habit without a protracted, detail-laden struggle, or I’d just let the guy drink. Chance’s dead fiancée is enough hubris all by herself. But clearly these are minor concerns, or this wouldn’t be a five star review.

This rock solid debut signifies great things to come from this author, and a little birdie tells me that there may be future novels featuring Chance McQueen. My advice to you is to get in on the ground floor of this series-to-be, because it’s going to be unmissable. Highly recommended.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

Becky Mandelbaum is the real deal. In 2016 she published a short story collection, Bad Kansas, which I read and loved. ( You can find my review of it here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2017/09/15/bad-kansas-by-becky-mandelbaum/) And so when I found this debut novel on Net Galley, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Big thanks to Net Galley, and to Simon and Schuster. This book will be available to the public August 4, 2020.

Ariel and her mother, Mona have been estranged for six years. But when she finds a news item about her mother’s sanctuary having been torched, Ariel knows it’s time to go home, to see what has been lost and what can be saved.

The story is told from the third person omniscient, and we hear from three characters mostly. We start with Mona, whose stress levels have become nearly unbearable. She’s getting too old to do so much work, and she never has enough money. She has just one employee, working on site primarily for room and board. Perhaps this is part of what possesses her when she leaps in her truck in the dead of night to steal the neighbor’s Make America Great Again sign. She wrestles the great big thing into the bed of her pickup, and by now we can see that she is a tightly wound person whose impulse control is just a tiny fraction of what it should be.

Meanwhile, Ariel is concerned, not only about the fire, the sanctuary, and her mother, but also about her relationship. Her boyfriend, Dex—the third of the characters we hear from most– proposes just as she has begun to fantasize about ending the relationship. As the story progresses, we can see that Ariel is the sort of person that runs from her problems, sometimes literally. She accepts the ring and then says she has to go home for the weekend, and no, he shouldn’t come with her. After all, she’ll be right back. Probably.

Mandelbaum does a brilliant job of building believable, nuanced characters and complicated relationships. Five percent of the way into my galley, my notes say, “This one is going to be a thinker.” And it is, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t a pretentious piece of writing by a long shot, and it isn’t full of florid descriptions or challenging vocabulary. Instead, we have characters that are dealing with thorny personal issues that have no obvious solutions. And my favorite aspect of it is the way the mother-daughter relationship, which is the heart of the novel, is framed. Mona has made a lot of mistakes in parenting Ariel, but she loves her daughter and is a good person. Ariel is still learning how to solve problems herself. There’s a trend in fiction writing right now to draw villainous mothers as the sources of protagonists’ problems. It’s close to becoming a cliché. Mandelbaum has steered clear of this canard and created something much deeper and more interesting. In fact, there are at least half a dozen stereotypes that she has dodged expertly. The fact that she has done this in her debut novel suggests that a great career is ahead of her.

I love the way she ends this story.

Don’t deprive yourself of this glorious novel. Highly recommended.

Credible Threat, by J.A. Jance****

Jance is a prolific novelist, with three long-running series to her name. Credible Threat is the fifteenth in the Ali Reynolds series. Thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The star rating is a tricky thing sometimes. In this case, I wonder whether, had I never read anything by this author, I might tack on that fifth star. It’s the curse of the brilliant, being measured against oneself, but ultimately, I couldn’t help comparing this mystery to The A List, which came before it.

What I like—a good deal, in fact—is the trajectory Jance has taken with this series, making all of the important characters women. In addition to protagonist Reynolds, we have the villain, Rachel Higgins; a third long-running character is the AI named Frigg, who identifies as female. Two key assistants are female, and Sister Anselm, a nun friend of Reynolds, also plays a key role. There are men here, of course. There’s the victim, Father Andrew, who doesn’t last long, and the intended victim, Father Gillespie, who has the meatiest male role in this installment. Ali’s spouse is the co-owner of High Noon, the security firm through which Ali is drawn into one mystery after another, but he is conveniently called out of the country early in the game.

