The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams***

The Liar’s Dictionary sounded like a fun read, and my thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. In the end, though there are some lovely moments, the execution doesn’t live up to its promise.

This book has been in my collection of review copies for a year now, and every now and then, I’ve told myself to get with it, set aside other galleys and take care of this one. But so help me, the beginning is dry and interminable, and I found that rather than read this novel, I’d rather not read at all. Finally, I ferreted out a copy of the audio book, and when I was able to do other things with my hands, I was able to get through it, although there were still a couple of times that my mind wandered, and I had to either run it back, or dive back into the digital review copy in order to acclimate myself.

The story alternates between two protagonists in two different settings, one the present, the other the past. In Victorian London, Peter Winceworth, an alienated, abused employee, deliberately invents words to add to the dictionary to which he has been assigned. He has no personal life to speak of, and although he manufactured a lisp purely for his own amusement, his boss is so nasty to him that he can’t shake the lisp in his presence. He falls for the boss’s fiancée, but it doesn’t go well, and hence he must wreck revenge.

In the present time, Mallory is tasked with finding and eliminating the invented words. Mallory is an easier character to bond with, but neither Mallory or Peter sees a great deal of development. There are a handful of very funny moments in the mid-section of the novel, and there’s one brilliant death match between Winceworth and a homicidal pelican. Beyond that, I didn’t find much joy.

This book is for sale now if you want it, but my advice is to get it free or cheap unless your pockets are deep and you’ve got no other way to empty them.

At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman****

At the Edge of the Haight tells the story of a homeless youth, Maddy Donaldo, who lives with her dog, Root, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But one day she runs across a young man lying dead, and the man that is almost certainly his killer locks eyes with her. He tells her, “Keep a handle on the fucking dog…I know where to find your ass.”

I was invited to read and review this award-winning novel by Algonquin Books. My thanks go to them and Net Galley for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

At first, I am not sure I’ll like this book. It seems a bit self-conscious, a bit like a public service announcement or an infomercial. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. But about a quarter of the way in, it wakes up and begins to flow. It becomes my dedicated bathroom book, since I’ve been given a physical review copy, and I find myself brightening when I enter the loo. There are any number of places when the author has the opportunity to use an obvious plot device, but she chooses something better. By the end of the story I believe Maddy as a character, and I appreciate the way it ends.

My home town, Seattle, has an enormous problem with homelessness, estimated in the tens of thousands, and most of them are native Seattle-ites that have been priced out of the housing market. I know one of the people out there; others have squatted in my yard until my dog made them feel unwelcome. Not one part of this city is entirely free of tents, cardboard shacks, and other makeshift shelters. So this subject is never far from my thoughts.

The fact is that there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds, whether in open rooms with mats on the floor, hotels with doors that close and provide privacy, or other options, but in reading this book, it is also clear that there are times when it’s better to walk away from free shelter. Take our friend Maddy. The shelter she sometimes frequents is one where the probable killer has seen her. She can’t go there safely. There are shelters where she can’t take her dog. There are others that sound pretty good, but a night filled with the screams of a neighbor experiencing a mental health crisis make the private niche way deep in the park more appealing. The cops range from businesslike 3 AM bush beaters (“You can’t camp here!”) to the overtly cruel, and most of the homeless know better than to try to confide in them. And so it goes.

The main part of this story involves a couple—Dave and Marva—that are the parents of Shane, the murder victim. They live on the other side of the country, and they never understood why Shane wouldn’t come home. No one besides Maddy recalls having seen Shane, and so although she has only seen him once—dead—they latch onto her, vowing to help her since they couldn’t help him. Between their grief and ignorance, however, they bumble around and breach boundaries in ways that are outrageously presumptuous, and when they drag her to their home for Thanksgiving, they introduce her as someone that “knew Shane,” which of course she didn’t. Maddy feels bad for these folks, but she doesn’t want to be their project. It’s a bizarre situation for her to be in.

Though it is marketed as commercial fiction, I think a lot of teens would embrace this story. I suggest that Language Arts teachers in middle and high schools add it to their shelves, as should librarians. The vocabulary is accessible, and despite the quote I lead with, there’s very little profanity.

