Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stephenson****

When life gets you down, it’s time to kick back and relax with a nice little book about multiple murders. Benjamin Stevenson’s nifty little mystery is just the ticket. This book is for sale now.

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

Once in a while, a novelist will disarm his audience by speaking to them directly; this is known as breaking the fourth wall. Stevenson doesn’t just chip a corner of plaster; he comes in with a wrecking ball, because that’s just the kind of writer he is. The product is as funny as the title. Each chapter is devoted to a family member, and some of them get more than one.

The premise is this: narrator Ernest Cunningham is invited to a family reunion at an out of the way mountain lodge, a ski resort in the dead of winter. The event is timed to coincide with Ernest’s brother, Michael’s, release from prison, where he was sent for…well. You know. And as is true with all families, there’s all kinds of baggage, both literal and figurative; there are grudges, guilt, and oh yes, secrets. So many secrets!

The first body turns up in less than twenty-four hours. Is there a mass murderer at large, perhaps the one in the news dubbed “The Black Tongue?” If so, is s/he a Cunningham?

The whole story is told in a jocular, familiar tone, explaining to the reader what the rules are when writing a murder mystery. He assures us that he is a thoroughly reliable narrator, which immediately makes us wonder, because if so, why bring it up? Most narrators are reliable. So…?

I enjoy reading this thing, and am impressed at how well the author juggles a sizeable collection of characters. It doesn’t take me long to straighten out who everyone is, and this may be because we are apprised of who is annoyed with whom over what, fairly quickly. When he brings in reasons why certain people avoid each other, it helps me recall who they are.

There are two things I would change if I could. The book would be even funnier if he cut back on the side remarks to the reader long enough to let us forget he’s doing it; then, when it surfaced again, it would get more laughs. I note that toward the end, he tells us—in another side reference—that his editor has suggested he pare back some of the chatty parts, and that he isn’t going to do it. That makes me laugh too, because I have been harboring the same notion.

The other thing that I’d change is a detail that distracts me. The author refers early on, and then another time later, to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, but he never tells us what it is; possibly the detail that distracts me is the thing he refers to. Early on in the story—so probably not a spoiler—Ernest is badly injured, to the point where one of his hands isn’t usable. Yet throughout the story, when he could go to a hospital, he doesn’t do so, and he doesn’t even address the possibility. People come; people go. Yet there’s Ernest, with an oven mitt stuck over one hand to protect it, and nobody suggests he hop into town and have it looked at. Toward the end of the story there’s a general reference to the Cunningham stubbornness preventing family members from leaving the reunion, but it doesn’t hold water with me.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book. While I was reading it, I was reading several others, but this one became the go-to at lunchtime and whenever I had a spare minute, and so I recommend this book to those looking for a light, amusing read.

The Night Ship, by Jess Kidd****

Jess Kidd can write. I read and reviewed her debut novel, Himself, which I loved so much that I bought a copy to give as a gift; I called it “Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny.” I have read and reviewed her others as well:  Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (The Hoarder in Britain,) and Things in Jars. Her most recent novel, The Night Ship, is technically as good or better than any before, but I love it less, largely because of the expectations I brought to it, based on the other three before it. I’ll explain that momentarily.

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

The Night Ship is based on a true story, the sinking of the famous ship, the Batavia, in 1629. Our protagonist is Mayken, a child whose mother has died; she is being sent to her father in the company of her elderly nurse maid.  When the ship goes down, she is marooned on an island near Australia.

Over three hundred years later in 1989, a boy named Gil has also lost his mother, and is sent to live on the same island with his cantankerous grandfather. There isn’t much to do there, and he finds his imagination is captured by the tales of a shipwreck that occurred here hundreds of years ago.

The way that Kidd braids the stories of these two children into one well crafted novel is admirable. They are separate, and yet together, and the nearer we get to the conclusion, the more commonalities reveal themselves. Clearly, Kidd is at the height of her craft—so far, at least. Goodness knows what else she’s got up her sleeve. Her eccentricity and her appreciation of working class struggle sets her in a class beyond most authors.

And yet. When I read her debut novel, she captured my whole heart. I couldn’t stop talking about it, the way her adroit word smithery combined with a hilarious tale of sheer, spun magic. It remains a favorite of mine some five years and hundreds of novels later. And when the next, Mr. Flood, came out it wasn’t quite as magical, yet really, nothing else could be, and it was still vastly superior to what anyone else was writing, and I adored it. And the next one after it, while not as humorous, was wonderfully dark, and the ending made me smile. The author’s message was rock solid.

