The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware****

TheLyingGameIsabel, Fatima, and Leah receive a text from Kate saying that she needs them. It’s been 17 years, and yet they answer in the only possible way:

“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’”

This one had me at hello. How many of us have a friend from childhood, adolescence, or the early years of our adulthood that could draw this response from us? I know I do, and although mine are from different times and places in my life, if I received that text I’d be on a plane, a train, or in the car. Thank you Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book was published last week.

Our protagonist is Isa (“It’s to rhyme with nicer”), and as you might infer, this is British fiction. Isa leaves Owen, a good sport if ever there was one; grabs Freya the baby, who is breast-feeding; and hops on a train. And that baby will ramp up the stakes, mostly in subtle ways, over and over throughout the story.

Kate has called them because human bones have been found in the Reach. All of them immediately know what this means, although the reader does not.

We learn about the lying game played by the foursome during their years at school together. There are points given according to whether the lie is believed, whether the victim is new, and further byzantine details; but the big rule is that they must never lie to each other. The game revives itself at odd moments during their reunion, sometimes to lightened effect for the reader, but sometimes becoming sinister.

Throughout this well-crafted tale, Ware doles out bits and pieces of what is to come, and every time my experienced eye spots a sure-fire red herring, it turns out it isn’t. I read a lot of mysteries—probably too many—but this one is fresh and original conceptually, and it becomes more riveting as the characters are developed, adding layer after layer like papier-mâché. The ending completely surprises me, and yet is entirely consistent with the rest of the novel.

There are times when I am astounded at the risk-taking behaviors exhibited by the four as adults approaching middle age once they are together again; at times I step away and ask myself whether the doctor that Fatima is now would actually do this, and whether Isa, an attorney, wouldn’t show more caution. But the foursome persuades me—are there points for this, I wonder—and I am drawn back in before the curtain twitches. There’s never a time when I see that the Great and Powerful Oz is seen back there at the control panel; the magic holds. There are times I am astonished at the risks Isa takes with Freya, going for a swim in the Reach with her pals, leaving her defenseless baby alone, asleep, in that hideous, falling down shack, but it’s consistent with the girl she used to be, the girl that is awakened to a degree as she returns to the time and place in which she came of age.

The fifth star isn’t here because the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed at times, and threatens to become funny rather than scary, which is clearly not intended. But every time I see it veering toward the ridiculous, Ware pulls back again, and so the overdone moments are a blip on the radar.
Those that love Ruth Ware’s work, and those that love a good mystery—especially women—will want to read this book. You can get it now.

Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford*****

radiogirlsFearless women change history.

Radio Girls is a fictionalized account of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the remarkable women that shaped it. As we near the centennial of women’s right to vote in the USA and the UK, Stratford’s riveting historical fiction could not be better timed. I received my copy free and in advance thanks to Net Galley and Berkley Press in exchange for this honest review. I am overjoyed to be able to recommend this new release unequivocally. You have to read it.

Maisie Musgrave is born in Canada and raised in New York City. Tossed out of the nest without a parachute by unloving family, she makes her way to Britain, the place her heritage began. She wanders into the BBC half-starved and looking for an honest way to pay for her room and board, hoping in the meanwhile to meet a man she can marry for financial security.

At the BBC she meets supervisor Hilda Matheson, who fears nothing:  “Give that woman an inch and she takes the entire British Isles,” a colleague remarks.

Under the firm and commanding wing of Matheson, Maisie’s confidence and talent grow daily. It’s a very good thing, because over the course of time, more will be demanded of her than secretarial skills and errand-running.  My busy fingers marked one clever, articulate passage after another to share with you, but to enjoy Stratford’s fresh, humorous word-smithery, you really need the book itself.

Occasional historical figures drop in—Lady Astor, who was a moving force in the development of the BBC and a champion of women; Virginia Woolf, early feminist writer and crusader. Yet Stratford metes out these references in small enough batches that it’s clear she isn’t relying on them to hold her story together; rather, they are the cherry on the sundae.

Setting of time and place, pacing, and a million twists and turns in plot make this a good read, but it’s the character development that makes it a great one. I found myself wanting to talk to Maisie and cheering her on when she broke through to higher ground personally and professionally. I feared for her when she veered into dangerous waters and nearly wept with relief each time she was able to extricate herself and move forward. There isn’t a slow moment or an inconsistent one, and the protagonist is just the character women need to see right now as we move forward too.

How much of this is based on truth and how much made up for the sake of a great story? Read the author’s notes; she spills it all.

All told, Sarah-Jane Stratford’s historical feminist tale is perfect for today’s modern feminists—and those that love us.

This book is available to the public Tuesday, June 14. Change the screen and order a copy for yourself now. You won’t want to miss it!

 

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson*****

majorpettigrewHad this story not received such wide acclaim and been made into a movie (which I’ve yet to see, but I watched the Oscars), I would probably never have gone near it. I like working class protagonists, and I don’t read many romances, because often as not, they are corny, soft porn, or both. But I saw it at the library and decided to give it a try, and I quickly remembered, upon reading it, that some rules are made to be broken. So even if you usually don’t read romances, and even if a retired British pensioner is not your idea of an interesting protagonist, this should be the exception to the rule.

 I loved this story!

Major Pettigrew has difficulty with some sorts of change. He doesn’t want to see his village built up and the green spaces developed. He has lost his wife and his brother, and loss of any type is very difficult. His solitude is not splendid; he is a lonely, lonely man.

And in some ways, he seems to have lost his son, who has become arrogant, dismissive, and wants nothing more from him than his wallet and his bank card.

On the other hand, he has found something really precious, but what he has found is so controversial that the whole wide world seems to be against him.

