To Have And To Hoax, by Martha Waters**-***

Oh well.

Martha Waters spans three genres here: historical romance, rom-com, and satire. I like satire, and the other two, not so much. I am rounding my rating up to three stars, because I stepped out of my comfort zone with this novel, hoping for light entertainment; those that enjoy rom-com books may be more enthusiastic than I. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lady Violet and Lord James found instant chemistry at a grand ball. Almost as instantly, they were married; then they quarreled and have been estranged ever since. Yet even the stupidest and most imperceptive reader will see that they are still crazy for one another. If one is in doubt, turn the page so the author can hit you over the head with it again. Again. And again.

I enjoy smart satire that leaves something to the imagination. This book tries too hard to be funny. I tried reading the DRC, and when I couldn’t get through it, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This made it, if possible, even worse. Overdone prose is made worse by an over-the-top voice actor.

I had been reading too much that was dark and serious, and then the pandemic broke out and I went looking for relief. I found it, but I didn’t find it here.

But again, I have never liked rom-com. If that’s your wheelhouse, you may appreciate this thing more than I do. I pushed through to the forty percent mark; my usual due diligence requires me, if skipping, to then proceed to the eighty percent mark and see if there are joyful surprises that might change my mind. But no.

Fans of the genre may feel differently, but I have to call them as I see them. Not recommended.

Firewatching, by Russ Thomas***

Firewatching is the first in the Adam Tyler detective series, and also the first novel written by Russ Thomas. It’s been praised by Lee Child, and published by Putnam Penguin, an auspicious sign. Thanks go to the publisher and Net Galley for the review copy.

All of the right elements are here for a rip roaringly great tale, but the execution fell short. When I found myself drifting off while reading the digital review copy, I went to Seattle Bibliocommons and checked out the audio book. Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to all of it, either. I kept with it to the 45 percent mark; skipped to 75 percent in hopes there would be something tantalizing that would reel me back in; and when that didn’t work out, I listened to snippets from there to the end.

Here’s what I like. Conceptually, it sounds promising. Tales of crazed arsonists are generally irresistible, and there haven’t been a lot of them published lately. Fiction writing is as prone to fad and whim as is anything else, as any reviewer can see. This story steers clear of dead, sick, or disabled siblings; Paris; alternate past and present narratives, and struggling alcoholic detectives. Detective Tyler resists his boss’s impulse toward stereotypes. There are two elderly women side characters, one of whom struggles with dementia, and Tyler is told that old women in small towns always love gossip; he refers to them often as “the old dears.” I know I am not the only Boomer that wants to smack that obnoxious character, and so Tyler endears himself to me by not going there. And actually, I like the two older women in this story a great deal. I also like the brief—maybe too brief—passages where we are inside the head of the firebug.

But alas, the story’s protagonist isn’t the arsonist, and it isn’t either of the elderly women. It’s Tyler, and Tyler just bores the snot out of me. I want him to just do something. I don’t need to know what he is wearing, what he is thinking, what he is feeling, wearing, feeling some more, thinking….

During my teaching career, I recall one impatient girl that was sent home for a few days because of her tendency to walk up to a teacher that was standing in her way—tutoring, or speaking to another student—and barking at him, “MOVE!” And I found myself channeling this student as I read and/or listened to this story. I don’t care about your damn wardrobe, Tyler, just move! Move it! Do something, for the love of…

Fine. Whatever.

A possible silver lining occurs to me, and that is that with this first in a series, all of the personal details of wardrobe and emotion may be emphasized in order to introduce the protagonist, and perhaps with the second in the series, the pace will pick up and we’ll be on our way. I surely hope so.

But for now, I can only write about what I know, and I know it would be wrong of me to urge you to purchase this book at full jacket price. If you’re going to read it, get it cheap or free, because most of the joy I see here is in potential, and future maybe-joy makes a thin soup indeed.

