Agent Sniper, by Tim Tate***

I was invited to read and review this book by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I accepted because I do love a good spy story, and there aren’t many of them being published at this time. Tim Tate has had a long, illustrious career as a documentary filmmaker and as an author, but is new to me.

So, when I began reading and found my attention wandering, I thought it was a personal problem. Too many distractions. I tried again, and when that didn’t go well, I procured the audio version and listened to it while I prepared dinners during the week. Eventually, I threw in the towel and admitted that this is simply not an engaging book. The topic sounds fascinating, but just as a gifted, dedicated author can spin dull material to gold, so can an indifferent one tell an electrifying spy story in a way that leaves the reader checking the page numbers and the clock—is this thing over yet?

It’s not all bad news: the research here is top drawer. For the researcher, this book has use, although I would caution the uninitiated into reading carefully, because history is always politically charged. Every fact that is included, and every fact that is not; the interpretation; the language used, all give a biased account, even when a researcher and writer is endeavoring to be as balanced as possible. I don’t care for this writer’s interpretation, which makes him sound like a hardened right winger, but I have no doubt that the facts that he uses are accurate ones.

Then we come to the audio, and I must wonder why, if we’re primarily dealing with the CIA and its agents, we have a narrator with a clipped English accent (and a few pronunciations that sounded very odd to me,) telling the story. I found it disorienting, but if this had been a more engaging story, I would have overlooked it.

Ultimately it comes down to wordsmithery, and I didn’t find much of it. Those interested in dabbling in this genre would do better to read Ben McIntyre and Tim Weiner.

This book is for sale now.

The School for Good Mothers, by Jessamine Chan**

So much build up; so much promise. What a crying shame. This dystopian novel is conceptually strong, addressing the invasive nature of facial recognition software and government access to what should be private digital communication, but the execution is abysmal.

I received a review copy from Net Galley and Simon and Schuster.

Frida Liu is a new mother, and she’s got problems. She has severe postpartum depression, and she’s home alone with her baby, all day and all night, trying to work from home. She doesn’t want childcare; she wants to be with her daughter, Harriet, but she’s overwhelmed. The original plan was for her to be the stay-home mother, with her husband supporting the family, but at the same time Harriet was born, her husband fell for someone else.

One day—“just one bad day”—she is summoned in to work. She could have brought Harriet with her, or she could have called a sitter, but instead, she leaps into the car, leaving the baby in her bouncy chair at home, all alone. She tells herself she will quickly drop off and pick up info, and then she’ll zip back home, but instead, she allows herself to be caught up in reading and answering emails. Eventually, her phone rings. The caller tells her that her baby has been removed from her home by the police; neighbors were alarmed by the baby’s nonstop screams. Now, Harriet is going to live with her daddy and that woman, and there’s not much that Frida can do about it.

At the outset, I think this is a brave scenario for an author to choose. Leaving a baby under the age of two, which some would contend is the very worst age to leave a child unattended, is no small matter, and I am eager to see how Chan will play this. How will she keep me on Frida’s side in all of this?

Turns out she won’t.

I have seldom seen a less sympathetic protagonist, and clearly, Chan doesn’t intend for Frida to be a villain. Yet in all of the puling, the whining, the self-pity, Frida’s prevailing concern isn’t for her child’s well-being, it’s for herself. She needs her baby. She wants her baby. She wants her baby to want her. And so it goes.

But wait, there’s more. The worst thing of all is that this eighteen-month-old baby is not accurately depicted developmentally. Discussions around the care of Harriet are premised on Harriet’s ability to understand abstract concepts that no child this age is capable of. At first, I anticipate that it’s only Frida that holds these expectations and that others—her ex, or the professionals within the child welfare system—will set her straight, but no, they all buy into these assumptions as well. Then I wait to see if there is some aspect of this futuristic, dystopian world that renders children different from those in our real world today; nope! At one point, Harriet bites someone, and Frida tells her to “apologize at once!” This is a kid barely old enough to walk. Give me a fucking break!

The plot wanders and Frida wallows; at about the 30% mark I commence skimming. I read the last 25% carefully to be sure there’s no grand aha, no surprising event that causes all of this to make sense, or at least to mitigate it, but there’s no redemption to be found. Where are the editors? There are editors, right? How did this wasted trainwreck of a novel end up on Oprah and other prestigious lists and websites? I just don’t get it.

Not recommended.

Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

Thief of Souls, by Brian Klingborg**-***

I was invited to read this mystery, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. I am always looking for something a bit different, and this sounded like it would be. And it is, but it’s not.

Here’s what I mean. A woman has been murdered in a particularly ugly, grisly manner. A hot shot cop who’s been buried in a backwater where nothing ever happens gets the case. Because he is clever and ambitious, he digs more than most cops might, and voila! Turns out this could be the work of a serial killer! But there are higher-ups in the force that would rather have a quick solve than an accurate one. Obstacles! And next thing you know, the cop is in danger too.

