When the Summer Was Ours, by Roxanne Veletzos***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I had proclaimed myself to be over and done with World War II fiction; there’s been a glut of it in the publishing world, and I have well and truly had my fill. My soft spot, however, is for any book written by an author whose work I have read and enjoyed. I reviewed Veletzos’s charming debut, The Girl They Left Behind, in 2018, and so when the opportunity came up, I agreed to read and review this one, too. It was a good decision.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation and review copy. This book is for sale now.

Eva Cesar, daughter of the well-to-do but terribly strict local bourgeois, falls in love when Aleandro, a Romani artist stops in her tiny town in Hungary. He is a painter and a fiddler, raising his younger brothers alone following the deaths of their parents. Eva’s father knows nothing of this romance, and it’s a darned good thing. Not only is her father a Nazi sympathizer and bigot, but she is already engaged to marry Eduard, a dedicated Red Cross physician whom she also loves.

The story follows all three of them over the years, shifting points of view. All three are likable characters; Aleandro is obsessive enough that he seems a little creepy at the outset, but as the story develops, that’s no longer the case. Eduard is a stable, likable human being, but he is the one that is least developed. Eva often makes passive decisions, which I find grating, yet these are the early 1940s, and women don’t yet know they’re entitled to be decisionmakers, at least in many regards. The plot seems to go all over the place, but it comes together quite nicely at the end.

There are two related developments I would have liked to see handled differently. First—and I’m telling you this because it occurs early—Eva becomes pregnant after just one night of passion with Aleandro. Picture me sticking two fingers down my throat. Gag, spit, gag some more; what an overused trope. But then it gets worse. Eva heads to a clinic where abortions are performed quietly, since the procedure isn’t legal; the facility is filthy, and the staff are rude; we briefly meet the doctor, who virtually has horns and a spiky tail, and dines regularly on the flesh of aborted embryos and fetuses. More or less, anyway. And with women’s rights to choose our own reproductive decisions under attack, this is the very worst possible time to put such vile propaganda into a novel. She flees, of course, and has the baby, of course. In fact, as I write this, I question my choice to knock off only half a star from my rating. I’m growing madder by the minute, just writing about it.

Moving on!

The most difficult aspect of a complex story like this one is deciding how to end it. I come back around when I see how tastefully and realistically this is achieved. The ending is both credible and sweet.

There it is; you decide.  

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.

A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, by Sarah Bird***

I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Bird’s historical fiction since I read Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, which was published in 2018. When I saw that she had a new book coming out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to start reading it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and McMillan Audio for the recording. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Evie Devlin; the setting is in Texas during the Great Depression. This is a time before government relief exists. Jobs for capable men are scarce, and for women, nearly nonexistent. Evie’s father is dead, and her mother has let her know that she won’t support her efforts to become a nurse. When hard work and determination land her a scholarship, Evie is over the moon, and she makes her way to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Galveston. The director is not happy to see her; she disapproves of scholarship girls in general—a low class of girls, she believes—and in particular, a Protestant one! What is this world coming to? However, Sofia Amadeo likes Evie, and she wants her admitted, and since the Amadeo family’s money and power drive absolutely everything in Galveston, the director is forced to let Evie in. She and Sofie become roommates first, and then the closest of friends.

We follow Evie through nursing school, but on graduation day, she hits a snag and is sent away without her pin, which is the equivalent of a license to practice. Now homeless and nearly penniless, Evie is adrift, until she learns about the dance-a-thons that feature cash prizes. She was forced to dance for money as a small child and doesn’t care to do so again, but when she sees what passes for a nurse in the show—basically someone off the street recruited to play the role of nurse, but with no training of any kind—she persuades the manager to hire her instead. From there, romance and all sorts of other entanglements and complications ensue.