Recommended especially for teenage readers.

Twelve Months of Reading

Seattle Book Mama’s Favorite Books for 2021

So many books to choose from! This is the cream of my collection of five star books for this year. So many of these crosses into multiple genres that it makes no sense to break them into categories. Whether you crave mystery, historical fiction, military fiction, suspense, humor, Southern fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, history, or just a fantastic read, I’ve got you covered. What better way to wrap up 2021?

Autopsy, by Patricia Cornwell*****

Autopsy is number 25 in the Kay Scarpetta series, the first forensic thrillers ever to see print. This series began in 1990, and I have read every single one, but this is the first time I’ve scored a review copy. My thanks go to William Morrow and Net Galley.

When the series began, Scarpetta was the chief medical examiner in Virginia. When last we saw her, she was working in Massachusetts, but now she’s come full circle, brought back to her old position in order to root out corruption and restore the office to the integrity it held when last Scarpetta was in charge. She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it surely isn’t.

There are long running characters that have been so well developed over the years that I almost feel as if I would know them on the street. Her husband, Benton Wesley, holds a sensitive position within the FBI, and the necessary secrecy and sudden need to pack a bag and go somewhere has led to marital tension over the course of the series, but not so much this time. Kay’s niece, Lucy, is more like a daughter; she has been estranged from her mother at times, a high-strung, self-absorbed woman that looks out for number one every minute of every day. The mother—Dorothy—is now married to Pete Marino, with whom Scarpetta has worked closely for the length of the series, and they live nearby.

At this juncture, new or inconstant readers may wonder if there’s any point to jumping into a book this far into the series. I read it with that question in mind, and whereas you won’t have the background and depth of context that faithful fans possess, you can understand everything that happens here; Cornwell doesn’t burden the reader with assumed knowledge.  And if you are a new reader, likely as not, you’ll find yourself headed to the library or bookstore to pick up others from this series. It’s that addictive.

The only background information that might make a difference is that from the outset, Kay’s whole family (except Dorothy, of course) fears for her well-being. A murder occurs in the area, and the victim is a neighbor of Pete and Dorothy’s. Immediately, there’s this sense of urgency, and it’s more than one would ordinarily expect. A neighbor has been killed; the circumstances are weird, and we don’t know whodunit; everyone is edgy about personal security, and again—especially regarding Kay’s safety. So let me help you out, if you’re new: over several of the most recent episodes, someone has attempted to kill Kay, nearly succeeding more than once, and though the occasional thug has been caught, the schemer behind the attempts is still out there somewhere. The narrative makes no specific references to any of this, which I appreciate. It’s obnoxious when a book costs as much as new books do these days, for the author to insert what amount to advertisements to buy her other books. But for those not in the know: If the beginning seems a little overwrought, that’s why.

Add to this that the old guard is still entrenched in Kay’s workplace, with people whispering behind her back, and her secretary clearly plotting against her. She’s just arrived, but she is on the back foot, trying to find out what’s going on and who can be trusted, and trying to establish her own authority without making enemies unnecessarily. As I read, I find myself urging her to assert herself. Because to me, Scarpetta isn’t a fictional character at all. I believe in this character, and I believe in Benton, Lucy, and Marino, too. I’ve known them longer than a lot of people I see in real life, after all.

Those of us that read a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and so forth become accustomed to timeworn plot devices. I have a little list of things I hate to find in books of this genre, and Cornwell avoids them all. There is no alcoholic protagonist that just wants a drink, a drink, a drink. There’s no kidnapping of the protagonist and stuffing her in the trunk (or backseat, or whatever,) nor does this happen to any of her loved ones. Scarpetta is not being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, nor is anyone she loves.

Instead, we get an autopsy in outer space, supervised remotely by Scarpetta. How cool is that?

One other aspect of this book, and this series, that I love, is that there is just enough interesting information included about forensic investigation without the story turning into some tedious science lecture, as I have found in books scribed by Cornwall’s imitators.

