The Split, by Sharon Bolton****

My first book by this author was The Craftsman, which came out in the fall of 2018. That story blew me away, and after that I made it a point to watch for new books by Bolton. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title is a double entendre: our protagonist, Felicity, is avoiding someone, and she is certain he’s found her. Since her field is glaciology, she decides to travel to Antarctica with an expedition. He’ll never find her there, and even if he should, he’d be at a distinct disadvantage to her. Those are her stomping grounds. Thus, she is about to split.

The catch, however, is that her superiors are uncertain she is mentally stable enough for this journey. She keeps missing time; there are whole blocks, an hour, an afternoon, a weekend, when she doesn’t recall where she was or what she is doing. She finds evidence that she has done things she does not remember doing. As we perch in her psychologist’s office, veritable flies on the wall observing her therapy sessions, it soon becomes clear what the issue is, or at least it did to me; and thus, the second meaning of the title.

One of the things I appreciate about this story is that there is no coy effort on Bolton’s part to deflect the reader’s awareness of what ails Felicity. I would have liked at some point to see or hear the correct name used; Felicity has a dissociative disorder. But this is a small quibble.

What I appreciate the very most is that Bolton doesn’t sensationalize this disorder, but sticks closely to the truth. Why not? The real thing is dramatic enough all by itself to keep our interest. And when I realized where we were headed with this I regretted, if just for a brief while, having signed on, because this topic cuts close to the bone for me. I have a close family member with this disorder, and hearing the voices of people that were, and yet were not, my relative’s voice is one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. After a few weeks of it, I had to pull back and ask to only be phoned by the dominant person in my relative’s body, the one that I, like the rest of the family, was acquainted with. And so, once I decided to continue reading this book, I listened closely for inaccuracies in its telling, using my relative as a baseline (a sample size of one, which I’ll admit is sketchy,) and I found none. Most readers won’t have this experience for comparison.

Although the mental condition is revealed, bit by bit, fairly early in the story, there are still surprises aplenty, particularly with regard to the stalker. The climax is a bit farfetched, but nevertheless this is a solid job, and Bolton gets big props from me for dealing with a difficult premise accurately and fairly.

I flipped back and forth between the printed review copy and the audio version I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons. Both versions are well done and easy to follow, so you can’t go wrong. Recommended to those that love a good psychological thriller, and that have no triggers that might conflict with your enjoyment.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler*****

Therese Anne Fowler is a complete badass. I have never read her before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll read her next book. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. You can buy this book now, and you should.

I don’t usually begin by discussing the narrative voice, but I’m doing it this time because it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this novel. The story is told in the second person, but the point of view shifts seamlessly from that of the neighbors that are friends with a key character—I’ll get there in a minute—to an omniscient narrative, and I never catch the shift; by the time I realize a change has taken place, we’ve been there awhile. So, one minute, the narrative will say things like “All of us thought…” and “Everyone knew…” but later, we’ll be told what a protagonist is thinking. This is a risky way to write, and she’s carried it off so well that I can only bow in awe.

The story is, to some extent, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a tragedy, and we’re told this at the outset. The neighborhood in question is Oak Knoll, an old, established one in North Carolina. Valerie Alston-Holt is a forestry professor with a deep dedication to the environment; her son Xavier is gifted. Xavier’s father was Caucasian, but died when the boy was small, so it is just the two of them, mother and son. The new folks next door, the Whitmans, are a blended family. Julia, the mother, was living a hardscrabble life as a single parent with her daughter, Juniper, when the wealthy, charismatic Brad Whitman, who was her boss, married her. They have a small daughter together, but Brad has also adopted Juniper so that they can be a real family. Julia can hardly believe her good fortune. Her standard of living has risen beyond anything she ever dreamed.

The tension is there from the start. The Whitman home is out of character in comparison to the neighborhood, a garish, over-the-top McMansion built on a large lot created by tearing down the existing home that had been there. And the outcome of the construction is that a tree—a beloved tree—on the Alston-Holt property next door—is now dying.  The forestry professor sees an attorney, and the battle is joined.

