The Winners, by Fredrik Backman*****

“Do you want to understand people? Really understand them? Then you need to know all the best that we are capable of.”

The Winners is the third book in the Beartown trilogy by the iconic philosopher-novelist, Fredrik Backman. In the afterward, he tells us, “To you who have read this whole of the saga, I’d just like to say that I hope it gave you something, because I gave it absolutely everything I had.” I am one of them, and I believe him, and yes, it did. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review. It’s been an honor.

I began reading with a certain amount of trepidation, because everything I’d heard and read, some of it by the author himself, suggested that this wasn’t going to be gentle reading. Here’s how he opens it:

“August ends with sultry, ominous heat before autumn kicks the door in at the end of the month and the temperature tumbles in free fall. The natural world around us becomes erratic and aggressive, the dogs and hunters feel it first, but soon everyone else does too. We notice the warnings, yet still the storm arrives with such force that it knocks the breath out of us. It devastates the forest and blocks out the sky, it attacks our homes and our towns like a grown man beating a child.”

Woof.

The characters we’ve met in the first two books, Beartown and Us Against You, are all present and accounted for, and now that his faithful readers already know most of the central characters, Backman gives us a few more. The new hockey coach is Elizabeth Zackell, a quirky individual if ever there was one, and smart as hell. We are introduced to a family from Hed, the nearby town whose club is Beartown’s archrival; we become attached to these people, too. But ultimately, we see the way that great love and passionate loyalty can go hand in glove with violence and even evil.

It’s a story that can take your breath away.

I won’t try to address the whole story or individual characters; that’s Backman’s job, and he does it quite nicely. I had a quibble with the way the first book ended; I said in my review that it was over-the-top, bordering on glib. I see now that this was deliberate, and he wants us to see that not every family responds to a crisis as well as the Andersons have, and not every victim of a violent crime is able to see justice done; not everyone has the heroic instincts of Amet, the player that runs toward the fire rather than away from it.

The hallmarks that make Backman’s work so special are all here. I can count on one hand the number of male authors that genuinely respect women and are willing to go to the mat for women’s rights, and he is one of them. He is a vocal champion of the rights of gays and lesbians, and his prose shows keen understanding of the struggle they face, even now that their legal rights are protected in much of the world. His capacity to juggle a large cast of dynamic characters, developing nearly every one of them in a way that is consistent, along with their relationships with each other, makes me feel as if I could recognize them on the street; I don’t mean one character, or two. I mean at least a dozen of them. There are a number of characters that do bad things or make bad choices, but only a couple are genuinely bad people, and though we see little of them, they cast long shadows on these two communities.

He got the ending exactly right.

Can you read this book without reading the other two first? Don’t be a dick. Of course not. Without familiarizing yourself with the characters in the first book before the second, and the second before the third, you won’t be able to keep everyone straight; also, this third volume is about the same length as the first and second combined. Start with the first one.

Highly recommended.

Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman**-***

2.5 stars rounded upward. I was invited to read and review this novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

World War II fiction is a crowded place, and I have left it, for the most part, having had more than my fill. I am initially interested in this story because it takes place in 1950s New York, and that’s a setting I haven’t seen much. However, this setting alternates with the protagonist’s memories of Paris during the war, and so there I am again, back in Europe during the war.

Charlotte is a young widow, working in a bookstore to make ends meet. Her infant daughter, Vivi, is often with her. A German soldier is drawn to her, and she snubs him repeatedly, but when he brings food and milk for her starving child, she caves. When Vivi becomes sick, he smuggles in medication. Yes, this is one of those I-hate-you-but-I-love-you stories. This isn’t new; I’ve seen plenty of forbidden love stories, especially with regard to German soldiers. I’ve also seen plenty of love-hate romances.

But what strength I see in this one is in the grey areas. Is it all right to fraternize with the soldiers that are responsible for the deaths of loved ones, if those you’re befriended by can save other loved ones, particularly children? Is it all right to let someone think you’re Jewish, once the war is over, if that means they will save you? Is it acceptable to be Jewish, whether inobservant or otherwise, but pretend you are not, if it increases your odds of survival? What if that means taking other Jews prisoner, serving your enemy?

I’ve said this before in other reviews, and I’ll say it again here. It irritates the bejesus out of me, this World War II forbidden-romance storyline that is always, always, always between a Caucasian European, or Euro-American, and a German. Maybe someone has been wildly creative and included an Italian, but I haven’t seen it if they have. What do we never, never see? Ever? Never? (I could go on all night like this, and don’t provoke me or I’ll do it!) We never, ever see a WWII relationship between a Caucasian civilian from an Allied nation and a Japanese soldier. Or civilian. Or anything. It’s almost as if there’s a whispered subtext that insists, “It’s okay. After all, we’re both white, and that’s what really matters.” And authors that are far too progressive, too modern, too civilized to use any of the zillion ugly epithets that were common usage at the time by Allied service people and citizens toward Germans and Italians, nevertheless decide it’s somehow acceptably authentic to use the J word for Japanese. You know the one I mean. And Feldman is a serious offender here.

Because I was having trouble plodding through this story’s text, I visited Seattle Bibliocommons and borrowed the audio version. (Laurie Catherine Winkel does a fine job as the reader.)  I had listened to about seventy percent of this story when Charlotte has a conversation with her landlord, sponsor, etcetera about his own war experience, and boy does he pour it on. I think I must have found the J word on damn near every page, sometimes more than once. I nearly stopped reading, and I nearly gave this book a single star. I fast-forwarded a bit, and when the passage involving this veteran’s way-too-long speech ends, I don’t hear the word again, so I take a deep breath and forge onward to see how it ends.

