The Black Cabinet, by Jill Watts***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward.

The premise sounds exciting: a cabinet consisting of African-American luminaries that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as the best president the U.S. has ever had; well, as far as white folks went, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if he had Black advisors, even if it was kept away from the public eye?

It would have been cool, except mostly, he didn’t. Not really.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now; in fact, it’s been for sale for a long time. I’m very late with this review, because I was very late finishing the book, because it depressed me so deeply that I couldn’t face it.

Watts is a fine writer and has done the research. The issue for me is that this cabinet, which consisted of outstanding academics and other highly respected Black professionals, had incredibly little clout. They were kept secret. They were unofficial. And it sounds as though FDR tolerated them more than he appreciated them. Despite all of their labor and their eloquence, the New Deal left people of color standing in the rain without an umbrella.

The 1930s were a dreadful time for African-Americans, to be sure. The Jim Crow stranglehold on the South, along with less formal, mostly uncodified discrimination in the North, made it more or less impossible for most bright young Black men to make any headway in their chosen professions, apart from within the Black community (and for Black women? Fuhgeddaboudit.) So, it made my heart sing to learn that there was this exceptional group that advised FDR; but actually, they got crumbs off the president’s table. It makes me a little bit ill to see that this huge study turned up so very little.

For those still interested: there it is.

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!

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.

Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger*****

I’d been in a reading slump, with most of my reading carrying an element of obligation; I love reviewing except when I don’t. Something had poked a hole in my reservoir of joyful discovery, and all the juice was leaking out. William Kent Krueger’s new entry in the Cork O’Connor series, Fox Creek, put a stop to all that. I found myself looking for extra openings in my day, craving the chance to bury myself in this absorbing mystery. I haven’t felt this great about a galley since last winter.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review.

The story is set way up north in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, in the tiny community of Aurora. Cork, our protagonist, has left law enforcement and instead runs a diner, hiring himself out as a private investigator when the opportunity arises, which doesn’t happen often. When a man comes to the diner and asks Cork to help find his wife, Cork says he’ll think about it. Meanwhile, Dolores, the wife in question, is engaging in a sweat ritual out in the woods where the ancient and very wise Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux lives. It turns out that Cork’s would-be client is not her husband, and she doesn’t know him at all. He’s got a hidden agenda, alrighty, and he’s brought some rented thugs along to make his chore easier. Now there are two tasks: the first is to hide Dolores, and the second is to find out who these guys are and why they want her so much. Meanwhile, Cork’s wife, Rainy, guides Dolores deep into the woods near the Boundary Waters; Henry joins them. What follows is one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read recently. I have a hunch that Cork will be okay, since killing him would also kill the series, but the others—Henry, Rainy, and Dolores—might make it out, or they might not.

I was about to say that this is character-based fiction, so well rounded are the main characters, but the setting is resonant and important to the characters and the plot. All told, this is the way a novel is supposed to work, with strong characters and settings that make the plot believable and urgent. And as always happens when I read Krueger, I also learn some things about the setting, and about Ojibwe culture and history. (His depiction of the art of disappearing and eluding pursuers reminds me a little bit of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, but that’s all the two series have in common, apart from genre.)

This is the 18th book in the series. Can you dive in, right here right now?  Emphatically, yes! I began with the prequel to the series, which came out last year, and I loved it so much that I went to the library to check out the first book in the series—and then, I found it disappointing, because over the course of this long series, Krueger’s skill has increased, so the first book, Iron Lake, is decent, but nowhere near as brilliant as his more recent work. Now I look forward to more of this series, but always going forward, never back.

This riveting novel will be available to the public on August 23, 2022. If you love this genre, you should get this book and read it—or better still, preorder it right now. You won’t be sorry.

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow****

Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.

The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.

As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.

The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.

Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.

Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.

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.

Every Cloak Rolled in Blood, by James Lee Burke***-****

James Lee Burke is an icon, a Grand Master who’s written mystery novels, along with the occasional work of historical fiction, since the 1960s. Now he is 85 years old, and he recently lost his beloved daughter, Pamala. This novel is a tribute to her.

My thanks to go Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Every Cloak Rolled in Blood is the fourth in the Holland Family saga. Our protagonist is Aaron Broussard. He is an 85 year old novelist who has recently lost his daughter, Fannie Mae. He feels a “loneliness that is almost unbearable.” He tells us,

“I will not accept my daughter’s death. I will find a way to pull her back through the veil or untether myself and lie down in the bottom of a boat that has no oars and float down the Columbia and into the Pacific, where she will be waiting for me somewhere behind the sun.”

There’s a horrifying passage in which he places the barrel of his gun in his mouth; but he doesn’t go through with it, and later tells us that he believes he will not be permitted to join her if he leaves this world by his own hand.

The story commences with a young man vandalizing Aaron’s barn. Aaron recalls some local cops being unnecessarily nasty to Fannie Mae, so instead of turning the boy over to the cops, he makes a deal with him to have the kid work off the damage. There are other remarks laced in here and there that give a nod to our current national state of affairs regarding police brutality, and I appreciate these.