Every single one of her previous novels had an uplifting quality, and when I read the last page, I was smiling. And so I began to feel that I could count on Kidd to raise my spirits. In fact, I rationed this story out to myself, and when, given my penchant for reading multiple books at a time, I found myself buried in dark works—in one, I was freezing and bloody in the Ardennes Forest during World War II; in another, the devil had possessed a psychiatrist in a high security asylum; add into the mix a bio of a falsely accused prisoner in the U.S. that lost his entire youth before he was exonerated, and another young man being ‘re-educated’ in a North Korean prison camp; I figured I needed a good dose of Jess Kidd right now. Now. This instant!

And so I got her book, and then the ship went down.

So, I didn’t get what I wanted from this novel, but it had more to do with my own expectations than with any defect in the quality of her writing. Still, I cannot help feeling a trifle disappointed.

If you’re ready to go dark, this is your book. If you just love good writing, this is your book, too. But if you need a feel-good book to lighten your heart, get her debut novel.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman*****

This quixotic little book had me at hello. Set in Australia in the 1960s, it tells a story of love, loss, and redemption in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere from anybody. I’ve finished reading other books since I finished this one, and yet I am still thinking about Tom Hope.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It will be available to the public April 9, 2019.

At the outset, Tom’s last name seems cruelly ironic, because the guy can’t seem to catch a break. Trudy, his perpetually dissatisfied wife, up and leaves him with no warning and no discussion. Just takes off. Tom is heartsick, but a ranch is still a ranch, and so he woodenly goes through all of the tasks—milk the cow, herd the woolies—that must be done. He is such a sad fellow, and he berates himself for not having done more to make that woman happy and comfortable. The ranch is not long on frills; an indoor shower would be nice, and a big old bathtub would be even better.

He actually makes lists.

 But then one day Trudy comes back. She’s been gone for a whole year, and now she’s pregnant. Say what?

When Tom takes her back, I look at the things he has said and done and wonder whether he is maybe a little on the simple side. But just as the question takes hold in my mind, we hear people in town talking about him. One of them tells another that after all, Tom Hope is not a stupid man. And so again I wonder why he lets her back in the house. But he does. He welcomes her. Sssh, he says to her self-recriminations, don’t worry about it. You’re back now.

Trudy has the baby, and then Jesus calls her and she leaves again—without the baby. So there’s Tom. You can see what I mean about that last name. Hope? What good has hope done for him so far? He’s stuck raising an infant while he runs a ranch, and it’s exhausting, nearly impossible, but he adores this little boy that isn’t his, just loves him for years, right up until the time Trudy decides that Jesus has called Peter to come to the religious compound with her.

So when the flamboyant Hannah, a woman older than himself, a Hungarian immigrant, comes to town and decides she likes the looks of Tom, all I can think is, thank goodness. Let the poor man have a life post-Trudy and post-Peter. There’s nothing like a fresh start.  But Hannah comes with baggage of her own, a refugee who’s experienced the horror of Auschwitz.

Before I requested access to this novel, the Holocaust reference in the description very nearly kept me away. Younger readers less familiar with this historical war crime need to know about it. The survivors are mostly dead and gone, and there are revisionists trying to deny it, or to say that stories of it are greatly exaggerated. So yes, there’s a need for its inclusion in new literature, and yet I feel as if I have had my fill. But the other piece of it—Tom, the ranch, the child, the romance—won the day, and I am so glad I decided to go for it. And indeed, it’s not a Holocaust story; instead, we see how the horror through which Hannah has lived informs her present day choices.

So yes, Hannah is an interesting character, and the bookshop is hers, but the story is really about Tom. One heartache after another comes his way, and he deals with every single one uncomplainingly, telling those that love him that he’s fine. Really. At times I want to push my way into the pages to say to him, what the hell? Go ahead and throw some dishes or something. You are entitled to your anger. But instead, he forges stolidly on, not because he is free of pain—we can tell that he isn’t—but because there’s no use in burdening others as well. And as one violent act after another works its way into his experience, the story builds, and builds some more, and we have to wonder when he will draw the line and say, that’s it. Enough. And the way Tom develops from the outset to the end is so resonant, so believable.