Yawn.

Okay. Now, take this same tired thread and drop it in China. With resonant characters, compelling use of setting, and some word smithery, it might come alive, and in the hands of a master storyteller, we might not even notice that the story’s bones are nothing new. Instead, I came away disaffected and mildly depressed. I quit at the sixty percent mark and didn’t even go back to look at the ending, which for me is unheard of, particularly in this genre.

I am no fan of the Chinese government, but the steady flow of negativity wore me down, not to mention the lack of strong character development. We know right away that Lu is a rebel, and as the story progresses, we also know that Lu is a rebel. At the start, we sense that the government, both local and national, is corrupt; as we near the climax, we also know that the government is corrupt.

What, in this story, is worth saving?

I thought it would be fun to see how an investigation works in China, and what sort of rights—or lack thereof—form the contours of the legal system. I came away sensing that the author doesn’t know all that much, either. There’s no Bill of Rights there, surely, but I knew that much going in.

I don’t have to have lovable characters to enjoy a mystery, but there does, at least, have to be someone interesting. Give me a complex, well-developed villain, for example, and I’m a happy camper. But there’s none, and I’m not.

So there you have it. Thief of Souls is one more sad case of an intriguing book cover and title promising more than it can deliver. If you want this book now, it’s for sale, but I would advise you to get it cheap or free unless you have a big stack of money sitting around that you were thinking of burning in the backyard. Otherwise, maybe not.

The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult***

I am generally a fan of Picoult’s writing, but my favorite part of this book is when I got to close it and put it away.  My thanks go, nevertheless, to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the review copy.

Dawn is the sole survivor of a plane wreck, and as it goes down, she is assaulted by regret about the road not taken.  (My apologies to Frost.) On land once again, she decides to go back to the life she abandoned when she married and had her daughter, to see what might have been; the life she was preparing for was that of an Egyptologist.

There have been times when a novel features some area of history or science that I’ve never studied, and I find it so mesmerizing that it becomes my new favorite area to explore. This was not one of those times. In fact, it took me four tries to get through this thing, and even then, I skimmed much of the story from the fifty to seventy percentiles.  I tried the audio version; no joy there, either. I grew bored and my mind wandered; then I didn’t understand what I was reading, so I had to go back over it to pick up the part I’d daydreamed through.

In my defense, however, I have to say that the organization and frequently shifting points of view and time periods is enough to confuse the best of us, or at least give us whiplash.

Picoult’s strength is creating strong, resonant female protagonists that are easy to bond with, but I didn’t ever warm up to Dawn. Let’s take, for example, the notion of simply walking away, not only from your husband that loves you and with whom, till now, you’ve had a loving and solid relationship; there’s the matter of walking away from a child, or considering doing so. No, no, no. No. NO.

But mostly, this story just bored the living snot out of me.

I have provided three stars, because some readers will enjoy the lessons in Egyptology; if you’ve always wanted to know more within this realm, perhaps this book will work for you. If you go there, though, get it free or cheap; don’t sink full cover price into this turkey.

The Dead Are Arising, by Les Payne*

I haven’t been this disappointed in a long time. From the moment I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I was eager to read it, given that the promotion promises a lot of new information about this courageous man, a powerful advocate for the rights of people of color. When I didn’t receive a galley, I awaited the book’s release, and I went out and bought it. Less than halfway into it, I was absolutely sickened.

For starters, not all new information is important or necessary information. There’s a lot of minutiae here, as well as a fair amount of Black History 101 material, interesting to those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Northern red-lining practices, and so forth, but a real snore for those of us already steeped in these things. But beyond that—and one could argue that these historical basics are necessary inclusions for a lot of readers—Paine goes to a great deal of trouble to destroy Malcolm’s legacy.

Academics do this sometimes, and surely it’s no coincidence that the top three examples that come to mind are all biographies of African-Americans that fought for their rights, and aren’t alive now to object to what is being said about them. (In addition to Malcolm, recent biographies of Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali come to mind, the latter two slandered by two different authors.) Picking through the tiny, often insignificant details of their lives and combing through their speeches and writing, these authors go to great pains to “expose” small details that conflict with one another, or other signs of inconsistency, with the clear implication that the subject was a liar and a fraud.

For shame!  

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I am a grandmother myself, and I can think of important aspects of my life, especially my younger years, for which my own motivations were and are complicated, and if asked about them I am sure I would have given different answers in my twenties, my thirties, and so on. Our own thoughts and motives have a lot of layers. Perhaps we become more insightful later in life, or perhaps our memories are no longer as sharp as we believe them to be. But because we are not famous, or notorious, depending upon points of view, we are unlikely to have some academic interviewing everyone that ever fucking knew us, or combing through every speck of written documentation we leave behind us, searching for all possible details that may bring our integrity and veracity into question.

