Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, by Fredrik Backman***

Purely by serendipity, Backman’s collection of essays came out in the US as my own son is initiated into fatherhood. My thanks go to Atria Books for the review copy; it’s for sale today.

Backman is known to me as a fiction writer, and I have read most of his novels, which are beloved worldwide. Here he delivers nonfiction with the same gently philosophical voice.  Despite the title, the essays are written for adults; this is not a children’s book.

Backman waxes eloquent on diverse topics, and it sounds sweetest—as always—when he focuses on what real men do. For example, all his life, he says he has been told to stand up like a man, but he wants his son to know that a real man should also know how to “stay seated, shut up and listen.”  Women the world over, myself among them, cheer this, and in saying it Backman helps make the world a better place. Other parts are funny as heck, as when he describes trying to change a diaper on an airplane.

The book’s only weakness is the overuse of the words “stuff” and “crap,” throughout the text, and knowing the author’s signature style, I suspect that this began as deliberate repetition for emphasis and as a form of figurative language that somehow didn’t translate effectively.

That said, it’s a sweet little book and a good read, and its timing begs for it to be a reverse-Father’s Day gift in the US, from fathers –or better still, grandfathers—to sons.

The Paris Diversion, by Chris Pavone*****

Chris Pavone is the real deal. The Paris Diversion sees the return of CIA employee Kate Moore, the protagonist from his first novel, The Expats. This taut, intense thriller is his best to date, and that’s saying a good deal. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Crown, but you can get it tomorrow, May 7, 2019.

Kate wears many hats, moving deftly from professional spy to primary caretaker of two children, one of whom is medically fragile. Her husband Dexter calls himself an investor, but he’s basically just a weasel. His weak character comes into play in a big way in this story as he is tied to a shady financial deal that in turn is tied–though he doesn’t know it– to a terrifying terrorist event that takes place in the heart of France:

“She gasps. She is surprised at her reaction, like an amateur. She has never before seen anything like this. No one here has. What she sees:  a man is standing all alone in the middle of the vast open space, looking tiny. He’s wearing a bulky vest, and a briefcase sits at his feet, the sort of luggage that in action-adventure films follows around the president of the United States, a shiny case lugged around by a tall square-jawed man wearing a military uniform, a handsome extra with no speaking lines. The nuclear codes…Yes, Dexter was right: that’s a suitcase bomb.”

Events unfold seen from the viewpoints of several different characters. In addition to Kate, we have the bomb-wearer; his American driver; the sniper assigned to take the bomb-wearer out; billionaire Hunter Do-You-Know-Who-I-Am Forsyth; and a mysterious woman using the name Susanna. Points of view change frequently, and the brief chapters become even briefer as the story unfolds, creating even more suspense. Pavone (that’s three syllables—Puh-vo-KNEE) has keen insight into the lies weak people tell themselves to justify their poor choices, and at times he is wickedly funny. Favorites here are the internal monologue of our ass hat billionaire; the moment Kate takes down the security guard; and the exchange between Kate and Hunter’s assistant, Schuyler.

Because I spend several hours of every day reading, I can almost always put a book down, even an excellent one. For the best books, I reserve good-sized blocks of time when I won’t be interrupted, and these are the ones I read with joy, rather than out of duty to the publisher. But it’s been awhile since I stayed up late because I had to know how a book ended. The prose here is so tightly woven that every word is important; in most books of the genre, there’s a winding down period at the end of the book after the climax has been reached and the problem resolved. In contrast, Pavone moves at warp speed until almost the last word of the last chapter.

I have rarely seen a male writer that can craft a believable female character, and Pavone does that. I appreciate his respect for women. In addition, it appears that Kate may have met her own Moriarti, and so I suspect both she and her nemesis will be back. I hope so.

To say more is to waste words, an unfair tribute to a bad ass writer who wastes none. Get this book and read it. You won’t be sorry.

The A List, by J.A. Jance*****

Best-selling author J.A. Jance is something of a legend here in Seattle, and I came to her work as a huge fan of the J.P. Beaumont series. It took me awhile to bond to the Ali Reynolds series—which is set in Not-Seattle– but I am all in it now.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy.

Our story commences inside a prison where a killer is spending what’s left of his life and plotting vengeance. On his arm are tattooed 5 initials which comprise his “A list” for the five people he wants dead. He understands he’ll have to hire out the “wet work,” but that’s okay. The voice Jance gives this character sends chills up and down my neck, and I don’t get that way easily. We learn that Ali, our protagonist, is on that list.