Despite the tension between the adults, Xavier and Juniper are drawn to one another. They are teenagers, upperclassmen in high school, and they’re both squeaky clean kids, serious students. Neither has been in a serious relationship before. As we see their romance blossom, the narrator reminds us that this won’t end well.

I began this novel using my review copy, and although I could see it was going to be good, I was falling behind my reading for unrelated reasons. I scooped up the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the reader does a wonderful job, and the story is well suited to this medium.

Fowler is an experienced writer, and it shows. There are several lazy stereotypes she deftly avoids. The Alston-Holts are middle class, not struggling financially. (Here I think of the new book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, who reminds us that only one in five African-American families is poor.) Brad Whitman, who is a complete horse’s ass, is a charismatic Christian, but he is not a preacher, he’s a businessman.

Of course this story has a great deal to say about race and wealth, and how society empowers us according to these parameters. But because the characters are so intimately developed, so brilliantly fleshed out, the message integral to the story never feels like a manifesto. And reader, I’ll tell you, I’m a tough old granny who rarely is undone by a sad story, but I grew a little misty at the end of this one, and I thought about it for quite awhile afterward.

Highly recommended in whatever form you enjoy.

Dogwinks, by Squire Rushnell**

The old saw about not judging a book by its cover has come home to me in a big way. I was invited to read and review, and although I usually do some homework before accepting or disregarding such offers, I saw the beagle on the cover and leapt on the widget. And somewhere out there, at least one publicist must have my love of said dogs on file, because otherwise it would make absolutely, positively no sense to offer me this book. Dubious thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books; I know you meant well. This book will be available to the public October 20, 2020.

Here’s the thing I didn’t understand when I signed on. This is not merely a book of dog stories, as I had supposed. Apparently, there is a “much-loved” series known as “Godwinks,” and so the title of this one is a play on that name. Since I read no religious material ever, it’s unsurprising that this fact eluded me.

Having foolishly committed myself, I tried to keep an open mind, because in addition to being religious in nature, this is also a collection of dog stories.  I want to be fair, and I hoped I could disregard the preaching and focus on the hounds.  But it’s impossible to enjoy these stories; the writing seems formulaic, the sort of thing you’d read in Reader’s Digest. The figurative language is stale, and the story arc of each is transparently manipulative. Guys, I just can’t.

By wild coincidence, my current reading includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’m finding it to be better written and infinitely more agreeable than this superstitious bilge.

If you have a MAGA hat in your closet and a firm belief that your prayer group is protecting you from COVID19, then this collection may suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, I’d suggest you steer clear.

Daddy, by Emma Cline***

In 2016, Cline published the hugely successful novel, The Girls, which I read and enjoyed. When I was invited to read and review this collection of her short stories, I was sure I’d be in for a treat. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the early read. This book is for sale now.

Sadly, I am not in love with this collection. First of all, I have seldom enjoyed an open ending, and whereas there are those who admire this style for its authenticity and subtlety, to me it feels as if I’ve eaten a nothing sandwich on a nothing bun. Give me a story with an ending every day of the week. So there’s that.

Then too, there’s the way she deals with sex. I’ve never used the word “tawdry” in a review before, but there’s a first time for everything. Sex, sexuality, and the human body don’t have to be a deal breaker for me, but if it’s written in such a way that I want to gargle after I’ve read it, then less is more. Of course, there are times and places when sex is ugly; in one story a working class girl is struggling and eventually finds she can subsidize her miserable wages by selling her used panties to skeevy men. Fair. It’s certainly memorable. But if we’re going there, then I’d like the next story to either avoid sex, or else have it be a positive experience. When a book gives me a sour gut without delivering a message, I’m out.

There are passages where Cline’s facility with words and her originality shine through. She is a fine writer when it comes to setting, and her character sketches are clear and believable. This is where the third star comes in.

It’s something, but it isn’t enough. If you decide to read these stories, I suggest you get the book free or cheap; don’t pony up full jacket price this time. Save your dollars for the next novel Cline writes, because likely as not, it will be terrific.