For roughly the first eighty percent of the book, I am enthralled. The plot is fascinating, the historical accuracy commendable. Soon this becomes my favorite galley. And this is why I feel such a colossal sense of disappointment, almost a sense of betrayal, in fact, when the ending is cobbled together with feel-good revisionism and wishful thinking. Without going into spoilerish detail, a member of an oppressed minority becomes Evie’s focus, and suddenly we roam so far from the historical truth that we never find our way back again. And make no mistake: the actual truth is ugly. But if you’re going to write in the kitchen, you have to be able to bear the heat. Or, something like that.

Sarah Bird is a badass writer. Just reading her figurative language alone gives me joy, and I am hoping fervently that this bizarre departure is an anomaly. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

As for the audio, Cassandra Campbell does a serviceable job, though the Italian accent sounds a bit like Dracula. This is a common issue, I find, and so I’m not terribly concerned about this aspect. Everything else she does is right on point. If you are going to read this book—which, sadly, I cannot recommend—I’d say it’s a toss up as to audio versus print. Go with whatever you’re most comfortable with, but do it free or cheap if you decide to acquire it.

The Ogress and the Orphans, by Kelly Barnhill*****

This book is not at all what I expected; it’s much better than that. My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin Young Readers for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

This lovely story is told in the second person omniscient, and we cannot tell, until the end, who the narrator is. Our setting is the sweet (fictitious) village of Stone-in-the-Glen, and it’s told in linear fashion. Because its telling is straightforward, with no changes in point of view or time period, and no heart-hammering suspense, it is ideal for bedtime reading. It’s marketed as a children’s book, and here I disagree, in part anyway. The vocabulary is too advanced for an early reader, but would serve well as a story to read aloud to students in upper elementary classes, or as a read-alone for the gifted child. There is no sexual content, drugs, or bad language.

Because I believed this was going to be a children’s book, I thought I’d whisk through it in no time and review it the same week I started, but I sensed immediately, once I’d begun, that this was not that kind of story. Its length, density of page and paragraph, and content call for a more leisurely pace, but also, it’s just too good to rush through. I am a sucker for excellent alliterative language (see what I did there?) and Barnhill is a champion in this regard. I found myself going back a page or two to reread, highlighting the best passages for no reason but my own pleasure.

The plot is easily summarized. The lovely little village is friendly and flourishing until the town library, which has magical powers, burns down. Without benefit of the library, villagers keep to themselves, and they become secretive and greedy. The mayor could help, but chooses not to do so. He’s a real piece of, um, work.

The orphanage in particular is in dire straits. They haven’t been getting their promised funding lately, and the place is starting to fall apart. The children are hungry. Were it not for the largesse of an anonymous donor, one that leaves big boxes of vegetables at the gate for them to find in the morning, they would starve.

The Ogress is their benefactor. We know this early on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. However, due to the misconceptions of the villagers, which the mayor feeds shamelessly, the Ogress soon becomes a scapegoat. These two problems—local poverty, and the hostility toward the one among them that is different—form the basis of the story.

As to the allegory, which is dropped in midway through in a fairly heavy-handed manner, I am of two minds. On the one hand, my philosophy is similar to the author’s, and so I snicker when I see what she’s doing here. On the other hand, this is exactly the book one reaches for when one has had enough, enough, enough of current events and the outside world, and allegory becomes something of a distraction. When I see who the mayor represents, I start eyeing the other characters. Does the Ogress represent someone in the real world as well? What else am I missing? These musings are more likely to lodge themselves in the mind of a language arts teacher; I recognize that. But my preference would be to either turn the whole thing into a piece of political satire and own it, or to leave it alone and have a sweet story devoid of political content, one that readers on both ends of the political spectrum can enjoy—maybe even enjoy together.

These minor issues aside, I love this story. It’s my first taste of Barnhill’s writing, but it surely won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

Funny Farm, by Laurie Zaleski*****

“You never know what you are capable of until the day comes wen you have to go places you hadn’t planned on going.”

Laurie Zaleski knows how to make a debut. Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescue Animals has created a tremendous buzz, and all of it is deserved. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, February 22, 2022.