The pacing is swift, the dialogue crackles, and a new character, Officer Fruge, is introduced. Hers is the last word in the book, and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud, a first for this series.

Welcome home, Scarpetta.

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott*****

It really is.

This book is a standout in more ways than one. First the obvious: look at that cover! Then again, how many novels have a nameless protagonist all the way through the book? Get into it deeper, and the distinctions become more complex. The buzz around it is wholly justified. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our author is on an odyssey that takes the form of a book tour, and it lands him, in the end, back where he grew up. He doesn’t tour alone; apart from the various organizers he meets in various locations, he is accompanied by a small Black child he refers to as “The Kid.” Alternately, we also see the story of a young Black boy, a very Black boy, nicknamed “Soot,” who grows up in the American South.

As I read, I am always on the back foot, understanding most of what it being said, yet developing questions as I go. Our author says (often) that he has a condition, and that this is probably why he can see The Kid when others cannot. My notes ask whether his condition is dissociative, and is The Kid just part of himself? Or is The Kid Soot? Are Soot and The Kid both part of the author? Every time I come up with a plausible theory, something else happens to undercut it. Yet one other thing becomes clearer all the way through: to be born an African-American boy in the United States is to be perpetually on the back foot; perpetually having to guess how best to proceed; to perpetually guess at one’s welcome or lack of same, at the quality of one’s relationships with Caucasians, to perpetually guard one’s own safety. And to be very Black—“Nigga, I bet when you get out of the car your daddy’s oil light come on”—is to invite not only the suspicion and hostility of Caucasians, but to draw the enmity of lighter Black people, too.

The synopsis of this story that initially drew me billed it as humor, and in places, it is not only funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. But the further we get in, the darker it becomes.

There are a number of sardonic references to the publishing world; editors, agents, and other promoters have told the author that while it’s fine to write about Black characters, He must not write about being Black:

“The last thing people really want to hear about is being Black. Being Black’s a curse—no offense—and nobody wants to feel cursed when they read something they just finished paying $24.95 for…The future of this country is all about patriotic, unity-inducing language. Post-Racial. Trans-Jim Crow. Epi-Traumatic. Alt-Reparational. Omni-Restitutional. Jingoistic Body-Positive. Sociocultural-Transcendental. Indigenous-Ripostic. Treat of Fort Laramie-Perpendicular. Meta-Exculpatory. Pan-Political. Uber-Intermutual. MOK-Adjacent. Demi-Arcadian Bucolic. Write about love. Love and Disney endings…”

Later, an interviewer asks if the past doesn’t still matter, and the author says, “It does. Not just three-fifths of it, but all of it.”

So, my friend, you can see why this book should be called a love story. Race? Oh, no no no. Fear? Injustice? Police brutality? Of course not. After all, this is a hell of a book!

Highly recommended; one of the year’s finest.

Game On! by Janet Evanovich****-*****

Stephanie Plum has been my constant companion for decades, but she never seems to get any older. We should all be so lucky!

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

Stephanie is a bounty hunter, working for her cousin Vinnie’s bail bond service. She tracks down no-shows, takes them to have their hearings rescheduled, and collects a commission. Her mother wishes fervently that she would get a normal job such as a bank teller, or just go ahead and marry long-time boyfriend Officer Joe Morelli, and keep house and raise kiddies. But Stephanie is long on independence, and she’s short on marketable skills, and so this is what she does. And we readers are well aware that she wouldn’t be half this hilarious as a housewife, so we cheer her on.

In an interview, author Evanovich said she had lit on the idea of a bounty hunter protagonist because the writer doesn’t need a background in legal matters the way that she would if she used a cop, detective, or lawyer. The primary skill required of a bail bonds enforcer is lying, and she felt she had a good grasp of that one.

You gotta love it.

There have been a few wobbles in the series, and a moment (long ago) when I thought perhaps it was played out. But like her intrepid protagonist, the author rallied and came back stronger than ever.

Can you read this book if you haven’t read any of the others in the series? Yes. Yes, you surely can; but you are most likely going to want to go back for the rest once you do so.