In fact, the story is laced with a number of social justice issues, and Burke is, as usual, on the side of the angels each time; foremost is the horrific manner in which indigenous people of the Northern Rockies have been treated by the U.S. government, and continue to be.

Over his last few novels, Burke has increased the amount of supernatural content in his work. For decades this aspect of his work was muted, smoldering as a part of the general ambience of the story. He’s always used the occasional Biblical reference, occasionally also borrowing from Greek mythology. In A Private Cathedral, a recent Robicheaux novel—the series that has met with the greatest public acclaim and for good reason—he included a scene that could not be perceived as anything other than supernatural. In fact, it is one in which both the protagonist and his lovable sidekick, Clete Purcel, witness the same event, so there can be no supposing it’s all in the protagonist’s head. It was brilliantly conceived and executed. Unfortunately, this book is not of the same caliber.

I wrestled a great deal with my rating and review; a large part of me thought that when a beloved novelist is in his eighties and has recently lost a child, I should just give him the five stars. Yet another part of me, the part that won the internal debate, feels that to do so is unworthy of the respect this author has earned. It would be patronizing to say this is a great book when I am so ambivalent about it. So I’m playing it straight here. The supernatural aspect, as it is used here, overwhelms this story and damages it organizationally. It also causes the pacing to lag a bit. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not up to Burke’s usual standard.

But the aspect that bothers me most is the way the younger women in the story—not just one, mind you, but two—cannot wait, apparently, to get Aaron in the sack. Sister Ginny isn’t a good person, but she tries to seduce him anyway. Ruby Spotted Horse is a good, honorable woman, that rarest of all things: an ethical cop. She’s in her thirties, but when Aaron comes onto her, she doesn’t even hesitate. We learn that she was raising her niece, who died, and there’s a clumsy passage in which Aaron wonders aloud if Ruby is really up for a relationship with him given his age, but she assures him that they are bound together by their mutual losses.

Right. Whatever.

There are many lovely moments in this novel, all of them owned by Fannie Mae. There is such clear, obvious affection in the descriptions that I am a little surprised the pages don’t glow.

The denouement, a mighty struggle involving the living and the dead, leaves me shaking my head, though. And when one of the latter, an evil spirit representing a horrible cavalry officer that once lived and killed in the vicinity, tells Aaron, “Pardon me for saying this, but you’re not the good father you think you are,” I want to sit right down and cry.

This book is recommended to diehard Burke fans, and to anyone that needs a grief book.

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.

Chevy in the Hole, by Kelsey Ronan***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Chevy in the Hole is Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel. I love strong working class fiction, and the title and book cover spoke to me. But while it shows a good deal of promise, it’s also a cautionary example of how, in trying to do too much, one can do too little. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale today.

The protagonists are Gus Molloy, who is Caucasian, and Monae Livingston, who is Black. The book opens as Gus is being revived with Narcan on the floor of a dirty restroom in Detroit. We follow him as he meets Monae, a student working at a farm outside of Flint. Their stories are told alternately with bits and pieces of the lives of their predecessors.  

The story is promoted as a love letter to Flint, and a tribute to the resilience of its people; it’s a story of “love and betrayal, race and family.” And we do surely see all of those things, but as soon as one aspect or another is touched on, I wink and poof, it’s gone. Gus and Monae are both sympathetic characters, and I can’t help pulling for them, but I suspect the author could have developed them more fully had we not spent so much time and detail on fragments of their parents, grandparents and so on.

If the author’s purpose is to use these characters from the past to showcase the various struggles through which Flint has gone—sit-down strikes, Civil Rights marches, and now, this horrifying industrial sludge that has polluted the town’s drinking water—it could have been done in a paragraph or two, or through some other device than shifting the point of view. The frequent changes of character and time period make it confusing as heck, particularly while listening to the audio version; that’s a shame, because Janina Edwards is a warm, convincing reader.

But we frequently shift from one protagonist to the other, even after they are married, and all of these people from the past have to be sorted by both time period, and by which protagonist they are related to.  A story like this should flow. As it is, it’s work listening to it, and had I not been granted a digital review copy as well to refer to, I might have given up.

My other frustration is that both the labor history and the Civil Rights issues—with Black people shut out of company housing in the past, and the issues with cop violence as well as the pollution that is visited most within the Black community—are huge. The pollution problem is immense, and ties back into both of the other issues. This book could be a powerhouse, a call for change to reward to the plucky souls that have stuck with this place through hell and high, toxic water. Instead they present almost like postcards; oh, look at this! Now look at that! Okay, never mind, let’s go on back to the present.

That being said, the author’s mission is an ambitious one, and her word smithery is of high caliber. I look forward to seeing what else she publishes.

If you choose to read this book, I recommend using the printed word, whether digitally or as a physical copy.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.