The story begins with a call from Archbishop Gillespie, a friend of B, Ali’s husband. He’s been getting a whole string of threatening notes placed in offertory collections all over the Phoenix area. The police have brushed him off already, and he’d like the matter handled discreetly. He is concerned about his would-be killer’s soul.

Our killer, meanwhile—whom we know right up front, so I’m not giving anything away here—is grieving, embittered, and unhinged. She has recently discovered clues in her late son’s memorabilia collection that suggest his addiction and suicide were the outcome of his molestation at the hands of the swimming coach at the Catholic high school he attended. The coach has died of AIDS, and Higgins still wants somebody to pay for her son’s death; an eye for an eye. Since it’s clear to everyone that the Roman Catholic Church stonewalled and swept abuses under the rug for generations, it makes sense, she decides, to go right to the top. But clearly, even if she were up for international travel, it would be absurd to attempt killing the Pope. Who’s in charge locally, then? Archbishop Gillespie. And so Rachel commences to plan Gillespie’s murder, sending the missives in advance so everyone will know why he had to go. She finds a fall guy to frame for her crime and is off and running.

My first impression is that this story is substantially similar to the last Reynolds mystery, in which a mother planned to commit murders to avenge her son. I’m surprised a pro like Jance would slip like this. But that’s my sole complaint.

I love the way Jance battles stereotypes, and in this case, it’s the Catholic clergy—the good ones—that benefit. Though the layers of abusers, sexual and otherwise, are deep and wide, I bristle at the cracks that are made by comics and the general public almost reflexively about all priests. I have known some wonderful men that abused nothing and nobody, who gave up marriage and family in order to spend their entire lives in the service of others, via the Church. Not all nuns are frustrated savages looking to beat children with rulers; not all priests are pedophiles. The way Jance takes that apart makes me want to stand up and cheer.  

The clever loophole that Ali finds and that Gillespie widens with regard to Frigg’s extralegal snooping is terrific.

Whether we call it four stars or five, this is a solid mystery and a good deal of fun.  I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

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.

2019 Best Book by a Pacific Northwest Author: Old Newgate Road, by Keith Scribner

Scribner held me in thrall with this one. I’m surprised it hasn’t turned up on more lists. This is the first of 20 best-of posts for this year; to keep track, check the Best Books page listed on my header.

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.

Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton***

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing. Buxton has had her work appear in The New York Times and some other impressive places, and I was drawn by the buzz. To be honest, this book didn’t work for me, but I also have to admit that I am probably outside the target audience.

The setting drew me first; it’s hard to resist work set in my own hometown of Seattle. The premise has to do with a smart crow and a dumb dog setting out to save what’s left of their world. It’s billed as a romp, and I make a point of punctuating my other reading with humor so it doesn’t get too dark out there. So there were reasons to think I would enjoy this book.

But I was expecting a story arc and a plot. And I noted at the ten percent mark that I had seen enough product placements for the rest of the story and a boxed set to go with it. I quit about halfway through and skimmed till I reached the 80 percent mark, and then read the ending; no joy.

If a friend has read this book and says they think that you will like it, that friend might be right. But I can only share what I have seen and give you my honest opinion, which is that this is only something to be obtained only if it’s free or cheap unless your pockets are deep.

The A List, by J.A. Jance*****

Best-selling author J.A. Jance is something of a legend here in Seattle, and I came to her work as a huge fan of the J.P. Beaumont series. It took me awhile to bond to the Ali Reynolds series—which is set in Not-Seattle– but I am all in it now.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy.

Our story commences inside a prison where a killer is spending what’s left of his life and plotting vengeance. On his arm are tattooed 5 initials which comprise his “A list” for the five people he wants dead. He understands he’ll have to hire out the “wet work,” but that’s okay. The voice Jance gives this character sends chills up and down my neck, and I don’t get that way easily. We learn that Ali, our protagonist, is on that list.

