Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

Overboard, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is one of my all-time favorite writers; I’ve been reading her Victoria Warshawski detective novels for most of my adult life. Paretsky is one of four living authors to have received both the Grand Masters Award from the Mystery Writers of America and Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She, together with the late Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, have pioneered the image of women detectives in fiction, departing from the femme fatale of yesteryear who could only reveal the truth by using her sexuality to coax disclosures from men, instead creating capable women professionals that can ferret out the truth using their brains and bulldog persistence. A sympathetic cop friend tells Vic, “You’re a pit bull, Warshawski. You’ll go into the ring with anyone, as long as they’re at least three times your size.”

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

If I knew nothing of this author and her scrappy detective, the first line in the book would have reeled me in: “It was Mitch who found the girl.” As it is, I already know that Mitch is one of the two dogs she shares with her elderly neighbor friend, Mr. Contreras, and I feel as if I am greeting an old comrade.

The girl in question is in bad shape, and she doesn’t speak. For a while her identity is a mystery. Vic would be happy to offload her to medical professionals and get back to her own life; she’s got a lot of clients, and Lotty, her doctor friend that serves as a mother-figure in Vic’s life, is urging her to investigate the rash of attacks on the local synagogue. She doesn’t need more work.

But the cops—generally not friends of Vic’s at the best of times—are ready to haul Vic in. In fact, given their track record, Vic is amazed at the attention the girl is getting. All manner of monied movers and shakers show intense interest in the girl, and it makes Vic suspicious.

She’s right.

A sixteen year old boy comes to her office, asking her to look into a dicey situation involving his father. He believes his dad is in danger, and his parents won’t tell him anything. And so, there’s this kiddo, and there’s the girl: “Two teens, two life-threatening secrets—I have to assume they’re connected somewhere, somehow.”

She’s right again.

Before we know it, her apartment and office have been searched and bugs are left; her phone is being tracked; and Vic has to resolve the case in order to get her life back. She’s jumping in the cold river to elude capture, hiding in the least likely places, and keeping the kids safe from the forces that would harm them. Her attorney chuckles that “You get in over your head faster than Houdini in a water tank.”

He’s right, too.

When I opened this galley, I was already reading a handful of others that I liked, and figured I’d put this one into the rotation, but as often happens when I read Paretsky, everything else sat untouched until I’d torn through this book feverishly, as if the lives of Vic, her clients, and Chicago’s working class depended upon it.

Highly recommended to those that love strong detective fiction; feminists; and champions of the working class.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich*****

I wasn’t able to get a galley this time, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This turned out to be the best possible way to read it, because Erdrich narrates it herself.

The Sentence is set in Minneapolis during the pandemic, from November 2019 to November 2020. It starts with the world’s most hilarious crime, one which sends our protagonist, Tookie, to prison; however, most of the meat of the story takes place once she’s out again. Tookie develops a love of writing (“with murderous intent,”) while she’s incarcerated, and so, once she is released, what more natural place is there for her to look for work, than a bookstore? But this bookstore is special. It’s haunted.

Tookie’s story is wrapped around a number of social issues and current events; most prominently, of course, is that of American Indians’ rights; this is the time and place of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, and so the demonstrations of outraged citizens are folded into the novel as well. And of course, this is not one bit funny.

I came to read Erdrich late in the game, when The Night Watchman, which won the Pulitzer, came out in 2020. That one novel persuaded me that from now on, I would read every blessed thing Erdrich writes. The Sentence strengthens this resolution.

Highly recommended.

Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.

Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult****

Diana has a high pressure job, and so does her boyfriend, Finn. Thank goodness they’ve made reservations in the Caribbean for a two week vacation. Sun, sand, cold drinks, turtles. But when the pandemic hits, Finn can’t get away. He tells Diana to go on ahead.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Nothing goes as planned for Diana. As her boat conveys her to her destination, everyone else is leaving, rather than arriving. The island is closing, an emergency measure against the pandemic. But Diana is a typical American tourist, and she knows that she has already paid for her stay, so once she is there, of course they’ll accept her…right?

The first few chapters depict our protagonist as such an entitled, smug tourist that I nearly give up out of distaste. But between the promotional blurb and my familiarity with Picoult’s work, I continue, knowing there’s a good chance that Diana will develop into a more likable character. She does.

Soon after she arrives, she runs into a handsome but irate local tour guide turned farmer, and as soon as they collide and conflict erupts, I figure, Ho hum. She’ll end up in bed with him. What else is new? And since this is near the beginning, I will tell you this much: sure she does, and plenty is new! As Diana is forced to live differently, with her luggage lost, very little wifi, no cell coverage, and nobody at her beck and call, she learns some things about herself.

Picoult is early to emerge within the growing body of pandemic fiction—hmm, will this become a genre, sub-genre maybe? And this makes Wish You Were Here all the more appealing.

Again, just before the halfway point, I think I can see how this is going to end, but I couldn’t be more wrong. At about the two-thirds mark, everything changes, and I marvel at the author’s audacity. But she makes it work, and I cannot tell you anything else without ruining it.

Because I was running late with my review, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened alternately with reading the digital review copy I was given. Marin Ireland does a solid job as reader; as to which version I recommend, it’s a complete toss up, so go with your usual preference.

Recommended to Picoult’s fans, and to those that enjoy fiction.