On Spine of Death, by Tamara Berry****

The By the Book mystery series began earlier this year with Buried in a Good Book, and I knew right away the series was going to be a winner Author Tamara Berry is on a roll, with On Spine of Death, the second in the series, already on the shelves. Tess Harrow is our protagonist, and her teenaged daughter, Gertrude, helps more than she hinders, while also keeping us entertained.

The premise here is that while renovating and remodeling her late grandfather’s hardware store, multiple sets of human remains are unearthed. It’s hard enough to be accepted into a small town, but now half of its denizens are convinced that her granddad was a serial killer! Now Tess is on a mission to find out whose bones those are, and how they got there.

There are tropes here that usually make me cranky. We’ve got the hot-for-sheriff trope, and the must-clear-my-name (or that of a loved one) trope, but it’s testament to Berry’s authorial chops that I don’t think about either of them much until the book is over. Her droll humor and nicely turned out characters keep the pages turning. This is a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s just what I need sometimes.

I recommend this clever little cozy mystery to anyone needing a break from the world around us, along with a good chuckle, and I look forward to the next in the series.

The Fortunes of Jaded Women*****

The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh, is hilarious and oddly touching. It’s the best debut novel of 2022, and it isn’t as if there was no competition. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Mrs. Mai Nguyen was born in Vietnam, but has lived most of her life as a Californian. When we meet her, however, she has flown to Kauai, the home of a renowned Vietnamese psychic. The psychic tells her that the year ahead will be a pivotal one, the one in which she must repair her relationships with her sisters and her daughters. There will be one wedding; one funeral; and one pregnancy.

Well, now.

Nobody likes to be estranged from a family member, and yet it happens. But all of them? Both sisters, and her daughters, too? (No brothers, and no sons, either.) But surely, it isn’t her fault; after all, there’s the curse.

Chapter four is when everything kicks up a gear, and I have seldom laughed so hard. Mrs. Minh Pham is the first to arrive, and she has my attention from the get-go when she slips the waitstaff some money and explains there could potentially be a “small, tiny, little shouting match, with a propensity for small, tiny, little objects to be thrown through the air.” Mrs. Pham is the middle daughter, and is accustomed to being the mediator in any dispute. She takes all the precautions she feels are wise; she parks near the door for a fast getaway if necessary. She removes the sharp utensils as well as the chopsticks from the table, and requests paper plates and plastic cutlery. “Mai had a reputation for throwing things.”

As the women arrive at the dim sum restaurant, they flash their fake Louis Vuitton handbags and immediately set about trying to one-up one another with regard to social status and affluence, and especially—oh yes, especially—that of their respective daughters. Within three minutes, a donnybrook ensues, and the other diners, who are also Vietnamese and well acquainted with the curse of the Duong sisters, begin placing wagers on the winner. The sixty-something sisters commence throwing things at each other and are gently escorted out of the restaurant. They head for a bakery, and they get kicked out of there, too. Finally, the three of them end up on a park bench, their hair and clothing in dishabille, and yet none of them makes any move to leap up and go home.

These are not spoilers; this all takes place within the first 17 percent.

The chapters change points of view, moving between the sisters, their elderly mother, and their daughters, all in the third person omniscient. The fascinating thing is, these crazy behaviors, and the ways that they mold and shape their daughters and their relationships, all fit perfectly.

Although the setting changes, from Orange County, California to Hawaii to Vietnam to Seattle and beyond, this story is character based, and that’s my favorite type of novel. The skeezy men they date—mostly white boyfriends with Asian fetishes—make it even funnier.

The ending is perfect.

This is one of those rare galleys that I may actually read a second time for pleasure. One thing I know for sure is that Huynh is on my radar now. I can’t wait to see what her next book looks like!

Patricia Wants to Cuddle: The Audio Version, by Samantha Allen and a host of excellent narrators

Note: after hearing the audio version, I changed my rating to 5 stars. 5 stars shouldn’t be reserved for Shakespeare, for Toni Morrison, for Elizabeth Strout. 5 stars means the book is among the very best in its genre; Patricia Wants to Cuddle is among the best humorous novels being published this century.

A further note: this is the first time I can recall an audio book making a narrative easier to follow rather than harder. The presence of multiple, very skilled readers (Cindy Kay, Justis Bolding, Laura Knight Keating, Susan Bennett, and Jasmin Walker) makes it easier to tell the Catch contestants apart.