For me, it matters very little whether Malcolm’s early life was exactly as he told it. It is his ideas, and his courage in expressing them, that made him a legend, and that’s what I look for in his biography. In the 1960s, almost no African-American (or colored, as they preferred to be called during that period,) Civil Rights advocates dared to come right out and say that Black people were not only as good, but in some cases better than Caucasians. And it is Malcolm’s political evolution during the last year of his life, the time when he broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced a working class perspective that included fighters of every race, that galvanizes me. Malcolm raised a powerful voice in opposition to the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, quipping after President Kennedy’s assassination that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

This takedown of an iconic Civil Rights warrior is shabby in every sense. For those interested in Malcolm’s political and social evolution, I recommend the book titled Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Usually, the best way to learn about someone is to see what they themselves had to say. In this case it’s doubly true.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone.

The Bounty, by Janet Evanovich and Steve Hamilton**

This book is the seventh in the Fox and O’Hare series. Our protagonists are Kate O’Hare, who is an FBI agent, and Nick Fox, a conman. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. While this book isn’t my cuppa, there will be readers that enjoy it. One way or the other, it goes up for sale on Tuesday, March 23.

The first six books of this series were cowritten by Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. There’s no explanation for why Goldberg is out and Hamilton is in, but the switch may account for some of the inconsistencies between the earlier books and this one. An example: Kate and Nick were tight in the earlier stories, and yet somehow, they can’t stand each other now. There’s no reason given for the change, so I have to assume it’s an authorial quirk; I have to say, not an original one.

The premise is that the pair are hot on the trail of a massive cache of Nazi gold; also pursuing this treasure is criminal organization known as The Brotherhood. Kate and Nick are charged with finding the gold and bringing The Brotherhood to its knees.

Before they are even off the plane, I have questions. For example, since when does the FBI have authority to do this sort of thing abroad? In cases of terrorist attacks on American citizens, sure. But treasure hunting on foreign soil? And since when does any law enforcement body send two officers to bring down an entire organization? You can see my point.

But this is the sort of story that one can only appreciate by suspending disbelief and buying the premise. The whole thing has something of a James Bondian flavor to it, consisting of large amounts of chasing, hiding, climbing, leaping, and in between, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. There’s a fair amount of derring- do; there’s a parachute, a grappling hook, lock picks; you name it. The element that distinguishes it from other such books is that both Fox’s and O’Hare’s fathers get involved.

For me to enjoy a novel from this genre, I need either a well-crafted story with literary merit, including character development, (i.e., James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, John Connolly,) or else some form of well-executed humor. There are a fair number of wonderful satires out there, and of course, there’s the series that made Evanovich famous, the Stephanie Plum numbered series, which have hit more than they’ve missed and almost always make me laugh out loud more than once. In reading The Bounty, I don’t find these things.

However, not every reader has the same preferences that I do. This is a fast read with accessible vocabulary—my inner snark popped out at one point, and my galley has a note when the word “independence” is used: “Wow, four syllables!”—a linear story line, and an easily followed plot. I could see hauling something like this to the hospital when you’re going to have surgery and your attention span won’t be up to par. And then there’s the consideration of interest. Some want to read action, action, action, and if the story were more realistic, we’d probably be reading about paperwork, reports, and endless months cultivating a contact that proves to be useless. Not entertaining.

Even so, I can’t recommend this book for general audiences, or even for those that like the series.

The Awkward Black Man, by Walter Mosely**

I had intended to read this author’s work for some time now, and collected a couple of his paperbacks that have sat unread for years. I’ve been so busy reading galleys, with the goal of being done by their dates of publication, that I read very few of the books I’ve bought for myself. When this galley came available, I figured my problem was solved; and in a way, it has been. My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Like some other reviewers, I assumed that these short stories would be from the detective fiction genre that has made Mosely famous. As it happens, they aren’t. I could live with that; they aren’t especially compelling, but they’re not badly written. If not for one problem, I would go with three stars, or perhaps even three-and-a-half and consider bumping it up. However.

Mosely seems to have a problem regarding women. It isn’t that he hasn’t gotten the memo that women would like to be regarded as human beings; his writing gives one the impression that he simply disagrees. The first story of the collection is the title story, and it’s one of a physically large but socially clumsy African-American man that takes a liking to a receptionist where he works. His duties take him to her desk now and then, and he begins finding extra reasons to drop by. He chats with her a bit, but her response is unenthusiastic, and she doesn’t make eye contact. Believing that his intentions aren’t plain, he commences leaving a gift at her work station each day, beginning with a simple token and culminating, at the end of the week, with a Bonsai tree that costs him hundreds of dollars. She never thanks him for any of these, which confuses him. When he approaches her, she deals quickly with his work business, and then asks if there’s anything else she can do for him. His every overture is politely turned aside. Eventually, he is called into the boss’s office; he is accused of sexual harassment. The young woman he’s been trying to woo is scared to death of him, and only then does he realize that she actually can’t leave her station when he approaches her. It’s her job to be there. But he is distraught at having his reputation at work sullied, his position nearly terminated. He’s pretty sure it’s because he’s large and Black.

