The Dirty South, by John Connolly*****

A few years ago I read and reviewed my first book in Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series, and I became immediately addicted. Since then I’ve never missed an installment, and after the 17th in the series, A Book of Bones, I more or less stalked the internet to find out when I could find the next in the series. It doesn’t disappoint. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for this, the 18th in the series. It’s for sale now.

Here, Connolly steps away from the crossed-genre, pants-on-fire entries he’s written recently to scribe a prequel. A couple of new readers have inquired whether to read this before all of the other Charlie Parker books, or treat it as the 18th.  The fact is, you can take it in either direction. On the one hand, I have reached back and read a couple of the first in the series and whereas they are perfectly respectable detective novels, they don’t hold a candle to those he’s written more recently. Once I had read the 14th, which is where I began, I was spoiled and a wee bit disappointed by the earliest books in the series. So whereas it makes sense to start reading with this prequel, I fear some readers will notice a dip in quality if they read this masterful literary mystery Connolly has just published, and then dive into his earliest Charlie Parker books. Again, they aren’t badly written. But they aren’t brilliant, and the most recent five in the series, including this prequel, are. So take that and do as you like with it.

Parker is reeling, as the book unfolds, from the vicious murders of his wife and daughter by a killer that intended to slay him, but found them instead. He is convinced that their murderer is a serial killer, and so he has taken a leave of absence from the police force back home and is touring the country by car, chasing down every murder anywhere that bears a resemblance to theirs. He is a dangerous man, because he has no sense of self-preservation. He sees himself as a man that has lost everything, and such men will take risks that more happily situated investigators would consider unthinkable. He also has a source none of the others can access: his wife, his daughter appear to him now and then, and they tell him things that relate to the case at hand, things that nobody else knows.

Those familiar with the series know that Connolly’s most recent Parker books have veered more in the direction of horror, and they include a number of supernatural events that his earlier work does not. Here he steps away from it, and once again his only information from the great beyond is what the spirits of his loved ones share. His adversaries are purely mortal ones. And as to which is better, it’s hard for me to say. His last book prior to this one is a monster, and it includes a tremendous amount of historical research that I find appealing, along with some hugely original, sinister characters that surely must come straight from the bowels of hell. It’s amazing work.

But there’s something to be said for books like this one, too. Most of Connolly’s work is so edgy and so full of violence that I have had to take it in small bites, lest it affect my overall mood. I didn’t have to do that here. I can crawl under a quilt and read for hours without needing to come up for air. I always make sure I read something less malign for a few minutes before turning out the light, but at the same time, this is a much more comfortable read.

Which is not to say that it’s tame. It isn’t. Someone has murdered Black girls in this tiny Arkansas burg, and Parker pulls into town right on the heels of the most recent one. Right away, it becomes obvious that there’s shifty business going on. The town is miserably depressed economically, and the local robber barons, the Cade family, have a deal in the works to bring a large manufacturer to town.  The Cades stand to make a great deal of money, and the locals, poverty-stricken and jobless or badly underemployed, are convinced that better times are just around the corner.

And so it seems that nearly everyone has a stake in keeping the waters calm. The dead girls had to go and get themselves murdered, just when the deal’s about to go through? How inconsiderate. Yes, their killer should be found and brought to justice; but that can wait until the big dogs have signed on the dotted line.  Prosperity is just around the corner. A scandal might ruin everything, and Parker refuses to cooperate, insisting on justice for the murdered children. The nerve of him.

Connolly’s signature elements—the malign, solipsistic, endlessly greedy local bourgeoisie; the poignance of Parker’s grief and his communication with his dead family; and the fast paced, complex plot with a zillion characters and some snappy banter are all here in spades. As usual, his writing style is literary, and so this may not be the best choice for someone whose mother tongue is not English.

As always, highly recommended. This is indisputably one of the year’s best. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for the 19th Parker book, because nobody else writes like this.