It is great to encounter my favorite parts a second time; within the last twenty percent of the book, the figurative language involving a weathervane and a turkey absolutely slay me.

Below is my original review.
________________________________________

“You have to watch out for the quiet ones.”

I had an ugly upper respiratory flu, and this excellent novel was exactly what the doctor ordered. My thanks go to Net Galley, Recorded Books, and Zando Publishing for the review copy. Patricia Wants to Cuddle will be available to the public Tuesday, June 28.

As the story begins, we are midway through filming “The Catch,” which is a reality television show similar to “The Bachelor.” Our cast includes the four lucky women to have made it this far; producer Casey; a handful of crew members; and oh dear, Jeremy, a scuzz bucket if ever there was one. Jeremy is this season’s catch. We also have a handful of locals, since we are filming on location; included is a bashful cryptid in the woods, a lonely creature that reacts very badly to stressful situations. As you may guess, Patricia is that cryptid.

These people are on Otter Island, a fictional addition to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Think deep woods, rain, and glamping. And…what the hell was that, just now? Too big to be a bear. And why are the sheep so agitated?

Baaaaa.

The contestants are mostly not interested in love; they are interested in publicity, for various reasons of their own. The shooting schedule leaves them sleep deprived on an almost permanent basis, and so given the premise of the show—competition, not cooperation—it doesn’t take long for the women to turn on one another.

Samantha Allen is new to me, but she’s on my radar now. This story is snicker-worthy at the outset, and by the time we reach the climax, I am howling with laughter. Part of the joy comes from the plot and pacing, but the biggest laughs for me are those that combine these outrageous events with some of the funniest figurative language I have ever read. In fact, were I to rate this story solely on its humor, without rating the more traditional elements such as character development, this would be a five star read.

This book will appeal most to those that lean to the left.

Recommended to those that love darkly hilarious fiction.

Patricia Wants to Cuddle****-*****

“You have to watch out for the quiet ones.”

I had an ugly upper respiratory flu, and this excellent novel was exactly what the doctor ordered. My thanks go to Net Galley and Zando Publishing for the review copy. Patricia Wants to Cuddle will be available to the public Tuesday, June 28.

As the story begins, we are midway through filming “The Catch,” which is a reality television show similar to “The Bachelor.” Our cast includes the four lucky women to have made it this far; producer Casey; a handful of crew members; and oh dear, Jeremy, a scuzz bucket if ever there was one. Jeremy is this season’s catch. We also have a handful of locals, since we are filming on location; included is a bashful cryptid in the woods, a lonely creature that reacts very badly to stressful situations. As you may guess, Patricia is that cryptid.

These people are on Otter Island, a fictional addition to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Think deep woods, rain, and glamping. And…what the hell was that, just now? Too big to be a bear. And why are the sheep so agitated?

Baaaaa.

The contestants are mostly not interested in love; they are interested in publicity, for various reasons of their own. The shooting schedule leaves them sleep deprived on an almost permanent basis, and so given the premise of the show—competition, not cooperation—it doesn’t take long for the women to turn on one another.

Samantha Allen is new to me, but she’s on my radar now. This story is snicker-worthy at the outset, and by the time we reach the climax, I am howling with laughter. Part of the joy comes from the plot and pacing, but the biggest laughs for me are those that combine these outrageous events with some of the funniest figurative language I have ever read. In fact, were I to rate this story solely on its humor, without rating the more traditional elements such as character development, this would be a five star read.

This book will appeal most to those that lean to the left.

Recommended to those that love darkly hilarious fiction.

Buried in a Good Book, by Tamara Berry****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

I’ve been enjoying Berry’s Eleanor Wilde series, which I read and reviewed from the first book forward; when I found this one, Buried in a Good Book, the start of a brand new series, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.

I’m a bit skeptical of novels that feature the words book, library, reading, bookstore and such because obviously, potential buyers are likely to get all warm and fuzzy-feeling just seeing the title. It’s a soft landing, that’s for sure, marketing books and book-related topics to booklovers; and then I wonder if the author is just too lazy to take on something more challenging. But every time Berry embraces the obvious, it turns out to be with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, and by the end of the book I am laughing out loud. That holds true for this one as well.