Perhaps the hook for me was the interracial marriage, since mine is one also. But on the other hand, maybe the hook is just excellent writing. A really great writer can make us enjoy a genre we didn’t think we cared for; I believe this is one of those.

I hit a certain point in this story and could not go to bed until it was done. I usually read lying down before I go to sleep, but I was literally sitting upright on the edge of my bed leaning forward when this climax broke.

You have to read this story. It’s glorious, and it’s available to the public. Highly recommended!

The Complete Flying Officer X Stories*****

thecompleteflyingofficerxHE Bates wrote these stories during WWII; he served in the British Royal Air Force and received the unusual commission of author. His whole job was to write one short story after another. He was stationed with British pilots from 1941-1942, and he sat with them when they were between flights and listened with a sympathetic ear. He listened well, and the result is a collection of nearly 30 short stories, one of which is novella length, and they are strong, resonant fictional stories whose protagonists were inspired by actual pilots. Thank you twice to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury Publishers for the DRC. This collection is for sale now.

When I told my spouse that I was reading a collection of short stories about RAF pilots during this time period, he asked if that wasn’t a lot of stories to plow through, all on the same subject. I can understand why he—and maybe you—might think so, but the stories are all so different, and their characters so richly drawn, that it’s a bit like asking a mother of a very large family whether she might not like to trim a few sons and daughters from the herd. Although I can tell you which ones are my favorites, I also have to say there is no filler or weaker material here. Everything is very well written, and each story distinct in setting and characters from all others.

I sat down and read it start to finish, but once you have the collection, you can jump around however you like. The stories are not in any particular order. If your household has a book tucked into the bathroom or the guest room, a solid short story collection like this is a good choice, because the person that’s in that room won’t be there that long; this gives them a look at something they can finish. Most of the short stories are just a few pages, with just one toward the end in the part labeled as extra stories that might qualify as a novella.

Although I do have favorites, mine might not be the same as yours. I was drawn to “There’s No Future in It”, a story in which a father tries to dissuade his daughter from becoming involved with a pilot. It’s dark and resonates strongly. I also loved “K for Kitty”, a poignant tale about a pilot that strongly preferred one particular fighter plane; “The Young Man from Kalgoorie”, whose parents attempted to hide the very existence of the war from their son by keeping him busy on the farm and away from newspapers; and “O’Callahan’s Girl”, a young woman that loves a shy young flyer who only wants France to be restored to its previous state.

A happy surprise, given the era in which it was written, was the inclusion of a female soldier (in what is referred to as the “Russian” army, though the fact is it was the USSR and therefore Soviet Army at that time). This was a welcome addition. Unfortunately, there are two racist references, and if the stories were being written today, I would have knocked more than half a star off the rating because of them, but from the World War II generation’s Caucasians, I know (my parents having been among them) that the terms they used were thoughtless but made from ignorance rather than malice.

For example, in one story there is a brief mention made of a West Indian “boy” that used to work as a barrister. I blinked for a moment, not getting it at first. What kind of prodigy must that boy have been to have had a law career already and be out doing something else now? And then the penny dropped, and I realized this is actually a man, but he was referred to this way because of his race and ethnicity.

The second reference is to a brave pilot who nevertheless is described as being unusually ugly; his features bear some unflattering characteristics of the “Red Indian” and the “Mongoloid”.

Both of these go by in the blink of an eye, yet it’s only fair you be told in advance.

Finally, the thing that impressed me the most about these stories is that every last one of them had an unusually strong closing. The first few that left me gaping at their brilliance on the last page, last paragraph, last line were noted, but eventually it became clear that all or most of the collection was going to be like that, and of course I am not going to quote them here and ruin the stories’ endings for you. But one thing I will also say is that short stories that end with planned, maddening ambiguity are my pet peeve. For example, if a man is about to go through a door to either meet special delight or certain doom and the writer ends the story by having the man go through the door and gasp, and that’s the whole thing, he may be gasping with delight, or with horror, and we will never know which…? I hate that! And this set of short stories has none of it. Some end poignantly, some beautifully, some tragically, but every ending is in one way or another deeply satisfying and free of ambiguity.

For those that love military fiction, highly recommended.

Boy: A Novel, by James Hanley ***-****

boy3.49 stars, and my thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the DRC. The digital version of this story became available yesterday, and you can get a copy of your own if you’d like.

Boy, a tragic story that reads like a hybrid between Dickens and Melville, was originally published in 1930, and ran into all sorts of censorship. There are passages that contain sex that would not even be considered erotica now, since they avoid much specificity, but for the bourgeoisie of that time period, it was way too much. The censorship fight was where my interest came from, because I don’t generally seek out tragedy. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Any time anyone tries to keep the printed word from being accessible, my curiosity is piqued.

Arthur Fearon is an academically talented student whose parents make him leave school at thirteen even though at the time, the legal drop-out age in Britain is fourteen. His father has been on strike and had no income for awhile, and is bad at bringing his paycheck home when he has one. An only child, his parents both look to Arthur to become the family bread winner. His father finds him a position on the docks, and Arthur hates it so much that he stows away on board a ship, with the notion that he will emigrate away from England, maybe land in the United States and get a fresh start. Young as he is,it never occurs to him to learn which ship is going where. The ship he hides on isn’t even headed that way.

Issues of child abuse and in particular the way this youngster is turned away by every adult from whom he seeks help are hard on the eyes and hard on the heart.

The writing style is one that may not work for a lot of people in 2015. This was written in more or less the same era as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and it has a lot of stylistic similarities. Inner narratives run on for much longer than one might expect, because the reader of 80 years ago had a much greater attention span. There is a fair amount of repetition that was considered acceptable then but might not be appreciated by today’s readers.

One thing I can tell you for sure: if you are feeling sorry for yourself, this book will make all your own problems look like nothing at all. Just right for the reader that wants a good three-hanky novel.