Laurie’s early childhood was in many ways an enviable one; her mother stayed home to raise Laurie, her brother, and her sister, and her father made enough money to hire household help and buy a couple of vacation homes, too. There was nothing they lacked for, other than physical safety. Because while her father could be warm, and loving, and generous, and funny, he could also be a monster. His reign of terror was worsened by alcohol consumption. As the beatings became uglier and more frequent, Annie, their mother, chose poverty for the children and herself over the constant terror and danger of living with their dad.

“’I almost became a nun,’ Mom would joke years later. ‘Then I met the devil…’ Annie McNulty and Richard Zaleski fell in love like tripping into an open manhole: one wrong move followed by a long dark plunge.”

There’s one searing episode Zaleski recounts, toward the end of their life with Dad, in which they are all hidden in a bedroom with the door blocked shut, and their father is sneaking up on them, commando crawling up the hallway toward them so they won’t see his shadow approaching, and he has a large knife between his teeth. It sounds like something from a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?

And so, when Annie’s efforts to build a modest nest egg to finance their flight is uncovered, she has no other option but to leave without the money. She finds a dumpy cabin in the woods, half fallen down and in no way legally rentable, and strikes a bargain with the owner. To say that their standard of living decreases is the understatement of the year, but they make it work.

Once she has made her escape, apart from the creepy forays from an unseen enemy that occur from time to time, Annie can’t turn away anyone else, human or otherwise, that is in a dark and vulnerable place. The woods surrounding their little shack begin sprouting makeshift outbuildings; there’s a little lean-to here, and a sort-of paddock there. And it keeps growing.

Zaleski is a gifted storyteller, and she alternates her narrative from the present to the past, breaking up the nightmarish episodes of her childhood with hilarious stories, most of which are about the critters. Her writing is so nimble that I find myself repeatedly checking to see what else she’s published, because there’s just no way this can be her debut. But then, that’s what they said about Harper Lee, right?

Perhaps the most glorious aspect of this book is seeing how Annie McNulty’s can-do attitude, sterling work ethic, and positivity transformed her life and lit a path for her children. She provided them with an outstanding role model, and in return, they did everything possible for her when cancer forced her to slow down.

This book will inevitably be compared to Educated and The Glass Castle because it is a memoir of someone that has overcome horrifying challenges in childhood and emerged triumphant. But make no mistake, Zaleski’s story is in no way derivative, and likely will be held up as an example for future writers. It makes my feminist heart sing!

Highly recommended.

Enough Already! by Valerie Bertinelli***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Valerie Bertinelli rose to fame as a child actor, and as a child I watched her show, “One Day at a Time,” together with my parents. I admired and envied her, and when my mother enthused how darling, how pretty, how adorable she was, I also resented her just a teeny bit, the way we tended to resent the homecoming queen or student body president. When I saw, recently, that she’d written a memoir, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

For me, this is more of a three star read, but I choose to bump the rating up to four stars because there were several barn-sized hints that I should have noticed before I began reading, yet blew obliviously past. First, I didn’t get the memo that Bertinelli has written diet books and cookbooks, and has won Emmy Awards for a cooking show on the Food Network. All of these things should have given me pause, because although I do like Bertinelli’s earlier work, I never watch food programs on television. If I want to learn more about food, I’ll buy a cookbook or a diet book, but I don’t need it on my TV or any other streaming devices, and I also (giant clue number two) hate mixing recipes and cooking tips into a novel or memoir.

Yikes!

So, whereas I believed I would be reading a memoir suffused with feminist mojo that makes the author ready to turn the page on body shaming and chronic dieting, instead, I got a recipe, right up front. Pffft.  And as a woman who’s lived in plus-sized fashions for decades, I find it hard to get excited about Bertinelli’s brave decision to stop losing the same ten pounds, over and over. Ten pounds? Oh please. I guess maybe actors and models go into crisis over ten extra pounds, and feel tremendously brave about deciding to own them, but where I live, ten pounds is nothing.

