The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

The Liar’s Child, by Carla Buckley*****

Buckley is a force to be reckoned with,  an established writer, but she is new to me; I wasn’t done with this grab-you-by-the-hair thriller when I lurched over to my desktop to order two more of her novels from Seattle Bibliocommons, a thing I rarely do. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. You can get this book March 12, 2019, and you should.

Sara Lennox is starting life new under the witness protection program. She has a new name and a dull new life, working as a cleaner—seriously, her a house cleaner?—and living in a damp, dull one-bedroom at the Paradise Apartments on North Carolina’s outer banks. It’s sweltering here. She asked to be placed on the Pacific Ocean, but no, she’s stuck here. Welcome to Paradise!

To top it all off, her handlers tell her not to go anywhere for a while; don’t take risks. It’s like telling a fish not to swim for a few months.

Meanwhile, the family next door is in crisis, but then for them, that’s not new. Whit and Diane Nelson have a stormy relationship; they know how to yank each other’s chains, and they do it constantly. Diane is gorgeous, a stunning woman that’s accustomed to owning every room she enters. She’s also completely irresponsible, devoid of even the most basic maternal instincts, and this came to a head when she snapped their little boy into his car seat, then went to work without dropping him off first. She forgot he was there, okay?

But it’s not okay. In the end, little Boon did come out of that coma—but psychologically he’s a mess, and once he is home, Diane is no better a mother than she was before. Add to this the ensuing visits from Robin the social worker and the intrusion of the state into their lives.

Why can’t that woman just mind her own business?

Whit loves his kids and knows he should leave Diane, but he can’t. They are the codependents from hell. So as twelve-year-old Cassie develops, she is burdened with many of the tasks that Diane ought to be doing; she’s the one Boon comes to when their parents’ raging battles scare him. Cassie has a right to be a preteen, but she can’t have a normal adolescence because Diane is doing that despite her age. It isn’t fair. What’s more? It’s making this girl mean.

Sara meets Cassie when Cassie breaks into her apartment. It sat empty for a long time, and Cassie had become accustomed to thinking of it as her own space. Leap across the balcony railing onto the one adjoining, and there you are. Cassie is a ball of rage, furious at her mother’s abdication and her father’s inability to set boundaries. Angry kids get into trouble. Lots of it.

And then Diane disappears. She’s done that before, taken off in a huff with no warning, abandoning her children and then reappearing after days, a weekend, a week or more. But this time is different. Her car and her purse are still here, for instance. And as the story climbs toward its crescendo, we get the sense that something sinister has occurred. Oh, Whit. What did you do?

Despite her disinclination to be involved with this family, Sara is pulled into the lives of the children. When a record-setting storm hurls its fury down upon the Outer Banks and the Paradise Apartments and evacuation is the order of the day, Sara sees Boon, then Cassie as she leaps into her car to peel out of there. His father’s car is gone. Though it’s the last thing she wants to do, Sara gets back out and lets Cassie and Boon scramble into her car. They’re off, and nobody knows who these children left with.

Buckley is absolutely unerring in her development of Sara and all of the members of the Nelson family. When an inconsistency appears, later in the story we see why the author put it there in order to move the story forward. Psychological fiction can be written without deeply layered characters, but it’s a lot better with characters like these, so achingly real.

So in the end, which character is the liar’s child? Every single one of them.

Those that love a true thriller, one that makes your pulse race and your breath stop from time to time should buy this book and read it. Buckley is a master storyteller of the first order, and you won’t want to miss it.

The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

Sometimes I feel sorry for writers that hit it big the first time they publish a novel, because then the expectations are raised for everything they write thereafter, and so I wondered whether Loigman, the author of A Two Family House, would be able to match the standard she has set for herself. I needn’t have worried, because if anything, The Wartime Sisters is even more absorbing. I was invited to read and review, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This excellent novel will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The setting is an armory not far from where the author grew up, one that was an important manufacturing site during World War II. The characters are what drive the story, but Loigman’s intimate understanding of the period’s social mores and the economic impact the war had on women on the home front make it far more resonant. Rather than rely on pop-cultural references to set the tone, she conveys unmistakably what American women were expected to do—and to never do–in this unusual yet unliberated time period.

Ruth and Millie are sisters, and yet in some ways they don’t really know each other. Each has built up a personal narrative full of grievances and assumptions about the other over the course of their lives; they are estranged, with Millie back home in Brooklyn and Ruth in Springfield, Massachusetts. Both are married, and both of their husbands have decided to enlist, but otherwise their circumstances are vastly different. Ruth has married well, but when Millie’s husband Lenny is gone and their parents are dead, she has no one to turn to. She has a small child to consider, and during this time period it was unusual for a mother to leave a young child in the care of others. Men worked; women stayed home. And so although she dreads doing it, Millie writes to her older sister Ruth; Ruth doesn’t want to take Millie in, but she does.

Both sisters carry a lot of guilt, and each is holding onto a terrible secret.

The story alternates time periods and points of view, and the reader will want to pay close attention to the chapter headings, which tell us not only which woman’s perspective is featured, but also what year it is. At the outset we have the present time alternating with their childhoods, and gradually the two time periods are brought together.

 In addition, we see the viewpoints of two other women that are introduced later in the story. One is Lillian, the wife of a commanding officer; she befriends Ruth and later, Millie. The second is Arietta, the cook that feeds the armory personnel and also sings for them. Although these women’s backgrounds are provided as separate narratives, their main role is to provide the reader with an objective view of Ruth and Millie.

I generally have several books going at a time, but I paused my other reading for this one, because I felt a personal obligation to Ruth and to Millie. Family is family, and while I read this story, they were my sisters. You can’t just walk away.

Loigman joins women’s fiction and World War II historical fiction masterfully, and if this work reminds me of any other writer, it would be the great Marge Piercy. This book is highly recommended to those that cherish excellent writing.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]