The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor**

It’s a rare book that I find abrasive right out of the gate, especially since there are no controversial social messages here, just a mystery that I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thanks go to Crown Publishing and Net Galley for the review copy, which I received free and early in 2017. I should have written a review long ago, of course, but I found it hard to reconcile my antipathy for this story—a debut, no less—with the nearly unanimous adulation expressed by other reviewers. I am still a bit bewildered, but there it is.

This is a book that tries too hard. There are too many cutesy nicknames, and the structure of the plot feels gimmicky and formulaic, as well as mighty unlikely. Of course, most mysteries have aspects that are unlikely because most real-life murders and other mysterious doings have logical, obvious, dull explanations. We agree to pretend the murder mystery is plausible in exchange for being entertained. The problem is that I wasn’t, and so I couldn’t.

Two other factors that contributed to my grumpiness were the overwhelmingly male list of characters, and the cultural collision between British fiction and my brain. I’ve read and enjoyed some British fiction; if not, I wouldn’t have requested this galley. But here the culture and jargon are thick on the ground, and the inner narrative feels endless.

I no longer have to be concerned that I will crush this author’s hopes and dreams; Tudor’s debut is a huge success both in terms of sales and the corresponding enthusiasm of its readership. This author has gone on to publish more books, and I have had the good sense not to request those this time. Ultimately this came down to taste more than anything else, but I have to call ‘em as I see them, and I found nothing to love, apart from a compelling jacket and an attention-getting title.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

Best Debut Fiction of 2019: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis

Interestingly, my favorite as well as two honorable mentions share a social justice component.

Honorable Mentions:

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2019/04/13/miracle-creek-by-angie-kim/

Carnegie Hill, by Jonathan Vatner***

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.  This work of fiction started out like gangbusters and left me feeling confused in the end. What the heck is the author’s purpose here?

The premise is that Pepper, the child of hugely wealthy, influential parents, has left home to live an adult life without her mother’s interference. She meets a man from a working class background and they fall in love; they purchase an apartment at the prestigious Chelmsford Arms, and the ancient chairman invites her to join the building’s board of directors. She likes Pepper’s pedigree, and the board is comprised entirely of elderly people, so it’s good to have some fresh perspective. Or so the old lady thinks.

At the outset, I think this will be a satirical poke at the rich, and as the story unfolds it is on its way to being just that. We see the building through Pepper’s eyes, and we see it through the eyes of the door men that work there. The only people of color here are employees, and Pepper’s effort to create a more diverse community meet a wall of resistance. And Pepper’s fiancé, whom her parents distrust, turns out to be untrustworthy.  There are several places that make me laugh out loud, and I have high hopes.

But as we move on, the message becomes muddy and the pace slows considerably. Pepper’s fiancé has his own concerns, and we see things through his perspective—all points of view are told in the third person omniscient. Part of the time he seems to be exactly the dirt bag that Pepper’s parents say that he is, but part of the time he is just a loving, misunderstood guy. Ultimately, after a plot that goes all over the place with no apparent destination, it is he that proves to be the most dreadful racist of all of them.

When the board meets, Pepper makes the acquaintance of two other couples, both of them elderly, and both apparently in content, long-term marriages, and she believes they will be her role models, since her own parents are divorced. However, neither couple is happy, and we see their relationships deteriorate. Indeed, the healthiest relationship she sees is between two of the doormen, who are closeted at first, but later come out.

None of these characters is developed much, but the one that seems least credible to me is Sergei, who does a complete turnabout in his willingness to come out of the closet and be in a public relationship with Caleb. We don’t see any kind of struggle on his part and the change is abrupt. Given the importance that Vatner attaches to these two men, I would have thought we would see much more of Sergei’s perspective leading up to the transition.

The worst part for me is that in the end, all of the characters seem much more equal to one another, the filthy rich having their share of misery and the working class being content. Give me a damn break.

Despite this rant, it’s clear that Vatner has talent. There are several passages that make me sit up and take notice. The challenge he faces is in creating a bigger picture with better developed characters, and better pacing. Since this is his debut, he has plenty of time to grow, and I look forward to seeing what he publishes in the years to come.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton*****

I am late to the party, but it’s still going strong. Stuart Turton’s masterful debut generated so much talk that I couldn’t not read this book, and it lives up to the buzz. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark.