There are a few things that strike me as I read this one. I suddenly find myself wondering why Stephanie doesn’t seem to have women friends. She’s lived in Trenton—in the Burg—her entire life, so shouldn’t she have a few lifelong pals? But by the end of the story, I realized that her work buds are her go-to girls. Lula gets into a scrape and leaves what little she has to Stephanie (but of course, Lula pulls through. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler; since when would a riotously funny writer like Evanovich off a main character?) Connie is a distant relative, but she’s also a friend.

I also find myself, like other reviewers, wondering about the sanitized language and decreasing vocabulary levels. We’ve been drifting in this direction for awhile. At the start of the series, profanity was used by the people and in the situations where you’d expect to find it. The overall language level was accessible to anybody that finished eighth grade. Over the last several episodes, however, it’s been drifting downward. Now, apart from one “damn”, I found nothing, although the euphemisms are stellar (“What the fork,” “What the Hellman’s Mayonnaise,” “Son of a bagel.”)  And the overall vocabulary level is now down to about fifth grade. If it goes any lower (see the author’s other series,) I may not be interested anymore, but as it stands, it’s fast, it’s snappy, and I’m in.

The usual elements—escorting Grandma Mazur to viewings at the mortuary; exploding cars; men surprising Stephanie when they let themselves into her locked apartment; dinner with Stephanie’s parents; a geeky witness, or victim, or possibly even an offender, that Stephanie takes under her wing; and the red-hot Joe Morelli are all present and accounted for. Stephanie’s mother has been drinking heavily every time Stephanie gets into a dangerous scrape, and Evanovich has been toying with some character development in her direction. I hope she follows through.

The tension of Stephanie trying to decide between Morelli and the mysterious Ranger is over, for now, at least, and it was getting old, so I applaud this development. She knows that Ranger will never marry her, and there’s a lot he’ll never tell her. She knows Morelli. They grew up together, and they understand one another. Marriage, maybe not yet; but Joe is the one. She’s tempted by others in this installment, but for once, she behaves herself. Good.

Whereas this series isn’t the magnificent literary accomplishment attained by some mystery Grand Masters, and it doesn’t try to be, I rate it as five stars in the humor genre. It made me laugh out loud on page two, and though I read quite a lot of books each year, those that have made me howl this year can be counted on one hand. It’s a more valuable characteristic than some might guess, especially during these tense times.

Highly recommended to those that need a good laugh.

The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

“Connections with others were what made life bearable…We all need reassurance, she thought. We all need people to tell us that everything is going to be all right, even when it is not, and that we should not worry, even when we clearly need to be concerned about something. We are only human, after all, and that is why reassurance is so important to us. That is undoubtedly well known.”

I am not generally fond of cozy mysteries, yet I love this series hard. I told a friend—who works as a therapist—that the #1 Ladies Detective books are the cheapest therapy on the planet, and she agreed.

My great thanks go to Edelweiss and Penguin Random House for the review copy. This charming tale will be for sale November 16, 2021.

As is usual, we have two equally important story lines woven into a single narrative. The detective story has to do with a client—a most unpleasant fellow, but a client, nonetheless—that has come to the agency looking for help with his father’s will. His father is still alive, but not entirely himself anymore, and is planning to leave his valuable home to his nurse. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are enlisted to dig up information about this woman, and to see if anything can be done to reverse his father’s decision. The second storyline concerns Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who has decided to invest in a dubious-sounding scheme to turn secondhand buses into a bus service. Mma Ramotswe is horrified, because in order to invest the necessary sum, it will be necessary to take out a bank loan, using the building that houses the businesses—Matekoni’s auto repair, and Ramotswe’s detective agency—as collateral. There’s also a smaller thread involving human trafficking of small children locally, and as usual, it is dealt with tidily and in a most entertaining fashion.

The book begins with Mma Ramotswe wondering what makes men happy. This is a tricky way to start a book, given the current social climate especially. Many readers, women in particular, are sensitive to having a male author write about a female character’s fervent longing to make her husband happy. The internal monologue could use some tightening up here, and that’s unusual for this writer. However, this passage is near the beginning, and once it’s done, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

What is the alchemy that makes this series so successful? Certainly at the start, there was the novelty. It’s unusual for an English-language series to be set in Botswana, or at least, it was when this one began. But it takes a lot more than that to sustain a series over so many years.