Once the reader’s attention is secure, we go through a complex but clear and necessary recap, which gets us through the essential information that’s developed during the first 13 books of the series, which is set in Arizona. So here, I have to tell you that I don’t recommend starting the series with this book. I have read all or most of the series, but with a year or so passing between each of these, I very much needed this recap to refresh my memory. Young readers with sterling memories might be able to keep up with it, but the audience that will love this story best are middle class Caucasian women over 40. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to go all the way back to the first book to begin reading, but I would urge you to go back to an earlier book somewhere else in the series and work your way forward. The books fly by quickly, and it’s definitely worth it. While some authors lose the urgency in their prose when they get older, Jance just gets leaner and sharper, and this story is among the very best I’ve seen her write, which says a lot.

The premise is centered around The Progeny Project, a nonprofit organization that helps children born through artificial insemination find their biological relatives for the purpose of learning about their own medical background. It begins when one such young man, in desperate need of a new kidney, makes a public plea for information on Ali’s television news program. Results come in quickly and reveal that Dr. Eddie Gilchrist’s fertility clinic did not use the donors he advertised, instead inseminating his many female patients with his own sperm. Events unfold, and the doctor is convicted of murder, and is sent away for life in prison. From there, he seeks revenge.

The plot is among the most original I have seen in many years, and its execution requires tight organization, which Jance carries off brilliantly. She could have written this mystery successfully without lending a lot of attention to the characters, but she doesn’t do that. It’s the combination of an intricate but clear plot and resonant characters that makes this story exceptional.

In an earlier book we were introduced to Frigg, an AI entity created by an IT guy that works for an internet security company owned by B. Simpson, Ali’s husband. Frigg disregards what she considers to be unreasonable laws against hacking, and attempts to take Frigg down completely have been foiled by the AI herself. This scenario creates all sorts of vastly amusing problems when Ali herself needs personal security; Frigg learns she is on the A List, and her vigilance is both essential and illegal, at times.

The second and most fascinating character is Hannah Gilchrist, the elderly, very wealthy mother of Dr. Eddie. When she learns that her only son has decided to have everyone responsible for his ruin killed, she decides she’s going to help him. She has terminal cancer and no other children, and a sort of modern, rich Ma Barker personality emerges. Hannah is a dynamic character and I absolutely love the way Jance develops her, laying waste to a multitude of sexist stereotypes.

If I could change one thing, I would have Jance lose the word “gangbanger,” a stereotype in itself, and include some positive Latino characters in the Reynolds series.

Make no mistake, this mystery is brainy and complicated. You don’t want to read it after you have taken your sleeping pill. But the masterful way Jance braids the plot, the return of Frigg, and the development of Hannah all make it well worth the reader’s effort. But again—don’t let this be the first of the series for you. Climb aboard an earlier entry and work your way into it. In fact, newbie readers will likely have an advantage over long time readers, because you can read these mysteries in succession without having to wait a year to come back to the series.

With that caveat, this mystery is highly recommended.

The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, by Matt Kracht***

I received this review copy free and early, courtesy of Net Galley and Chronicle Books. This whimsical yet bawdy take on our feathered frenemies will be for sale on April Fool’s Day, which figures.

Kracht—whose name sounds ever so slightly like something a crow might say—illustrates each bird he discusses in a style that is not half bad, with some anger tossed in as seasoning. I have to admit I don’t entirely understand his indignation, given the state of the environment. I myself tend to relish the sounds of birds, most of whom the author refers to as “shit sacks,” “noisy little fucks,” etc; yet clearly his tongue is in his cheek, since he studies them sufficiently to write about them.

Much of the humor will be appreciated by teenagers, and so if you are expecting a teenage guest over the spring and summer holidays and the blue language won’t be considered inappropriate in your family, you might want this book for your guest room.

If I could change one thing about this book, I’d expand the section devoted to “Murderers,” meaning birds of prey. This is where the art is the best and also the funniest, and so I don’t understand why he only includes four birds here, one of which is the bald eagle, which even Kracht cannot diss. Most of all I wonder how a Seattle birder can omit the Peregrine Falcon, a magnificent and adaptive bird that dwells on the ledges of many of our city’s tallest buildings. Go figure.

If this eccentric little book sounds like something you or those you gift might like, you can get it April 1, 2019.