Tess Harrow is newly divorced, and her adolescent daughter, Gertrude is heartbroken, because her father has more or less ghosted on her. When an elderly relative dies and leaves his cabin and his hardware store to Tess, it seems like an omen. She’ll get her girl out of Seattle and the heartbreak she’s experienced there; get off the grid, more or less, and enjoy Nature. Yikes.

Be careful what you wish for!

The day is nearly over when they pull up to the cabin, a fixer if ever there was one; Tess knew it might be rugged, but she didn’t know that the lovely little pond out back would be fully stocked with body parts, too. And whereas some might be daunted by such an occurrence, she looks at all of it as excellent material for her next bestselling thriller.

This novel is different from the Ellie Wilde mysteries in that we are more than half into it before the author moves in for the laughs. Just as I conclude that this time Berry is playing it straight, something happens—no, I will NOT tell you what—and I am guffawing and snorting, neither of which is becoming while one is eating lunch, but it simply cannot be helped. Berry is a sly one, all right. My notes say, “I never knew metacognition could be so damn funny.”

I enjoy everything she does here, and the fact that it’s set in my own stomping grounds of Washington State makes me love it all the better. Recommended to any reader that is ready for a good story and a good laugh. It’s for sale now.

Voices from the Pandemic, by Eli Saslow****

Eli Saslow is the journalist that wrote Rising Out of Hatred, the story of former White Supremacist Derek Black, in 2018. When I was offered the chance to read and review his new book, Voices from the Pandemic, I jumped on it, because I like this author a lot. Once I had it, I avoided it like the plague (pardon the reference) for a couple months, wondering just what I had been thinking, to sign on for something like this. In the end, I am glad to have read it.

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

Saslow tells us in the introduction that he expected to become depressed, perhaps numbed, by all of these interviews, but ultimately was galvanized by “their empathy, their insight, their candor and emotional courage.” Fair enough, but an awful lot of these stories are gut-wrenching. For whatever reason, he chooses to start with some of the most horrific ones, but as we work our way into the book, there are several that are not about the excruciating, grim death of a loved one, but are interesting for different reasons. There are stories of essential workers, of coroners, and medical professionals. One that has stayed with me is that of a middle aged man, ex-military, who is finally compelled, when everyone in the household loses their livelihoods, to visit a food bank. He gets there two hours before it opens to be on the safe side, and discovers that there’s already a huge, hours-long line.

My favorite story is that of Bruce MacGillis, a wily old man that barricades himself in his room in his nursing home, lets nobody in, throws open his windows in subfreezing weather, and stuffs towels underneath the doorway to keep out other people’s germs. He ends up being one of two residents that are spared, out of eighty-nine residents. (My notes say, “Hell yeah!”) On December 28, he lets a nurse come in to administer his vaccine. I hope that man lives to be a hundred.

There are some stories by vaccine deniers, mask avoiders, included here, but if you are among them, you probably won’t enjoy this book. It leans heavily toward science, and away from conspiracy theories.

After I’d procrastinated reading this thing, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons to give myself a leg up. I thought it might be easier to hear these stories while I was also engaged in some other task, so I fired it up while I was slicing bell peppers and marinating meat. If anything, it was worse that way. Well—to be fair—worse, and also better. There’s a separate reader for each story, and the hard ones are read with such searing emotion that it makes them all the worse. The saving grace is that each person’s story is concisely told, so there was only one time that I hit the stop button and fast-forwarded to the next one. At the outset, I only listened for a few minutes at a go, and then turned to listen to another book, something light and fictional, to restore my mood. By the second half, I no longer needed to do that.

The book only covers the 2020 portion of the pandemic, but I’m not sure it would sound much different had he waited to include the whole horrible thing. (It will be over someday…won’t it?) Recommended, for those that can do this.