For me, the gentle humor goes a long way. I also appreciate the depth of respect for working people that shines out of every book in this series. Mma Potokwane, who runs the orphan farm and is Mma Ramotswe’s closest friend, reflects on the squabble over the old man’s will. “Rich people are always forgetting that they are only rich because of the work of others. They do not dig their money out of the ground, you know, Mma.”

Also? There are a lot of us out here that are also “traditionally sized,” and we love seeing lovable, successful characters that look, to some extent, like ourselves.

There’s the notion that people are inherently good—try finding that in your average noir detective story—and also, the idea that ordinary people can and should intervene to the best of their ability when they see wrongdoing. “Sometimes those people simply did not see what others could see; sometimes their hands were tied; sometimes they felt threatened. And all of that meant that there were times when it was left to people like them, a private detective and the matron of an orphan farm, to do what had to be done.”

This story, however, is singular in that both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi manage their husbands through deception. Grace Makutsi reveals that she gets her husband, Phuti, to take his vitamins by stirring them into his breakfast tea without telling him. Precious Ramotswe, when unable to persuade Matekoni not to apply for the bank loan, sneaks around behind his back, looking for a way to kill the deal without his knowing it. Neither of these things leads to marital disaster, yet I find myself wondering whether these things may come back on them in a future installment.

The fact that I find myself feeling concerned about the marriages of two women that are fictional, fictional, fictional says a great deal about Smith’s capacity to develop characters with depth and breadth.

I can talk about this series, and these characters, and this book all day. I’ve already come close to it. But the best way for you to appreciate it is to get this book. It comes out in a week, so I suggest you order a copy now. Highly recommended.

Voices from the Pandemic, by Eli Saslow****

Eli Saslow is the journalist that wrote Rising Out of Hatred, the story of former White Supremacist Derek Black, in 2018. When I was offered the chance to read and review his new book, Voices from the Pandemic, I jumped on it, because I like this author a lot. Once I had it, I avoided it like the plague (pardon the reference) for a couple months, wondering just what I had been thinking, to sign on for something like this. In the end, I am glad to have read it.

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Saslow tells us in the introduction that he expected to become depressed, perhaps numbed, by all of these interviews, but ultimately was galvanized by “their empathy, their insight, their candor and emotional courage.” Fair enough, but an awful lot of these stories are gut-wrenching. For whatever reason, he chooses to start with some of the most horrific ones, but as we work our way into the book, there are several that are not about the excruciating, grim death of a loved one, but are interesting for different reasons. There are stories of essential workers, of coroners, and medical professionals. One that has stayed with me is that of a middle aged man, ex-military, who is finally compelled, when everyone in the household loses their livelihoods, to visit a food bank. He gets there two hours before it opens to be on the safe side, and discovers that there’s already a huge, hours-long line.

My favorite story is that of Bruce MacGillis, a wily old man that barricades himself in his room in his nursing home, lets nobody in, throws open his windows in subfreezing weather, and stuffs towels underneath the doorway to keep out other people’s germs. He ends up being one of two residents that are spared, out of eighty-nine residents. (My notes say, “Hell yeah!”) On December 28, he lets a nurse come in to administer his vaccine. I hope that man lives to be a hundred.

There are some stories by vaccine deniers, mask avoiders, included here, but if you are among them, you probably won’t enjoy this book. It leans heavily toward science, and away from conspiracy theories.

After I’d procrastinated reading this thing, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons to give myself a leg up. I thought it might be easier to hear these stories while I was also engaged in some other task, so I fired it up while I was slicing bell peppers and marinating meat. If anything, it was worse that way. Well—to be fair—worse, and also better. There’s a separate reader for each story, and the hard ones are read with such searing emotion that it makes them all the worse. The saving grace is that each person’s story is concisely told, so there was only one time that I hit the stop button and fast-forwarded to the next one. At the outset, I only listened for a few minutes at a go, and then turned to listen to another book, something light and fictional, to restore my mood. By the second half, I no longer needed to do that.