When I was in third grade, my teacher said that those of us that roll our eyes stand in danger of having them get stuck up there. Since there’s no way not to do that while reading this thing, we’ll call mine a case study. If they get stuck, I’ll report back. In Braille.

As the memoir continues, I find that more than anything, this is Bertinelli’s grief book. She and her ex-husband, Eddie Van Halen, have remained unusually close in the years since their divorce, and this book is almost more about him and their son Wolfie than it is about her. I never enjoyed Van Halen’s music, which I found to contain more heavy metal than I am geared for; since I have this memoir, I figure I should take myself to cyberspace and find out whether growing older has changed my tastes. As it turns out, nope, it hasn’t. Still not a Van Halen fan.

And lastly, the narrative comes with all sorts of red flags when she talks about the warm relationship she and Eddie have continued to share—because, you know, they are both (full grown) Wolfie’s parents. When it becomes clear that he will lose his fight with cancer, she and he nip out of whatever family party they are attending to go sit in someone’s car and confess their love to one another—despite the fact that they have both remarried. (Imagine I’ve written that last bit in 24 point font, bolded, red.) The hell? I know that Hollywood types sometimes do things a bit differently, but…? And so, once more I travel through cyberspace to track down Bertinelli’s current husband, who is scarcely even mentioned in this emo memoir. I find an image; oh, so that’s him! And yup, at just about the same time the book was in the publication pipeline, the marriage crashed to a halt, with Bertinelli fuming about how she refuses to be “shamed” for how she grieves. Uh, okay. Her grief is her grief, but if I was that fellow, I’d feel as if my marriage was a party to which I hadn’t been invited. And if it was hard to play second fiddle to the famed guitarist when he was alive, I can’t even imagine how anybody can compete with him now that he’s dead. So. For those diehard fans of hers, of Van Halen’s, or of the food programming to which her career has been directed in recent years, this might be a great read for you. As for me, I came away feeling awkward and uncomfortable. If, knowing all these things, you are still interested, then go for it; but if you’re not so sure, either give it a miss, or read it cheap or free.

The Santa Suit, by Mary Kay Andrews***-****

3.75 rounded up.

I love a good Christmas story, but so many of them are cloying or insipid. A friend recommended this one to me, and she wasn’t wrong. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.

Ivy is newly divorced, and she comes away from it with bruised feelings, but also money. Since she works from home, she has the choice to go anywhere, so she buys a farmhouse in a tiny town in North Carolina. She pays for it without ever seeing it in person, and it comes “as is.” At this point, I say, Welp, you’re in for it now, hon. And she is, sort of.

The realtor, Ezra, known locally as “The House Hunk,” has taken a shine to Ivy. He helps her with the heat; when she discovers that the old furniture is still there in the house, he and a friend cart it off for her, and when there’s a problem with her own furniture, he helps bring it all back in. And initially, she regards his attention as a nuisance, maybe even a stalker; but between the fine reputation he enjoys locally, and the number of times he helps her out of difficult situations, she gradually warms to him.

Ivy is a likable protagonist. She’s self-sufficient, but she isn’t cold. She sets about making friends right away. Her new bud, Phoebe, is in a state because she’s fallen in love with someone she met online, and has used a picture of someone else. Now the man Is coming to see her, and she’s panic-stricken. Other new friends include a local business person for whom she does some free, and very good, advertising, and a 96 year old man. Her dog, Punkin, goes everywhere with her, and she talks to him all the time, the way that some of us also do. When she needs assistance it’s because she doesn’t know the area, or because a job requires an extra set of hands, not because she is some helpless airhead. An engaging character indeed.

My rating reflects a couple of sloppy bits that the author and editor should have caught and dealt with immediately. They’re small, but they interrupt the magic, because they cause me to think about the two slackers rather than the story and characters. The first is when she offers Ezra coffee, but warns him that all she has is instant. Two paragraphs later, she is brewing the coffee. Oh, come on! Clean it up. A bit later, after Ezra and a friend have schlepped furniture in from the truck, he asks if she’s been out to play in the snow, and she tells him she doesn’t want to spoil its beauty. “It’s so beautiful, all that clean, untouched white.” And so I wonder: did they teleport the furniture indoors? Because otherwise, surely that snow would have been touched in a whole lot of places.