Once the reader’s attention is secure, we go through a complex but clear and necessary recap, which gets us through the essential information that’s developed during the first 13 books of the series, which is set in Arizona. So here, I have to tell you that I don’t recommend starting the series with this book. I have read all or most of the series, but with a year or so passing between each of these, I very much needed this recap to refresh my memory. Young readers with sterling memories might be able to keep up with it, but the audience that will love this story best are middle class Caucasian women over 40. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to go all the way back to the first book to begin reading, but I would urge you to go back to an earlier book somewhere else in the series and work your way forward. The books fly by quickly, and it’s definitely worth it. While some authors lose the urgency in their prose when they get older, Jance just gets leaner and sharper, and this story is among the very best I’ve seen her write, which says a lot.

The premise is centered around The Progeny Project, a nonprofit organization that helps children born through artificial insemination find their biological relatives for the purpose of learning about their own medical background. It begins when one such young man, in desperate need of a new kidney, makes a public plea for information on Ali’s television news program. Results come in quickly and reveal that Dr. Eddie Gilchrist’s fertility clinic did not use the donors he advertised, instead inseminating his many female patients with his own sperm. Events unfold, and the doctor is convicted of murder, and is sent away for life in prison. From there, he seeks revenge.

The plot is among the most original I have seen in many years, and its execution requires tight organization, which Jance carries off brilliantly. She could have written this mystery successfully without lending a lot of attention to the characters, but she doesn’t do that. It’s the combination of an intricate but clear plot and resonant characters that makes this story exceptional.

In an earlier book we were introduced to Frigg, an AI entity created by an IT guy that works for an internet security company owned by B. Simpson, Ali’s husband. Frigg disregards what she considers to be unreasonable laws against hacking, and attempts to take Frigg down completely have been foiled by the AI herself. This scenario creates all sorts of vastly amusing problems when Ali herself needs personal security; Frigg learns she is on the A List, and her vigilance is both essential and illegal, at times.

The second and most fascinating character is Hannah Gilchrist, the elderly, very wealthy mother of Dr. Eddie. When she learns that her only son has decided to have everyone responsible for his ruin killed, she decides she’s going to help him. She has terminal cancer and no other children, and a sort of modern, rich Ma Barker personality emerges. Hannah is a dynamic character and I absolutely love the way Jance develops her, laying waste to a multitude of sexist stereotypes.

If I could change one thing, I would have Jance lose the word “gangbanger,” a stereotype in itself, and include some positive Latino characters in the Reynolds series.

Make no mistake, this mystery is brainy and complicated. You don’t want to read it after you have taken your sleeping pill. But the masterful way Jance braids the plot, the return of Frigg, and the development of Hannah all make it well worth the reader’s effort. But again—don’t let this be the first of the series for you. Climb aboard an earlier entry and work your way into it. In fact, newbie readers will likely have an advantage over long time readers, because you can read these mysteries in succession without having to wait a year to come back to the series.

With that caveat, this mystery is highly recommended.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

The author of the renowned #1 Ladies Detective Agency books has begun a brand new series, and when I found a chance to get in on the ground floor, I hopped onto it. This one is the first in the Detective Varg series, and the author’s signature drollery is in full effect. Big thanks go to Edelweiss and Random House Pantheon for the review copy. It’s for sale now. 

Detective Varg works for the sensitive crimes unit of the Malmo police. The unit exists for the purpose of investigating cases that require research. The setting is one of mind numbing blandness; Martin, our investigator’s dog, is growing deaf, and Varg is teaching it to lip read. We read about skin problems, a dairy farm, aging bikers, and my eyes begin to glaze over. And then, eureka! A case! There’s been an assault in the market. Someone has entered the puppet theater and stabbed its proprietor in the back of the knee. Not only a crime, but a crime of violence! Everybody wakes up and roars into action. Varg and Anna, his partner, head for the scene of the crime; they could conduct their interviews at the station of course, but Anna needs to buy eggs anyway. 

The stabbing is the first of three stories, but each piggybacks on the last, so you should read them in order. Once the stabber has been caught, tried, and has tearfully confessed, we move onto a missing person’s case featuring an imaginary boyfriend that can’t be found anywhere, followed by other disappearances. Yes, things are hopping at the Department of Sensitive Crimes. 

Smith has a dry, sneaky sense of humor, so if you read this while you are partly thinking about something else, you’ll miss a lot of the funniest bits. This is what I appreciate most about this author. Some humor writers assume that the reader is as stupid as a sack of rocks, and they drop the joke, but they can’t leave it there, and so they drop it again and then explain it, and it ruins the whole thing. Smith is the opposite. He’ll include a remark that is almost offhand, and then there’s a beat of about three seconds where I start to read on, and then it hits me, and my eyes scroll back. Did he say…oh my god. That is hysterical. And so if you’re paying attention you’re in for a treat, and if you’re checked out, it’s your loss. 