This novel is one of the warmest, most affectionately told stories that I have read in a long time. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; Hillman strikes the perfect balance. I would read more of his work in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend it to you. If you can find it at a discount, that’s great, but if you have to pay full cover price, you won’t be disappointed.

Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys***

dangerouscrossingDangerous Crossing is an historical mystery set at the outset of World War II. I was invited to review it by Atria Books and Net Galley; it was published earlier this month, and you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Lily Shepherd, a young woman in need of a fresh start. Her family’s scant resources are tapped in order to send her via cruise ship to Australia, where she is to enter domestic service. On board she meets Max and Eliza Campbell, wealthy, obnoxious, and carrying some skeletons of their own. We have Maria, a Jewish refugee, along with George, a Nazi sympathizer.  Helena and Edward are adult siblings, and there’s romantic tension crackling between Lily and Edward. Along the way are exotic ports of call such as Cairo, Egypt and Ceylon; these are places Lily would never have hoped to see under ordinary circumstances, but fate surprises her.

Rhys does a fine job of managing historical details, and in particular the social stratifications that existed in British society during this time period and the limitations they imposed.  The ending has more than one interesting twist. On the down side, I find the figurative language to be stale at times and the relationships overwrought in places. I felt that the story could do with some tightening up. However, fans of a traditional mystery will find this is a fine mystery to curl up with on a chilly winter night. The varying perspectives of the cruise’s passengers dovetail in many ways with those we see today, and many will notice an eerie familiarity in these characters from an earlier time.

Recommended to those that enjoy cozy mysteries and traditional historical mysteries.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan*****

GLITTERANDGLUE

Whoops, nearly forgot! Thank you, thank you to Ballantine Books and the First Reads program at Goodreads for permitting me to read this book free and in advance!

This isn’t Corrigan’s first book, and it shows. At first it appears to be light, fluffy material, a beach read. The confidential one-gal-to-another tone may create the illusion that we’re going to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a little chat, just us, and the book.

It goes deeper than this, though. The complexity of relationship between mother and daughter is not a new topic, but Corrigan is a strong writer, and she makes it feel new. She recounts how she had saved her money so that she could leave home to find out who she was, following college graduation. She needed to go out into the world to do that, she explained to her mother, who thought she should do something more practical with her nest egg.

In Australia, Corrigan runs low on money, and she finds herself signing on as a temporary nanny. The dad has just been widowed, and his 5 and 7 year old children are smarting from the loss. Reminders of “Mum” and mortality seem to be everywhere. And Corrigan, who is for better or worse playing the role of surrogate mother, finds herself channeling her mother. Everywhere she goes, her mother is still in her head. I recognize some of the truisms and turns of phrase from my own mother, though I am about a decade older than Corrigan. And gradually, Corrigan comes to realize that what her mother had said before was true: her father, who always praised her and was always positive, but didn’t deal with any of the details of raising her or disciplining her, was the glitter. Her mother was the glue.

Later she comes to realize that there is not one woman inside each woman, but dozens of them: the mother who has always seemed a trifle harsh, undemonstrative, curt, and (my word) anal at home is “a hoot” at the office. Everyone finds her hilarious there. She isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model, so she cuts loose. What a revelation!

Two favorite moments: toward the beginning when she is a “classic” snoop while babysitting. Whoa, I totally did that, and my friends did too! We used the house phone where we were babysitting to call each other up and announce our findings! Funny. Another favorite was toward the end, when the author, fuming a bit at home in San Francisco because she has been back home to her folks many times, but her mother hasn’t visited her, is told by a friend that she needs to invite her mother. “Maybe she thinks you don’t care.” Again, hell yes! My own mother instilled in me the notion that once your kids are grown, you don’t push yourself at them, sure as hell don’t drop in on them. I have been inside my own son’s house just once, and last summer he made an ironic remark about it. Hey, I was waiting for the invitation! Last thing any mom wants is for her kid to pull back the curtains and hiss to whoever is present, “Oh crap. It’s my mom.” *cringe!*

Ultimately, Corrigan experiences the role reversal that inevitably must come, and she becomes her mother’s glue when she falls ill. Her father is still the glitter.

I end a lot of reviews by saying that the reader shouldn’t pay full cover price, but consider reading it if your library or used book store has it. Not so this time. If you love an accessible yet intelligently written memoir as much as I do, cut loose and buy this when it’s released. If not for yourself, read it for your family. You’re bound closer than you may think.