Unfinished Business, by J.A. Jance*****

Judith Jance has done it again. Unfinished Business is the sixteenth in the Ali Reynolds series; not only does she weave a compelling, tightly plotted tale, but she may have broken new ground with the role technology plays in solving crimes within the storyline. Add a sprinkling of social justice issues, and what emerges is an unmissable novel. My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Ali is a former journalist, but now she and her husband, B. Simpson, own and run a cyber security firm called High Noon. B. is a nice enough fellow, but we see very little of him. Most of the time he is away on business, leaving Ali to flex her badass crime solving muscles, and providing her with a healthy chunk of disposable income that makes it easier. Other continuing characters are Cammie and Stuart; Frigg, the AI entity operating out of High Noon; and Bob and Edie Larson, Ali’s parents. Our two new characters are Harvey “Broomy” McCluskey, who is a serial murderer, and Mateo Vega, a second-chancer newly out of prison and in High Noon’s employ.

The best long-running mystery series are ones that go deep into the character of the chief protagonist and sometimes others, as well. When you think about it, there are only so many interesting crimes; only so many credible motives; and only so many believable plots an author can spin that involve only the mystery at hand. What makes the most successful ones stand out is the investment the reader has in the character and her life. Jance works her characters like a champ. Within this one, we have multiple interesting side threads. Ali’s parents are aging, and although she is more than willing to support them and advocate for them, they don’t tell her everything. They are independent and intelligent. They treasure their dignity, and their privacy. Sometimes this combination spells trouble, and so it is here. We see Ali trying to juggle the ever-changing aspects of the business while B is out of town, along with health issues facing her father, who won’t talk about them; one of her children gives birth; and then there are issues with her employees.

Point of view shifts between chapters, and so we first meet Harvey, who is a resentful, entitled jerk who has murdered his mother and gotten away with it. Unfortunately, Harvey is also a tenant of High Noon’s, and he’s in arrears on his office rent. No one at High Noon knows that he is dangerous; they figure he’s a deadbeat, and he has to go. Ohhh, honey, look out!

We also meet Mateo. Mateo has spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His public defender told him the plea deal was the safe bet, and so he took it. He could have been released early if he’d expressed remorse, but nobody and nothing could make him say he did it when he didn’t, so he rotted there for his entire youth. But while inside, he continued to study technology, and earned an online degree. Now he’s released, comes out with skills, and is hired by High Noon.

I love the way Jance uses all of these characters, and the thread involving Cami is particularly interesting.

I read and reviewed most of the recent books in this series, and in number 13, I called this author out for making all of the bad guys in the story Latina or Latino, and all the good guys Caucasian, except for Cami, who is Asian. It’s great to see how she’s turned it around. The social messages here—the broken prison system; issues with keeping the aged safe; the difficulty former prisoners face in starting a new life; and of course, violence against women—are all progressive ones, and none of them hijacks the plot or slows it in any way. In fact, this novel is among Jance’s best, and that’s a high bar to meet.

Highly recommended.

Easy Crafts for the Insane, by Kelly Williams Brown*****

Kelly Williams Brown is an experienced author, but she is new to me. I ran across this odd little book at exactly the time I needed it, and maybe you do, too. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book will be available to the public July 6, 2021.

Brown points out that mental illness remains one of the few conditions that are cloaked in secrecy and shame. Nobody afflicted with bipolar disorder chooses it, and although it can be successfully treated, there’s no cure, either. The title of the book reflects her choice to simply own it. “This is the water I swim in…I wanted to talk about how I have come to be content in my own skin.”

In sharing her journey, she tells us how nearly impossible it is to find a psychiatrist within a reasonable commute, who takes your insurance; now try doing it while you are in a precarious state of mental illness. At one point things come to a head, and in a fugue of which she has no memory at all, she rises from bed and attempts suicide, nearly succeeding. Had her boyfriend not found her when he did, she would have died. “’Lots of people, they just take a few aspirin and say they want to die, but you meant it!‘  the very kind ER doctor says with something that sounds a tiny bit like begrudging approval.”

The crafting aspect of this book is partly a device, used to share what kind of mindset caused her to resort to it, and also which crafts are soothing at life’s most difficult times; several of the crafts she discusses are just as mysterious to me after reading her instructions as they were before. Her favorite little origami stars, which grace the book’s cover, are among these. And there are some crafts for which she tells us she has no clear instructions, and recommends YouTube tutorials, so that part’s kind of a wash. However, there are a couple of things that do sound interesting and that I might try. I initially rated this book four stars, thinking that if a person puts crafts in the title, the crafts should be clearly taught, but later I decided that this book really, truly isn’t about crafts.