My Mother’s House, by Francesca Momplaisir***

The year seems to be riddled with novels that are brilliant conceptually, but whose execution falls short of its promise. Such is the case with My Mother’s House. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, and the most interesting character by far is the house itself. The house has had it with its inhabitants, particularly with protagonist Lucien, a man that’s evil and demented from the top of his pointy head down to the toes of his nasty loafers. Think of the worst thing one human being can do to another, and whatever you’ve come up with, Lucien has done it.

Our rotten old man is an immigrant, a resident of a mostly Caribbean neighborhood in Queens, New York. He brought with him the wife—nearly a child-bride—that he had set his cap for early on, for she is a descendant of the Duvalier family that ruled Haiti ruthlessly for decades. Once he has married her and moved her, however, he abuses her in much the same way he does every other female in his life, including the daughters they have together.  

Do I need to tell you there are triggers all over this thing?

The house can’t take it anymore, all of the ugly within its walls. It decides that the only way to get rid of this bastard is to go down with him, and it sets itself ablaze.

One of the three stars is for this aspect of it, the animation of the house. This is where the story begins, with the house’s thoughts and actions, and I sigh contentedly, sure I am in possession of a great novel.

Alas, not so much.

I love a good horror story, but what makes such a story work is when there is an underdog to cheer for, or a victim to be rescued. This is part of Stephen King’s magic; not only does he provide visceral, original bad guys and monsters, but also some ordinary person that sees what is going on and tries to stop it. Whoever his good guy is, he develops the living heck out of them, and I feel as if I would know them on the street.

In contrast, Momplaisir gives me no possible good outcome; the only hope we have comes from the defeat and death of Lucien. That’s not enough to keep me turning the horrible pages of horrible deeds. I don’t just want to see the bad guy lose; I need a good character that might, against impossible odds, win.

Character development is also lacking. Although I learn about Lucien’s early life and the trauma that he’s endured, and which we know is often part of what warps a person, I never see him change internally. He is static all the way through, and since he’s the only important character, apart from the house, I feel cheated. His distinguishing characteristic is the need to count, because “I am nothing unless I count.” So all the way through, we hear him enumerating one thing after another, and to be honest, this device, though original, leaves me cold, and eventually it just becomes redundant. MAD Magazine—the original, from the 1960s and 1970s—would have had a field day here.

Unable to push myself all the way through the text, I seek out an audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and just to top all of it off, I dislike the reader intensely. The over-the-top dramatic voice would work in very small, shocking increments, but instead it is the main voice used, and by the end I just wanted to tell it to shut up. (Full disclosure: I actually did, not that anyone was there to hear it.)

In the end, I am left with a tremendously clever premise, a fantastic book cover, and then a whole lot of nothing.  How dare the publicist or whoever wrote the teaser compare this work to those of Tana French and Jesmyn Ward? For shame!

You can buy this book now, or you can take that same exact amount of money and burn it in the fireplace. Same thing, either way. Or you can do the smart thing, and go find another book by someone else.

Africaville, by Jeffrey Colvin****

Narrated by Robin Miles

My thanks go to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy; after publication, I used an audio book to finish it, thanks to Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s available to the public now.

There are two reasons I was drawn to this story. The first is the setting, which is primarily in Nova Scotia’s Black community. I have never read or heard a story set there, and so I was intrigued. There’s also a Civil Rights Movement tie-in, and for me, that sealed the deal.

The book starts out as a rough read, involving dead babies and “bad luck” babies that weren’t dead but needed killing. I was so horrified that I had to restart the book several times to get past it. Now that I have, I can assure you that once you’re past the introduction, that’s it. The dead babies are done. I’m not sure I would have lead off with this aspect, because I’m probably not the only reader to pick the book up and put it down fast. In fact, had I not owed a review, I would not have returned to it. I’m glad I did.

The story itself is ambitious, covering three generations of a family there. At the outset we have Kath Ella, who has ambition, but also a mischievous streak. I find this character interesting, but there are times when I don’t understand her motivation. The story is told in the third person and not all of her thoughts are shared with us, and so there are times when I’m left scratching my head. When the end of the book arrives, I’m still wondering.