Behind the Red Door, by Megan Collins**-***

I enjoyed Collins’s debut, The Winter Sister, and so when I was invited to read and review this second novel, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Have you ever had someone in your life that’s a hot mess and makes terrible decisions, one after another? This felt a little bit like that, at least during the periods when I believed the character; and I did, some of the time. But whereas The Winter Sister held together beautifully until the implausible ending—a common issue with mysteries and thrillers—this one is riddled with difficulties throughout.

Fern had a traumatic childhood. Her father used her to conduct cruel experiments, deliberately terrifying his daughter in a variety of ways so that he could write about her responses. Now she’s grown and gone, though not surprisingly plagued by serious mental health issues, but healing nonetheless, and he summons her home. He says he needs her. Against the advice of stable people in her adult life, Fern packs her bags and comes a-runnin’. Who knows? Maybe her daddy wants to say sorry; perhaps he is terminally ill and set on making amends.

Well, um, no.

Upon her return, three terrible things happen almost immediately. First of all, her father, Ted, has not changed a bit, and he only called her back because he’s moving and doesn’t have time to pack. He wants her to pack for his move. He doesn’t plan to help pack his own crap, and he doesn’t plan to pay her for her time. Plus, he still plays cruel tricks on her, just like bad old times.

On top of this, her best friend’s sadistic brother, Cooper, is still around, and he’s still not a real nice guy. She discovers this almost immediately firsthand.

And on a trip to the store, she runs across a book, a memoir written by Astrid Sullivan. Flash! Bang! She knows that face, doesn’t she? Did she know Astrid?  Now Astrid has been murdered, and Fern has been having dreams about her, which might be flashbacks. Has she buried memories of the murder? And…WHO would have DONE such a thing?  Nobody SHE knows would do a mean thing like that! Unless…naw.

Oh dear.

The story is told in alternate narratives, Fern’s and Astrid’s, courtesy of her memoir. This method does build a sense of dread, but it feels a little choppy in the telling.  In addition, I had difficulty believing the character’s motivation. I could see reflexively running home—I’ve known people that would do the same—but what I cannot understand is why, when she found out what Ted’s big emergency was, she didn’t toss her bag back in her car, say Buh-bye and good luck with the move, and hightail it home.

There’s a lot of extraneous business here; we have Fern’s mental health problems, and on top of it all, she’s pregnant. (Oh, good idea. A baby. What could possibly go wrong?)

I believe Collins has a great book in her, but this isn’t it. That’s okay; back to the drawing board. Life is long. But reader, as for you, I recommend you either pass this one up, or read it free or cheap.

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.

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.

Dear Emmie Blue, by Lia Louis***

I read this copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. From time to time I find myself reading too much dark material, which is the direction I’m generally drawn toward. I found this title and thought that it might balance my selection. And for what it’s worth, it did that.

The premise here is that Emmie has fallen hard for a young man that she met years ago by pure chance. At age 16, she had written a secret that she needed to share on a scrap of paper, along with her email address, stuffed it into a balloon and launched it into space. (How does one get a slip of paper inside a helium balloon without losing the gas inside it? But let’s not dwell there.)  Rather than falling into the ocean and choking a seabird to death, the balloon makes it to dry land, and Lucas finds it. The two become fast friends, and as time progresses, she is sure they are meant to be more.  She is devastated to learn that his plans are different from hers.

This story is a quick read with lots of dialogue. One of my pet literary peeves right now, however, is the terrible-mother-who-ruins-everything. Oh. Come. On. You can do better than this. However, other aspects of the story are more congenial. In the end Emmie takes control of her own life, as she should have done all along, and good things result.

Those looking for a pleasant beach read could do worse. However, the publicist that compares this book to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is completely delusional.

It’s for sale now.

Musical Chairs, by Amy Poeppel*****

We need more writers like Amy Poeppel. Her previous novels, Admissions and Limelight, are whip-smart and hilarious; both involve well-developed characters stuck in odd but credible situations. Her new novel, Musical Chairs, shares these attributes, but it’s even funnier, and even more insightful. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s available to the public August 1, 2020.