There are a couple of other inconsistencies, albeit smaller ones, and I am using a fair amount of ink to discuss problems that may seem trivial, but this is no debut author, this is a successful writer with a host of books in her repertoire, and she should know better.

The plot, on the other hand, is excellent. There was one development that I thought was obvious, but when I finished my eyeroll, I was surprised to see that she didn’t take it where I expected, and instead did something much better. I particularly like the way the romance unfolds, and the way that Ivy helps Phoebe out of her dilemma. There are other threads—involving a Santa suit, of course—that are equally delightful.

So, in spite of my complaints, I do recommend this charming, fluffy tale to you. It’s a mood elevator, and we can all use some of that. It’s for sale now.

All the Little Hopes, by Leah Weiss*****

Recently, I read and reviewed Weiss’s debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, which was delightful. This year’s novel, All the Little Hopes, is better still. My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

Weiss’s story is of two girls born in different parts of North Carolina, both geographically and culturally, and of how they come together and ultimately, become each other’s family. The novels I love best provide a resonant setting, an original plot, and compelling character development; these three elements don’t compete for the reader’s attention, but rather, each of them serves to develop and reinforce the others. That’s what I find here.

Our story takes place in the 1940s, during World War II. The narrative comes to us in the first person, with the point of view alternating between the girls; we begin with Lucy. Her father is a farmer, and by far his biggest crop is honey. As the story opens, government men come to visit, and they want to buy all of his honey for the war effort. Lucy’s eldest sibling and brother-in-law have both gone to serve in the military, and there’s an emotional scene after the government men leave, because they’ve given permission for both sons to return home to help with the honey. Lucy’s mother pleads with her father to write to them and order them home at once; he stands firm, saying that the choice must be their own. Now we begin seeing how conflict plays out in this family, and how the various relationships work. But all of it is done through the plot, so that we aren’t slowed down by a bunch of emo for its own sake.

Bert, whose given name is Allie Bert, lives in the mountains, and her family has far fewer resources than Lucy’s. Her story unfolds with the death of her mother in childbirth, along with the baby. Her father sends her to live with his sister, Violet, who is expecting a baby of her own. He suggests that Violet will need household help, and Bert can provide it; he doesn’t know that Violet has gone stark, raving mad. When Bert arrives, Violet is behaving irrationally and at times, violently. She locks Bert out of the house in a storm, and the nearest house is that of the Brown family. And so it begins.

One of the most critical aspects of this book’s success is Weiss’s facility in drawing the girls, who are just beginning adolescence. At the outset, we learn that Lucy takes pride in her advanced vocabulary. I groan, because this is often a device that amateurs use to try to gloss over their lack of knowledge relating to adolescents’ development. Make the girl smart, they figure, and then they will have license to write her as if she were an adult. Not so here! These girls are girls. Though it’s not an essential part of the plot, one of my favorite moments is when the girls are locked in a bitter, long-lasting quarrel over whether Nancy Drew is a real person. Bert says she is not; Lucy is sure she is. This isn’t silly to them. It’s a bitter thing. Further into the book, Lucy realizes that it’s more important to be understood, than to use the most advanced word she can come up with. And so my estimation of Weiss rises even higher.

When someone comes from truly devastating poverty, the few things that they own take on great importance. Bert arrives with a treasure box, and in it, she keeps things that may seem inconsequential, but that mean the world to her. And Bert is also light-fingered. After meeting Lucy’s mother, who is one of the nicest people she’s met in her life, she pockets a loose button that Mama means to sew back onto a garment. Bert wants this button fiercely, because Mama has touched it. Later—much later—she confesses this to Lucy, and then to Mama, and is flabbergasted when there is no harsh punishment. She explains to a neighbor,

“Mama says sometimes stealing is necessary, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Stealing’s a crime. Back home, there ain’t two ways bout stealing. You get a whipping. You get sent to your room with no supper. No breakfast the next day neither. Stealing is a sin against the Lord Jesus, so salt gets put on the floor, and you get on your knees on that salt and stay there till you cry out and your knees bleed, till you fall over and Pa says that’s enough.”  