The book only covers the 2020 portion of the pandemic, but I’m not sure it would sound much different had he waited to include the whole horrible thing. (It will be over someday…won’t it?) Recommended, for those that can do this.

The Family, by Naomi Krupitsky****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded upward.

The cover grabbed me first, two women in vintage sweaters—no faces even—and the title written in Godfather font. Oh, heck yes. I need to read this thing. The author is a newbie about whom I know nothing, so I know it may be a recipe for disappointment. I’ve taken review copies this way in the past, and have regretted it, because of course, the cover doesn’t speak to the author’s ability. But old school mobster books are fun, and they’re thin on the ground these days, so I hold my breath as I take a chance…and hit the jackpot!

This is one of the year’s best works of historical fiction, and you should get it and read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Antonia and Sofia grow up together; their fathers are both mobsters, and their houses share a wall. Not only are they thrown together for Family events from early childhood forward, but their peers ostracize them in elementary school, their family’s reputations having preceded them, so for several years, they are each other’s only option. But it’s enough.

Our story starts in 1928, and it ends in 1948. We follow the girls through childhood, adolescence, and into their early adult years. At the outset, their fathers are best friends, until Carlos, Antonia’s daddy, starts skimming, covertly building a nest egg in the hope of making a new start far away with his little family, doing an honest job, and leaving the Family behind.  His theft is, of course, detected, and he disappears; Joey, Sofia’s father, is promoted, and told to take care of Carlos’s widow and daughter. Thus, we have a clear, concrete reminder, right up front, that this is an ugly, violent business. The author’s note says she wants to demonstrate the strange way that violence and love can coexist, and she does that and more.

Those readers seeking a mob story full of chasing and shooting and scheming will do well to look elsewhere. We do find these things, of course, primarily in the second half, but the story’s focus is entirely on Sofia and Antonia. Whereas setting is important—and done nicely—the narrative’s fortune rises or sinks on character development, and Krupitsky does it right. These women become so real to me that toward the end, when some ominous foreshadowing suggests that devastating events are around the corner, I put the book down, stop reading it or anything else for half a day, and brood. I complain to my spouse. I complain to my daughter. And then, knowing that it’s publication day and I have an obligation, I return to face the music and finish the book. (And no. I’m not telling.)

My only concern, in the end, is a smallish smattering of revisionism that occurs during the last twenty percent of the novel. Knowing what gender roles and expectations are like in that time and place, I have to say that, while I can see one intrepid, independent female character stepping out of the mold, having multiple women do it to the degree I see it here is a reach.

Nevertheless, this is a badass book by a badass new talent, and Naomi Krupitsky proves that she is a force to be reckoned with. Get this book! Read it now.

Home Stretch, by Graham Norton***-****

3.5 stars, rounded down.

Home Stretch is Graham Norton’s third novel, and because I absolutely loved his first, Holding, and his second, A Keeper, I expected great things from this one. It’s not a bad book, but it didn’t delight me the way the first two did.

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

We start with a tragic accident, and our protagonist, Connor, is unhurt, but three of his friends are killed, and Connor is blamed by everyone, including his family. It’s a small town, so trying to keep his head up and avoid people that dislike him is impossible.

His family feels the same, and so he is abruptly packed off to Liverpool, and from there to bigger and in many ways, better places. And in many ways this is a favorable development, as he is no longer forced to hide his sexuality; and yet, it’s a tough thing to live a life that’s separate from your family, one that you know would horrify them.

The story is set in the 1980s, the era of the AIDS epidemic. This reviewer lost friends to it during that time; a lot of people did. Norton does a serviceable job with setting, and with character too; and yet, this book lacks the spark of his earlier two novels. The pacing is not as brisk, and the surprising bursts of humor that made me laugh out loud never materialized here. At times it felt like work to read it, and I wonder if he found as much joy in writing it.

I still believe in Norton as a novelist; everybody has a “meh” moment now and then. I look forward to seeing what he writes next.