Our protagonists are Bridget and Will; they are family to one another in the modern sense, the sense that sometimes we adopt our most important friends and declare them to be kin. They’ve been together as performers in the Forsyth Trio since college. Bridget has never married; Will is divorced. They have seen one another through thick and thin, and well meaning outsiders think they must surely harbor romantic feelings for one another. Will has no children, but has served as a father figure to Bridget’s twins, both grown.

Summer is here, and Bridget is preparing to spend it in her summer house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend, Sterling, will be joining her; she thinks that he may be the one. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Sterling dumps her on her ass without a moment’s hesitation, and both of her children descend on her unannounced. Her octogenarian father lands in the hospital. Nothing that happens is the way she had planned it.

At the same time, Will has been looking forward to some time on his own in the city, but Bridget is in distress and so he drops his other plans for her. Not one thing goes as planned.

I don’t usually enjoy books about rich people, and Bridget’s family is wealthy indeed. This one works for me because the disparity in wealth between Bridget and Will, who is an ordinary starving artist, is addressed in a natural, organic way throughout the narrative; but beyond that, I feel I know Bridget, and so she is not the rich woman, not the heiress, but instead she is Bridget, and she feels like a friend. We always forgive our dearest friends for things that are generally deal breakers with others. Finally, Poeppel has no tolerance for pretension, and more than anything, her honesty turns a good story into a terrific one.

The pacing here never slackens; one crisis is nearing resolution when another one pops loose. At one point I am convinced that Poeppel is driving home a message about the destructive nature of secrecy, but by the ending I can see she’s done no such thing. Sometimes secrets are great. Sometimes they work out well. And sometimes they are only secrets for a while as their owner waits for an appropriate time to reveal them.

The side characters here are brilliant as their perspective contrasts with that of the protagonists. The internal monologue involving Bridget and Will is personal, even intimate, and so we see everything as they do; but then Jackie, the ambitious young assistant that Edward has hired for the summer, looks these folks over and weighs in, and her observations make me laugh out loud. In fact, this book marks the first time since the pandemic began (at the beginning of March, here in Seattle) that anything I’ve read has made me laugh. It felt great! Then later, another side character’s pet parrot Ronaldo pipes up and it happens again. (My laughter woke my husband, and I was a little bit sorry, but also not.)

The dialogue between Edward and Will near the end makes me shake my head in awe.

At the outset, I am puzzling over the title. Musical Chairs turns out to be a website for job-searching musicians, but later I see a broader reason that this title was chosen. Throughout the chaos that unfolds for Bridget and Will this summer, the characters are constantly changing places, rotating, and assuming new positions, and it’s fine, because—and here’s our real message—change is not failure.

The references to the musical “My Fair Lady” are icing on the cake.

Highly recommended, and likely to be one of this year’s best books.  

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg***

Ortberg wrote The Merry Spinster, a work of dark humor that convinced me that he is a genius. This book is a lot different, although at times the same voice peeks through. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Many of the essays in this book are recycled from Ortberg’s blog, but since I never saw the blog, all of it is new to me. The essays describe his experience as a trans man, and though it is funny in places, most of the pieces ooze pain and bitterness. And to be fair, a trans man brought up female in an evangelical Christian home, taught to consider the Rapture in every choice made, every road followed, is bound to have these things in spades. However, there is a good deal of redundancy here. After awhile I found my attention wandering, and by thirty percent of the way in, I was watching the page numbers crawl by. How much longer…?

Some of the chapter titles are full of promise, but then the chapter itself disappoints. What, this again? I did enjoy the passage on parallel parking, and the chapter on Columbo (the only man Ortberg has ever loved) cracked me up.

I have rated this title three stars for general audiences, but I suspect that for those transitioning to manhood, or for those close to someone doing so, the rating will be higher.

Recommended to those transitioning, considering transitioning, and their loved ones.