This satirical series is off to a strong, vastly amusing start, and I rate it five giggles. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are right around the corner; could your parent use a laugh or two? Who knows. If you buy it for your parent, they might let you read it when they’re finished. Highly recommended. 

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Delicious! This book is straight-up fun. McMahon—a successful author, but new to me—takes an old school ghost story and drops it into a contemporary setting, while providing alternating glimpses of what happened in this same place long ago. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. You can get this book Tuesday, April 30, 2019, and I don’t know how you can stand the suspense until then.

Helen and Nate are ready for rural life. Using recently inherited funds, they purchase a chunk of land in Vermont, quit their jobs, sell their Connecticut condo, and head for the hinterlands. They will build their own house. They will get chickens and sell eggs on the side. They will grow their own food and be almost self-sufficient. Just smell that fresh air! Oh, aren’t they adorable.

Meanwhile, Olive, who has recently lost her mother and whose father is unraveling, is channeling Wednesday Addams, lurking in trees nearby and wishing these new people gone. “I banish you,” she says quietly. No one hears; well, nobody alive does anyway.

Nate and Helen are hurt and perplexed by the local residents’ reception. Why is everyone so surly? Why are they looking at them side-eyed all the time?  Turns out the locals don’t want them upsetting Hattie’s ghost. Everybody knows that Hattie is in the bog that is part of Helen and Nate’s land. The last owner, an elderly man that fled to Florida and won’t talk about it, apart from advising the new owners to get out of there also, saw some things. Not everyone does, though. Hattie chooses who will see her, hear from her. And Hattie isn’t happy.

At first, Nate and Helen are oblivious. Their belongings disappear, but that turns out to be Olive, whom they will befriend. But the more Helen learns about Hattie—who reveals herself to Helen and Olive both—the more distracted she is by her. Time and money that should be directed toward the house and improvements to the new property are instead spent on deep research, and on carrying out Hattie’s wishes. It becomes an obsession; first she procures a hunk of wood from the tree on which Hattie was hanged, thinking it will be perfect to frame the doorway she and Nate are building. Hey, who wouldn’t want something like that in their new home? Next, she finds old bricks from the mill where Hattie’s daughter died. And Nate can see this is just nuts, and he tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t let him in. She is lying to him now. But Nate has an obsession of his own: he keeps seeing an albino deer that visits him, and then leads him into the swamp.

A man could get lost in there. Nate wouldn’t be the first.  

Olive is on a mission of her own. She wants to find the treasure that Hattie buried somewhere near the bog. She is sure it is there, and it was a project that she and her mother worked on together. She secretly hopes that if she can find the treasure, her mother will come home to her.

The mystery of where Olive’s mama has gone segues in and out of the ghost story, and the plotting is deft and surefooted, never slowing, never inconsistent, and relentlessly absorbing. Helen is obsessed with Hattie; Nate is obsessed with the deer; Olive is obsessed with the treasure and her mama; and I am obsessed with this story.

The typical way for a book like this to end would be with the discovery that some sketchy character has somehow created all of the events that seem otherworldly in order to profit materially or achieve revenge. Although I am impressed with McMahon as we near the climax, part of me is expecting this. But this writer doesn’t use tired plot points or tired characters, and she sure as hell doesn’t end this tale in a way that is trite or expected. I guessed one aspect of the ending, but by the time I saw it coming, we were closing in on it, and I can’t help but believe the author means me to see it just before it’s revealed. And this is a hallmark of an excellent thriller: there aren’t brand new characters or plot points tossed in at the end that make it impossible for the reader to have guessed what’s going on. McMahon is a champ, and her respect for her readership is evident in the way she spins the climax and conclusion.

The book’s last paragraph is masterful.

Highly recommended to those that enjoy a classic, well turned ghost story. As for me, I’ll be watching for this author in the future, and….oh hey. Did you hear something just now?

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.

Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

Southern Lady Code, by Helen Ellis****

Helen Ellis makes me laugh out loud. If you can use some of that, you may want to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Southern Lady Code is a title that carries a code of its own.  Some people use the word “lady” to describe European royalty; some to describe a courteous woman, which is what I anticipated here; and some use it to describe a well-mannered woman with a very comfortable income, which appears to be the author’s operating definition. In terms of the “code,” I thought I’d be reading straight satire, but discovered that she has provided a combination of self-help tips and searing, sometimes raucous humor. It works surprisingly well.

I have never made a cheese log before or wanted one, but Ellis’s recipe sounds so persuasively delicious that I may try it. That said, my favorite essays were short on advice and long on humor. I nearly hurt myself laughing over the construction man she found masturbating in her bedroom—did I mention that she gets a little edgy here?  And “The Ghost Experience” is massively entertaining.  There’s a lot of good material here.  Though at times her outlook is a little more conservative than my own, I like the things she says in support of gay and trans friends.