Kath’s son and grandson comprise the second and third parts of the story; apparently the term used back then for passing as Caucasian was called “crowing,” and we see some of that. There are too-brief passages involving the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow in the Southern U.S., and I am disappointed not to see more about this or have the characters involved more deeply. What I do see of it is the surface information that most readers will already know.

Toward the end there’s a subplot involving getting an elderly relative out of prison, and I like this aspect of it, in particular the dialogue with the old woman.

The setting is resonantly described throughout.

All told, this is a solid work and a fine debut. I look forward to seeing whatever else Colvin has to offer. As to format, although Miles does a lovely job reading, something of the triptych is necessarily lost when we don’t see the sections unfold. For those that can go either way, I recommend the print version.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib*****

Anna isn’t eating, and she’s so weak that she faints from time to time. Her husband, Matthias is afraid for her; this isn’t the life they envisioned when they moved from France to the States. She is admitted to a facility for women with eating disorders, and it is that address that gives the book its title. Big thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my feedback.

I never would have expected to want to read a novel about an anorexic protagonist. In real life, Anna would have offered me her fries and her dessert, and I would have cheerfully accepted them. She in turn would inwardly shudder, my stocky grandma body providing her with a cautionary example of what happens to those that eat such things.

When I was a sweet young thing growing up in the 1970s, there were rumors that some of the girls at school kept their figures slender by throwing up after they’d eaten; a friend and I commiserated over our own lack of self-discipline. We had scarfed down our Halloween candy and not even considered ralphing it back up in the bathroom. Now we could barely fasten our jeans, while those classmates were smaller than we were.

We thought that some girls have all the luck.

It wasn’t until the death of singer Karen Carpenter that anorexia became well known, and even then, it took us awhile to clue in on the details. Because it’s about body image, and yet it isn’t. And Zgheib does a wonderful job of educating the reader using that approachable medium, fiction.

In Paris, Anna was a dancer. When she and Matthias married, she planned to go on dancing professionally, at least until they had children. But when he was presented with a prestigious promotion that required him to relocate to the United States, they packed their things; Anna had expected to continue her career in America, but she was never chosen.

The in-patient facility where she is treated has strict, clear rules about every aspect of daily life, and most of the privileges hinge around timely consumption of the food that’s provided. Anna’s struggle is profound, and her story is moving. Because it’s about food, but not really. She has buried a trauma involving the deaths of her brother and her mother, and she’s channeled her self-hatred into this eating disorder. We catch glimpses of this as she expertly dodges questions raised in therapy. One of the most moving moments, strangely, has to do with a bagel and cream cheese. She’s supposed to eat it, and she throws a pluperfect hissy. She never eats dairy, she says. She wants the vegan option! No dice, honey. But as time moves forward and this difficulty continues, she finally reveals that actually, this might have once been her favorite food. It was so delicious, and it took her such iron self-control to forget its taste. All that work, she thinks, and now it’s ruined. And she is genuinely shattered by this.

Only one sufferer in three recovers from anorexia.

Due to a backlog of galleys, I checked out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the voice actor that reads it is perfect.

Highly recommended.

When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy*****

David Joy writes some of the best Grit Lit published in the U.S. of A, and if you haven’t read him yet, it’s time to get started. This soaring, wrenching tale of addiction, community dysfunction, and miserable unrelenting poverty delivers some hard truths about the distribution of wealth in this country, and about the uneven way that justice plays out. Lucky me, I read it free and early; my thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It’s for sale today.

Ray Mathis is a big man with a big burden. His wife, Doris, has been dead for three years, but his grief hasn’t ebbed. A stoic man, he goes in and out of every day carrying out necessary tasks, but he feels as if his arm is missing, all the time. His companionship comes solely from his old hunting beagle, Tommy Two-Ton. His only child is Ricky, and although Ricky is in his forties, Ray still thinks of him as “the boy.” When the boy comes home, Ray is suffused with a sense of dread. Ricky is a hardcore addict, and all those stories you were told in junior high health class are true: a junkie has no loyalties and no shame great enough to override his need for the substance he’s come to crave. When he sees that Ricky is home for a visit, Ray’s first instinct is to check his few valuables that haven’t been stolen and pawned yet to see if they’ve vanished.