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

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

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

Marley, by Jon Clinch**-***

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy of Marley, a retelling of the Dickens classic told from a different point of view. This book is for sale now.

This work of historical fiction took off with a bang, and then fizzled.

I have not read any of Clinch’s earlier work, and at the outset of this novel, I am electrified by his prose. I love a good word smith, and Clinch’s facility with figurative language is impressive as hell. I was ready for a good Christmas book, and the October release date was right on the money. I snuggled beneath my favorite fleece blanket and immersed myself, savoring the clever phrasing and rereading parts of it before moving on.

There are two aspects of this work that hold it back; one is a quibble, but one worth mentioning, and the other is more significant. The quibble is that so much of the story isn’t about Marley. We know about Scrooge. If the author wants to write about Scrooge from a different angle, then the book’s title should reflect it. Instead, Marley’s effort at winning Scrooge’s sister Fan pulls us back into the Scrooge family, and there we stay for long stretches of the book. I echo other reviewers in asking, “But what about Marley?”

My larger objection, one that took awhile to gel as I read and ultimately prevents my recommending this book, is that the entire premise, the sacred message imparted by Dickens, is ground beneath Clinch’s authorly heel as he reframes Marley as a forger, smuggler, and criminal of the highest order. Dickens, in writing the original story, took pains to demonstrate that it is possible to be a “sound man of business,” to function entirely within the letter of the law, and still be morally bankrupt. A Christmas Carol was written to let readers know that those that succeed in legally building fortunes may nevertheless be damned if they are unwilling to extend themselves, whether through private charity or humane governmental programs. Scrooge made a point of telling his nephew that he pays his taxes, after all, and that’s the end of it.

In painting Marley as a man that brings money into the partnership through a multitude of illegal practices, Clinch not only ignores Dickens’s timeless moral and social message, but torches it, leaving only so much ash and cinder.

The chains that bind Marley in the afterlife reflect the chains of human bondage in his corporal one, as he invests the assets of Scrooge and Marley in slave ships, is a lovely literary device. I wish the author had found a way to use it without laying waste to the heart and soul of a timeless classic whose message is needed more today than ever.

Not recommended.

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger*****

“God is a tornado.”

Odie and Albert are orphans, the only two Caucasian children at the hellish Lincoln School in Minnesota, which is primarily a boarding school for American Indian children. The year is 1932, and the Depression is in full swing. As things unravel, the two brothers sneak away, together with a mute Indian friend and a small girl whose parents have recently perished during a storm; the odyssey on which they embark raises questions for all of them about what they believe about themselves and the natures of God and man. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is the first of this author’s work that I have seen, and it’s clear that he is one gifted individual. At the same time, however, this is not easy to read. The first fifteen to twenty percent is brutal. There are triggers all over the place including sexual assault, child abuse, and both put together. I read only a few pages at a time because more would have wrecked my head, and I never let it be the last printed material my eyes saw before bed. Those that soldier through the beginning can be assured that the worst is over, although there are many other passages in which Odie, Albert and friends are tried severely. For me, though, it was worth it.

The get-away trip takes them down the mighty rivers of the North American interior. There’s a lot of rich historical detail along the way, and it will be especially interesting for those unaware of the culture that existed before anyone in America had food stamps, or subsidized housing, or a social worker, or compulsory education.  There was no safety net of any kind; people existed at each other’s mercy. The travelers meet all sorts of interesting people, but when others get too close or ask too many questions, they leave rather than be identified. Albert points out that others are often untrustworthy, and that those we love are often taken from us; he says that if God is a shepherd, He must be the sort that eats his flock. But a man that hires them to do farm labor says that God is in the land, the air, the trees, and in each person.

Ultimately the journey is a search for home, for family, and for a role in the world. The original destination is St. Louis, Missouri, where Odie and Albert’s families live, but as they make their way toward it, they find out that there is more than one kind of family, and more than one kind of home.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and have robust literacy skills.