Brown has money, and at times I am a little alienated by her wealth, that is obvious in her narrative. But she recognizes this, and she uses it to drive home the point:

“I had good insurance, and open schedule, and no internal conflict over therapy—and yet it was still fucking impossible. My privileged ass could barely make it happen. Think about the hurdles that Americans who don’t have these advantages face every day when they’re trying to access help!”

I have deliberately left out the humor here, the places that at times make me laugh out loud. You can find them for yourself. They are well placed, preventing the overall tone from becoming too grim.

 I found this book the day after dropping a close family member off at the psych ward of a local hospital, and it seemed almost like an omen that I should read it. If you are contemplating reading it, whether due to mental health issues of your own, or of those close to you, or simply out of curiosity, I highly recommend you do it. This little gem may become a cult favorite, and it would be a shame to be left out of the loop. And if it inspires you to be more vocal in advocating for mental health awareness and treatment, and of dragging this pervasive problem out of the attic and shining some light on it, then the world will be a better place.

Forget Me Not, by Alexandra Oliva****

Oliva made her debut in 2016 with The Last One, a genre-defying story in which technology fails with disastrous consequences for reality show contestants. I was delighted when I received the invitation to check out her current novel; big thanks go to Ballantine Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Linda Russell lives alone. She has had a traumatic past, and she is naïve in some ways about the world around her, having been kept apart from it for so many years. Money isn’t a problem, though; she has inherited a pile of it. Yet we cannot envy her, because the unspeakable horrors she has seen outweigh the benefit of her wealth.

When we meet Linda, she is in her nest chair surfing the internet. Her sheath provides her with information, but we have to figure out what a sheath and nest chair actually are by examining context, which takes a little while. And this is a key part of the suspense, giving us some information about the time period, the place, the technology and the characters, but also withholding quite a lot, doling it out to us in small portions so that we can follow along, without ever getting a firm grip on the situation till we are far into the story. And for me, there were moments when I became confused enough that I wanted a little more information in order to follow events as they unfolded, but most of the time the narrative was paced effectively. I began to have a solid enough grip on the basic facts to follow the story well at about the 36% mark.

Linda is a clone, and her story went big several years ago, when she was found emaciated and filthy, having been more or less feral inside a walled property where her mother abandoned her. The part of her past that weighs on her mind most heavily is the fate of her twin. Lorelei, whom she must not call “Mother,” loved Emmer, but not Linda. Both of them were created in an effort to duplicate Lorelei’s deceased daughter, Madeleine, and Emmer resembled Madeleine more. Of course, everyone knows that eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable, and so it is with Linda’s memories, but she knows this for certain: after a particular point in time, Linda never saw either Emmer or Lorelei again.

Meanwhile, a cult of sorts has sprung up around Linda, whom social media has dubbed “clone girl.” Rumors are spread; even the tiniest hint as to her possible whereabouts is greedily devoured by those following her story. And so, Linda hides, and she talks to no one; that is, until her new neighbor, Anvi, pushes her way into Linda’s life. Anvi is new in these parts, and she wants a friend.

To say that this story is a thriller or a mystery is unfair, and will lead the reader to a dissatisfying end. The focus of the book is not on unraveling a crime, and the hair-on-fire pacing that marks a thriller isn’t present here. I keep turning the pages, not because my heart is slamming in my chest, but because I am curious. The story really is about our character. Likewise, although the story is technically science fiction, my interest isn’t captured and held by complicated new technology, but by Linda herself, wanting to see her unharmed and able to lead something resembling a normal life. So I urge interested parties to come to this novel with an eye for character, because that’s the anchor here.

At the climax—and I’m being fairly vague here so as not to spoil the ending—there’s a moment when Linda behaves fairly stupidly when she is faced with an urgent problem, and I feel let down, but then she rallies and pulls herself together, and I let my breath out and smile. Go, girl, go.

When I learn what is really in back of the personal mysteries Linda faces, I’m inclined at first to regard it as far-fetched, but then the sci fi aspect kicks in, and let’s face it: science fiction and fantasy both permit and even require far-fetched material. What needs to be credible and consistent is Linda, and Oliva does a fine job developing her protagonist. I believe Linda at the outset, and as she changes over the course of the story, I believe her every step of the way.

I enjoyed this story a great deal, and I look forward to seeing what Oliva comes up with next. I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys good fiction that is character driven.

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.