The ending is bittersweet, and it’s not formulaic.

So there it is. This book is for sale now, but my advice is to either give it a miss, or read it for free or cheap. And if another forbidden WWII white-on-white romance turns up in my inbox, it’s going straight to my round file. Stick a fork in me, cause I am done.

Clover Blue, by Eldonna Edwards*****

Edwards is the author of This I Know, and here, once again, she creates a powerful story based on a youthful yearning for identity. My thanks go to the author and her publicist for the printed galley, and to Kensington and Net Galley for the digital copy.  It will be available May 28, 2019.

Our setting is a small commune in California in the early 1970s. Our protagonist, Clover Blue, sleeps in a tree house with some of the other commune members. There’s no running water or electricity, but we don’t miss what we don’t have, and California has a mild climate. Though decisions are made collectively, with younger and older residents each having a vote, Goji is the spiritual leader of the group. In place of formal education, young commune members study with him. Blue can read as well as other children his age, and he knows more about nature than most would because it’s part of his everyday experience. He doesn’t remember living anywhere else; his life is happy, and his bonds with his communal family are strong ones.

But everyone wants to know their origins, and Blue is no different. As puberty approaches, he begins to ask questions. He gains the sense that older members know things they won’t tell him, and it heightens his desire to find out. Goji promises him that he will be told when he turns twelve, but his twelfth birthday comes and goes, and still Goji evades his queries.

And so the story darkens just a bit as Blue undertakes research on his own. He has a hunch as to who his biological parents might be, and despite the communal culture that regards every older person as the mother or father of every younger person, he wants the particulars and is determined to get them. The things he learns are unsettling and produce further questions.

A large part of the problem the communal elders face is that the State of California does not recognize the commune, and the living conditions and educational process used there are not legally viable. Because of these things, Goji discourages interaction with the outside world, and sometimes essential services—such as medical care—are given short shrift because of the risks they pose. Instead, naturopathic remedies are used, often to good result.

Edwards builds resonant characters, and I believe Blue, the sometimes-mysterious Goji, and Harmony, the member of the commune that is closest to Blue. There is enough ambiguity within each of them to prevent them from becoming caricatures; everyone holds various qualities within them, none being wholly benign or malevolent. The way that we judge these characters isn’t built upon their ability to do everything well, but in how they deal with their mistakes when they make them. In addition, some writers of historical fiction—which technically this isn’t, but it has that vibe—fall into the trap of establishing time and place through the cheap shortcut of pop cultural references and well known historical events. Edwards doesn’t do that, but she does use the speech of the time period so effectively that at times, I feel transported back to my own adolescence. There are aspects of the period I’d forgotten entirely that surprise and delight me; if there are errors, I don’t see them.

Ultimately, the story takes a turn that harks back (somewhat) to George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in that while everyone at the commune is said to be equal, some are “more equal than others.” Cracks in the foundation of their once-idyllic lives form, and we see who has strength of character, and who is lacking.

If I could change anything, I would make the ending less rushed, and I’d also urge the author to be less afraid of letting the ugly parts play themselves out as they most likely would in real life. In this novel and her last, it seems like the tragic aspects that occur near or at the climax are a hot stove, and we have to move away from them quickly. I’d like to see Edwards let the stove burn a little more.

 I do recommend this book to you. In fact, it may be a five star read, but it’s almost impossible to evaluate it without comparing it to what the author wrote earlier, and this made the five star standard difficult to achieve here. Those that love historical fiction should get it and read it.

An Anonymous Girl, by Hendricks and Pekkanen*****

Come into my lair, said the spider to the fly.

Jessica Farris is under a lot of stress, and she has a head full of secrets that she is afraid could bury her. It’s a lot to carry around, especially at such a tender age. She’s constantly worried about money, and so when she sees an opportunity to make easy money by taking a psychological survey, she leaps on it. And at first, it seems too good to be true.

I was invited to read and review this hair-on-fire novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

The study involves morally ambiguous questions.  When is it acceptable to lie? When is it acceptable to know something that’s important to someone you care about, yet choose not to share that knowledge? At the outset, the study appears to be scholarly and philosophical. And when Dr. Shields, the study’s author, invites Jessica to participate in field work for additional compensation, she can’t believe her good luck.  But from there, things escalate, and before she knows it, Jessica is perched on the edge of the inferno, and Dr. Shields is inching up behind her with outstretched fingertips.

Just at the moment that I grow impatient with Jessica’s helplessness and naiveté, she clues in and tries to work out a game plan, but it’s an unfair contest, because Dr. Shields has so much more money and knowledge. It’s like watching a heavyweight and a Bantam weight in the ring together; all that the smaller, less powerful contender has on her side is agility.

The story is told using alternating narratives, primarily between Dr. Shields and Jessica with occasional input from Thomas, Dr. Shields’s husband.  The chapters are quick ones, and the pacing is accelerated to where I sometimes forgot to breathe.  Every time I think I see where the authors are headed, it turns out to be a red herring, and yet there are no gimmicks or unfair tricks used to deceive the reader. It’s all right there.

Highly recommended.