Serpentine, by Jonathan Kellerman****

This is the 36th entry into the Alex Delaware series, and it’s still going strong. Lucky me, I read it free. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. It will be available to the public February 2, 2021.

Milo Sturgis, the only gay detective in Los Angeles, has been ordered to take up a very cold case. Money talks, and big money talks loudest. A massively wealthy young woman wants to know what really happened to her mother, and who her biological father was. Ellie Barker was raised by her stepfather, who left her everything, and now that he’s gone, there’s no reason not to go digging for information about the things he didn’t like to talk about. Milo does an eye-roll and reaches for his phone. He thinks it would be better to have a psychologist along, and so once again, Alex joins him on the case.

The case is a complex one, and it also holds a lot of surprises, especially at the end. There’s a side character named Winifred Gaines, “equine laugh” and all, that I enjoy greatly.

I’m going to use this opportunity to share some reflections on the series as a whole. At the outset, clear back in the single digits of the series, the focus was mostly on Alex, and on children. Since Kellerman is a child psychologist, this format gave him an excellent chance to showcase his professional knowledge by incorporating troubled children or adolescents into the plot. I always learned something when he did this, and it was riveting.

Over the course of the series, children have become thinner on the ground. Perhaps this is because Kellerman has used up his reserves, but I don’t think so, somehow. It’s a mighty rich field, and as far as I know, he has it all to himself in terms of long-running series. This time, there are a few references to how children might behave under particular circumstances, and there’s a brief mention of a custody case Alex is working on, which is not central to the plot, but I nevertheless learned something just from the tiny little fragment he snuck into the story. I fervently wish that he would incorporate more child psychology and less kinky sex into his series now. If that makes me sound like a bluestocking, I’ll live with that.

What he has done that I like is build Milo into a more central character. Earlier in the series, Delaware was the central protagonist, and he and his girlfriend Robin—the sort of girlfriend that seems more like a wife—had some ups and downs. They separated at one point, then reunited. It did make them seem more like real people to me. Now, both of them are static and bland, but they provide a neutral backdrop for us to see Milo in action. And I have to admit, it works for me. Right from the get-go, Milo, who has a large appetite, comes lumbering into Alex and Robin’s kitchen, flings open the fridge, and starts making himself the mother of all sandwiches, and I realize that I am smiling widely. What an agreeable character! There’s a point about a third of the way in, where another guy stands up and Milo takes his seat, and “the couch shifted like a lagoon accommodating an ocean liner.” I just love it. There are a couple of allusions toward the end that hint that Milo may be experiencing some health issues that are common to large folk, but there’s no way that this character will die; not unless Kellerman wants to kill of his protagonists as part of an authorial retirement.

When all is said and done, this is a solid mystery from a solid series. Can you read it as a stand-alone? You can. However, you may become addicted and find yourself seeking out the others as well.

Recommended to all that love the genre.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

The Dirty South, by John Connolly*****

A few years ago I read and reviewed my first book in Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series, and I became immediately addicted. Since then I’ve never missed an installment, and after the 17th in the series, A Book of Bones, I more or less stalked the internet to find out when I could find the next in the series. It doesn’t disappoint. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for this, the 18th in the series. It’s for sale now.

Here, Connolly steps away from the crossed-genre, pants-on-fire entries he’s written recently to scribe a prequel. A couple of new readers have inquired whether to read this before all of the other Charlie Parker books, or treat it as the 18th.  The fact is, you can take it in either direction. On the one hand, I have reached back and read a couple of the first in the series and whereas they are perfectly respectable detective novels, they don’t hold a candle to those he’s written more recently. Once I had read the 14th, which is where I began, I was spoiled and a wee bit disappointed by the earliest books in the series. So whereas it makes sense to start reading with this prequel, I fear some readers will notice a dip in quality if they read this masterful literary mystery Connolly has just published, and then dive into his earliest Charlie Parker books. Again, they aren’t badly written. But they aren’t brilliant, and the most recent five in the series, including this prequel, are. So take that and do as you like with it.

Parker is reeling, as the book unfolds, from the vicious murders of his wife and daughter by a killer that intended to slay him, but found them instead. He is convinced that their murderer is a serial killer, and so he has taken a leave of absence from the police force back home and is touring the country by car, chasing down every murder anywhere that bears a resemblance to theirs. He is a dangerous man, because he has no sense of self-preservation. He sees himself as a man that has lost everything, and such men will take risks that more happily situated investigators would consider unthinkable. He also has a source none of the others can access: his wife, his daughter appear to him now and then, and they tell him things that relate to the case at hand, things that nobody else knows.

Those familiar with the series know that Connolly’s most recent Parker books have veered more in the direction of horror, and they include a number of supernatural events that his earlier work does not. Here he steps away from it, and once again his only information from the great beyond is what the spirits of his loved ones share. His adversaries are purely mortal ones. And as to which is better, it’s hard for me to say. His last book prior to this one is a monster, and it includes a tremendous amount of historical research that I find appealing, along with some hugely original, sinister characters that surely must come straight from the bowels of hell. It’s amazing work.

But there’s something to be said for books like this one, too. Most of Connolly’s work is so edgy and so full of violence that I have had to take it in small bites, lest it affect my overall mood. I didn’t have to do that here. I can crawl under a quilt and read for hours without needing to come up for air. I always make sure I read something less malign for a few minutes before turning out the light, but at the same time, this is a much more comfortable read.

Which is not to say that it’s tame. It isn’t. Someone has murdered Black girls in this tiny Arkansas burg, and Parker pulls into town right on the heels of the most recent one. Right away, it becomes obvious that there’s shifty business going on. The town is miserably depressed economically, and the local robber barons, the Cade family, have a deal in the works to bring a large manufacturer to town.  The Cades stand to make a great deal of money, and the locals, poverty-stricken and jobless or badly underemployed, are convinced that better times are just around the corner.

And so it seems that nearly everyone has a stake in keeping the waters calm. The dead girls had to go and get themselves murdered, just when the deal’s about to go through? How inconsiderate. Yes, their killer should be found and brought to justice; but that can wait until the big dogs have signed on the dotted line.  Prosperity is just around the corner. A scandal might ruin everything, and Parker refuses to cooperate, insisting on justice for the murdered children. The nerve of him.

Connolly’s signature elements—the malign, solipsistic, endlessly greedy local bourgeoisie; the poignance of Parker’s grief and his communication with his dead family; and the fast paced, complex plot with a zillion characters and some snappy banter are all here in spades. As usual, his writing style is literary, and so this may not be the best choice for someone whose mother tongue is not English.

As always, highly recommended. This is indisputably one of the year’s best. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for the 19th Parker book, because nobody else writes like this.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

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

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.