Huh. Well, perhaps the thing to do here, would be to not hit on women he works with. Maybe that’s the best plan for any man in any work setting, unless someone is clearly, plainly interested in him, has, for example, offered him a phone number. But I remind myself not to dismiss an author, especially one so well regarded for so many years, on the basis of a single story. So I read the others.

Indeed, the other stories don’t overtly demonstrate the same dismissiveness toward sexual harassment in the workplace, but the stereotypes never stop with this guy. Women that appear in his stories do so exclusively in relation to men. Even when they show up as mothers, their worth is in relation to their families; sons, grandsons, nephews, and of course, husbands. Women can be vixens, scheming and deceiving for their own evil ends; they can be victims. What women never are in Mosely’s stories are respected professionals, or community members, or anything else that suggests that they make a valuable social contribution that stands alone, that doesn’t bear directly on the life of whatever male character the story is really all about. It’s almost as though the last fifty years of the women’s movement and its achievements never. Fucking. Happened.

So, who wants my paperback copy of Devil in a Blue Dress? Cause now I know I won’t be reading it.

Recommended to those that love short stories and have no respect for women.

Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

It’s the best of books, but it’s the worst of books. K-Ming Chang has made her mark on modern literature, and her debut novel, Bestiary, has already made a number of prestigious lists. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; sadly, its twisted edginess is too intense for me.

This much-buzzed-about book is for sale now.

How many triggers are packed into this one little book? All of them. Every trigger you can possibly think of, plus she may have made a few more up on the spot. There is violence a-plenty here, and the graphic child abuse and elder abuse provide such visceral imagery that I may never get it out of my head. I abandoned this book faster than just about any I can recall, and although I was certain it was the right thing to do for myself, I nevertheless experienced a twinge of regret along with it, because it is obvious from the first page that this author can write.

My gut hunch is that younger adult readers with cast-iron stomachs and level dispositions will be the most appreciative demographic for this one, but wimps like me will need to give it a pass. It is to the former that this book is recommended.

Memphis Luck, by Gerald Duff**

In 2015, I read and reviewed Gerald Duff’s Memphis Ribs, the opening book in the Ragsdale and Walker series. It was irreverent but hilarious, and although it straddled the line between edgy but funny and straight-up offensive, it didn’t cross over, and I was still laughing out loud when it ended. I figured I was a Gerald Duff fan for life. All of us love the great literary talents, but a writer that can produce a good, hearty belly laugh is worth his weight in gold. With that in mind, I decided I’d keep an eye out for whatever else he might publish.

When Brash Books offered this second book in the series for review, I leapt on it. I’m sorry to say that I don’t love it the way I did the first.  Many of the same components are there—colorful bad guys, snappy banter between the two detectives—but the overall quality is lacking in places, offensive in others.

The mix includes a group of rip-off artists that are stalking an evangelical preacher, and a special needs teenager that the blurb tells us is autistic and also homicidal. I’m glad the blurb clarified these things, because although the character obviously has issues, none of them would suggest autism to me or as far as I can see, to anyone that has worked with autistic teens. So there’s that.

What I do like is the snappy banter between the two cops, which is one of the aspects of the first story that made it work for me. And the bizarro characters—the preacher that uses a cowboy theme to the extreme in his sermons, the odd teenager that appears to idolize him—at the outset seem pretty damn funny too.

But the corrupt Southern preacher schtick has been done quite a lot, and it’s in danger of becoming a trope. I might have locked into the whole cowboy thing, which is unique, but then there are the race jokes. And it’s the way Duff approaches race that tips this book over a deal-breaking boundary. Yes, I get it that the nasty racial remarks are all made by bad guys, but do we need so many of them? It’s as if Duff has studied every racist he’s ever known and catalogued every ugly racial insult for his future use. Less is more, but there are passages where they’re on every page, almost as if the author is looking for a good excuse to dust them off and make ample use of them. At times it’s cringeworthy; then at other times, it’s just sickening. I’m not having a good time anymore at this point, and were it not for my fondness for Brash Books and the previous book in the series, I would have quit reading it midway through. There’s lots of dialogue and it’s a quick read, but then it would be even quicker not to read it at all, and I wouldn’t have this sour feeling in my gut. Sad to say, I think Duff and I are done.

I cannot recommend this book to you.