Ultimately, I suspect that I am not the target audience for Ellis, who in her middle-aged years is dispensing life skills wrapped in bountiful amounts of humorous anecdotes. She is writing to her peers and to those women younger than herself.  I am ten or twenty years older than this woman, but I still came away impressed. So, ladies and women, if you can look past the assumption of a greater-than-average income, you’ll have a good time here, and if you can’t, try to get this collection at the library and read selectively, because more of these essays will resonate than not, for all of us.

I rate this book four giggles, and it will be available to the public tomorrow, April 16, 2019.

Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim*****

The buzz around this mystery started early, and it started loud. If it hadn’t I am not sure I’d have asked to read it. When I saw the premise—the use of a hyperbaric oxygen tank to murder an autistic child—I thought wow, this author is reaching. But a quick web crawl taught me that though controversial, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is actually used to treat autism. The treatment is controversial but the basis of the story is a sound one, so I have learned something already, and now that I’ve read it, I am glad I didn’t let it pass me by. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sarah Crichton Books for the review copy. Miracle Creek will be available to the public April 16, 2019.

The HBOT therapy device is owned by Pak and Young Yoo.  A lot of hard work and financial struggle went into procuring this device; there were years when they had to live apart, with Young and their daughter Mary in Baltimore, Young working round the clock for room, board, and her daughter’s private school tuition while Pak worked two jobs in Korea, squirreling away resources. Now the unthinkable has occurred—the chamber has gone up in flames with patients inside it. Two people are dead and others are horribly injured, and there’s an intensive investigation that leads to an arrest. Elizabeth, a single mother, is charged with starting the fire in order to murder her little boy and free herself from the difficult caregiver role. On the surface, the facts are damning indeed, but what the cops don’t know, at least in the beginning, is that every single person that was there that day is lying about it.

Elizabeth, Kitt, and Teresa are mothers of autistic children, digging deep and running up their credit cards hoping for miraculous transformations. The seventh patient is Matt, whose wife has pressured him into trying this treatment to raise his sperm count. The other characters in this story are the Yoo family that own and operate the chamber, and the legal teams assembled for the trial.

Most legal thrillers and courtroom mysteries hinge heavily upon what happens in the courtroom. In contrast, although what plays out in court is not unimportant, the real meat of this story has to do with the actions, thoughts, and memories of the townspeople that are involved, primarily when court is not in session. Although our point of view is the third person omniscient, specific critical details are revealed to us in stages, and what we learn at the end differs greatly from the conclusions most of us will have drawn at the outset, when we had less information.

Why do people lie, and in particular, why would anyone lie to the authorities investigating a deadly disaster like this one? Make a list of the possibilities, and as you read, you’ll see them all, a veritable potpourri of bald-faced lies and critical omissions of facts. At the end of it, we find just one (lying) person that has integrity and pure motives, and everyone else has crossed a line, not only legally but ethically. And although there’s just one character here that I’d describe as dynamic, the others are developed to an extent as their layers of rationalization, anger, fear, resentment, and greed are revealed to us.

This is an explosive debut, and Angie Kim is a force to be reckoned with. You want to read this book, and happily, you won’t have to wait long. Highly recommended.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T. Kira Madden***-****

3.5 rounded up. I received this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury in exchange for this honest review, and I am sorry to be late providing it. The truth is, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of buzz in advance, and indeed, Madden is a talented word smith. This is also one of the strangest books I have ever read.

In a series of essays, Madden discusses her childhood and adolescence, growing up as an heir to the Madden shoe empire, provided with every material advantage, but also strangely unwelcome in her own home. It’s the ultimate story of alienation, one in which her father’s primary goal as a parent seems to be to pretend she isn’t there—until he goes to jail, anyway. 

Kids that are ignored by their parents act out to get their attention. This is true across all social classes, though the form of the acting out varies. Kira isn’t invited to accompany her father anywhere, and he doesn’t talk to her when he’s home. He and her mother have frightening drug and alcohol addictions that increase the lack of contact and the dearth of affection their daughter receives. She can’t make friends and bring them home. So here’s this rich girl with money, unlimited time to burn, a house full of drugs and booze, internet access, and a head full of resentment. What could possibly go wrong? 

In many ways, Kira’s writing breaks up stereotypes right and left, and her prose is crystalline and heartbreakingly, brutally frank. There’s so much that is good here. At the same time, I have to say that being neglected while rich is nowhere near as bad as being neglected while poor. It sounds cold, but there it is. 

T. Kira Madden has lit up the literary world with her debut, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.