Is this all too familiar to some of you? Because it hit close to home for me.

Not long after he arrives, Ricky is gone again, and that’s not unusual; but later he gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know. The caller says that Ricky has failed to meet a payment and will die if Ray doesn’t pay up. Because Ricky has no shame, he has told them exactly how much is in his father’s savings account. And though he understands that it’s only going to postpone the inevitable, Ray pays up, but he tells the men that collect that he will be back for them if they ever sell to his son again. And when Ricky is back on opiates before he has even recovered from the savage beating administered by the dealer’s goons, Ray tells him, “I’ve thrown you ropes till my arms is give out, and I ain’t got no more to throw.”                 `               “            

Meanwhile, our second protagonist, Denny Rattler, a Cherokee burglar, is arrested and offered treatment for his own addiction, but he declines. It turns out that the very purest heroin is sold on the Cherokee Reservation, and so jurisdictional issues complicate law enforcement. Still worse, there are dirty cops right on the other side of the state line. Denny finds himself in the middle of it all.

One of the nastiest villains in literature is Walter Freeman, who goes by “Watty.” “I ain’t calling you that,” Ray tells him. “That’s the stupidest fucking name I ever heard.” Ray confronts Watty after his son’s death to deliver some “backwoods justice,” but Watty is entirely unmoved. He doesn’t even remember Ricky. He leaves the individual users to the minions beneath him. He tells the bereaved father, “Your son is small potatoes. They’re all small potatoes. It’s too much of a headache, dealing with junkies.”

It’s forest fire season in the Appalachian Mountains, and as the conflict between Ray and Watty, between Watty and local law enforcement, and among the addicts, law enforcement and Watty build, a conflagration begins on the reservation, encompassing the “Outlet Mall,” where drugs are sold.  The entire ordeal rises to a fever pitch that leaves me sitting forward, as if the outcome is just beyond my physical reach. At one point I am sure everyone will die, and I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as nothing happens to Tommy Two-Ton.

What Joy does with the conclusion is tremendously satisfying. When I reviewed his last book, I felt as if he had wimped out on the ending, but this time it’s rock solid. It isn’t predictable, yet there are no new people or facts introduced at the last minute to prevent us from foreseeing the outcome, either.

In fact, this may be his best book yet.

I’ll offer a final word about genre. This book is billed as Crime Fiction, and that’s not how I see it. I consider this novel to be gritty Southern Fiction at its finest. The fact that it happens to involve crime as an integral part of the story is almost beside the point. But call it what you will, this book is one of the year’s best, and you should get it and read it.

I Let You Go, by Clare Macintosh**

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Berkley for the review copy.

Ordinarily, a book that I don’t enjoy or admire gets reviewed when it’s released, the same way I would with a book I love. However, on this one, I choked. The protagonist is a woman who’s grieving the loss of her little boy, and the author’s notes mention that as she wrote it, she was thinking of her own child that had died. How do you pan a book like that? And so I made a conscious choice to bury it. It was released in 2016, and it is by far the oldest novel in my backlog.

Since that time, this book has made bestseller lists and received acclaim from far more auspicious (and lucrative) sources than this humble blogger, and I realized this evening that I can go ahead and write my review with little likelihood of rocking this writer’s world.

What I found is some competent use of setting, but the plot was all over the place, both choppy and unfocused. I realize it is the author’s intention to build suspense by revealing the past in increments, but it didn’t build suspense for me; I felt irritated instead. The protagonist never became real for me, and ultimately the story was mostly predictable, increments or no. There was tired figurative language and a lot of cliches and truisms. I looked everywhere for the magic, but I never did find it.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone but the author’s diehard readers. The good news is that you can probably score a used copy inexpensively by now, if you’re going to go there.