One feature of the story is when Nazi prisoners of war are housed nearby, and they become available as labor. At first locals fear them, but then they get to know some of them, and they discover that like themselves, the prisoners play marbles. Gradually, the rules about avoiding the prisoners relaxes to where the girls are allowed to play marbles with them sometimes. “We tread close to the sin of pride when it comes to marbles. I don’t think we can help ourselves.” And now I am veering toward an eyeroll, because (yes, I’ll say it again,) writers are awfully quick to find humanity in Caucasian enemies, whereas we know the story would have been very different had these prisoners been Japanese. BUT, as my eyes narrow and my frown lines deepen, another development occurs that reminds us that these men aren’t really our friends. Again, my admiration increases.

Weiss’s last book was a delight for the first eighty-percent, but it faltered at the end, and so I was eager to see whether this novel stands up all the way through. I love the ending!

You can get this book now, and if you love excellent historical fiction, excellent Southern fiction, or excellent literature in general, you should get it sooner rather than later. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the list at your local library. This is one of the year’s best, hands down.

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan****

I enjoyed Ryan’s historical novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, and so I was thrilled when Ballantine Books and Net Galley offered me a review copy for this one. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in rural England during World War II. We have four protagonists, all of them women. Audrey Landon is a widow; her husband died in the war, leaving her with two boys to raise on her own. The old family home, which she inherited from her parents, is falling apart, and she has no means to repair it. In some places, the roof has caved in.

The second is Audrey’s sister, “Lady” Gwendoline. Gwen puts herself first at all times, since nobody else ever has. She married for wealth and convenience, and she lords her affluence over her sister and everyone else. But her husband is a cruel man, and her existence is a lonely one despite its material comfort.

Zelda was a top chef in London, but once her pregnancy became visible, she had to get gone. Her landlord calls her a “trollop,” and she knows she can’t stay there now, so she applies for wartime housing. The volunteer in charge of placing her is Lady Gwendoline, who snickers with amusement as she assigns her to live in Audrey’s house.

Nell is a chef’s assistant at Fenley Hall, the prestigious old pile where Lady Gwendoline and Sir Strickland hold court. The chef, Mrs. Quince, has taught her nearly everything she knows, and it’s a good thing, too; the old lady isn’t getting any younger.

All four women enter a cooking contest held by the Ministry of Food, a “wartime cooking challenge” to showcase recipes that use ordinary ingredients and work around rationing.  The winner will be the new announcer for The Kitchen Front, a wartime radio program—and this program existed in real life.

As in the last story, Ryan develops her four characters in a way I believe; the most benevolent have flaws, and the most unsympathetic, Lady Gwendoline, is complex and capable of change. It is Gwendoline that is most developed at the end, but all four are dynamic characters.

For a brief while, I use the audio version of this book, which I obtain from my local library. Jasmine Blackborow does a fine job as reader in most regards, but there is a side character that turns up in a couple of emotionally charged scenes, an Italian prisoner of war, and when she voices him, he sounds like Dracula, which ruins the magic. For this reason, I recommend sticking to the printed version.

The first half of this story is almost unputdownable, and for a time I nearly forget my other books. But as the climax approaches, things become predictable, almost formulaic, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes. The scenes toward the end with Mrs. Quince are overwrought.  It’s not terrible, but because I am so far in love with the first half, I am disappointed by the denouement. Also, if recipes must be included, as apparently they must, the author should give them character by using the substituted ingredients in the instructions; the more desirable ingredients can be footnoted.

Ultimately I rate The Kitchen Front four stars; five for the first half, three for the second.