Aiden wakes up stranded in the woods, and he has no idea who he is. Strangers rescue him and he’s taken to an aging English manor house, where a party is taking place. Everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t know any of them, and in time he realizes that he is living inside the body of another person at the scene of a murder. Every time he wakes up, he is in the body of a new host  at the same party in the same house, often someone he has already seen from the outside while he inhabits a different body; he lives through the same day he has just experienced, but through a different perspective. He will never be permitted to leave the manor or be restored to his own body until he is able to solve the mystery; he is in a competition with others in more or less the same position.  At the outset, he is inside Jonathan Derby, and everyone obsequiously attends to his needs. He is injured. He needs rest.

This story has a house-that-Jack-built quality, because each time Aiden wakes up, he can recall everything he learned when he was inside someone else. This advantage is offset by the fact that each host is more difficult to occupy, with the personality of the host warring for control over the body that he shares with them.  Several curves—including more murders—are added to the mix.  The reader has to decide which events are related to the murder, and which are extraneous; on top of that, some of the characters Aiden encounters are liars.

When I began reading I tried to keep track of the information, but soon it became obvious that I would need a flow chart to stand even a small chance of solving this thing, so I gave up and rode along, enjoying the progress of the story, but clueless as to how it would work out. Even so, it is a complex enough tale that I learned quickly not to read it after I took my sleeping pill.

Not only is it cleverly conceived and well paced, but there is character development, made possible with Anna’s back story and the humanizing of the Plague Doctor. I can only tip my hat in awe.

So Turton has a monstrously successful debut novel, but the pressure is on in terms of what he writes next. Can his second effort live up to the reputation he has created for himself? Whatever he writes, I want to read it.

Highly recommended.

In West Mills, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow***

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

Winslow’s debut is set in 1941 in North Carolina. Our protagonists are Azalea Knot, an alcoholic school teacher in an African-American community, a woman shunned by her neighbors and kinfolk for her unconventional behavior and obnoxious personality. Otis Lee has family troubles of his own, but seeks redemption by helping Knot, who has two babies out of wedlock at a time when you really could not do that without terrible social repercussions. Otis is a helpful sort, and ultimately, the story becomes one about the family we choose.

I abandoned and restarted this book three times, and in the end, I never did engage with it much. I read the first thirty percent, the last twenty-five percent, and skimmed the middle. The writing style didn’t speak to me, and I couldn’t understand why Otis would care about Knot. But to be fair, Southern fiction has been a competitive genre for several years, and I was reading books by Attica Locke and Jesmyn Ward at the same time I read this.

I have a hunch Winslow is just warming up. He’ll be one to watch in the future.

That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

Her Daughter’s Mother, by Daniela Petrova***

I requested and received a galley for this debut novel based on a review I read on another blog. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the DRC. This book is for sale now.

The concept is terrific, and it is what caught my attention. A Manhattan couple is unable to get pregnant, and they sign up with an agency to use a surrogate. All the details are supposed to be confidential, but the infertile mother has requested a bio-mom of an ethnicity that is pretty rare, even in New York City; using this fact and some skillful research, she finds out who the woman is…and she starts following her around. An unforeseeable event forces them to meet; a friendship develops. Soon we learn that the pregnant surrogate knows perfectly well who this woman is.

The execution didn’t work as well for me. There’s a lot of information about infertility, surrogacy choices and blah blah blah that slows the pace significantly. The book is billed as a thriller, and if I were locked into the genre, I’d have called this a two star novel, because in places, it just drags. The issues between the expectant couple create more drag. I’d like to see tighter writing with more urgency. I guessed the ending when I was ten percent of the way into it.

At the same time, the writer clearly has potential, and since my own children are grown, I am most likely outside of the target demographic for this novel.

Unless the reader is also dealing with infertility and surrogacy issues, I recommend obtaining this book free or on the cheap if you go there. At the same time, I wish this author well; she has promise and is a writer to watch.