Not That I Could Tell, by Jessica Strawser****

NotThatIOne year ago today, I reviewed Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You. When I received an invitation to read and review this, her second novel of suspense, I privately wondered whether she had written the same story all over again: missing spouse, missing kids, and is it foul play or a voluntary departure? But although there are many common elements, possibly what will become a signature aspect of her work, I can promise you that this is a very different story. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

Our setting is Yellow Springs, Ohio, and our protagonists are the women of the neighborhood, primarily Izzy, who comes in search of a fresh start after her sister marries the man she had her heart set on, and Clara, a stay-home mom that also recovering from a traumatic past event that is alluded to frequently but whose particulars are withheld till near the story’s climax. And we have Kristen, college administrator and estranged wife of Doctor Paul. All are close neighbors, and these women–along with other women in the neighborhood–form a tight bond.

At the outset I feel as if I’m the wrong reader for this story. It’s all so light and fluffy; I don’t need to know the name of every child in the neighborhood, nor what everyone is wearing. But I also remember that I felt that way at the start of Strawser’s last novel, and I didn’t feel at all that way further into the book, and so I keep reading. Sure enough, the adverbs drop, the wardrobes and cute kiddies fade into the background, and the tone darkens nicely (said the evil book blogger with a sinister smile).

After a lovely fall evening spent bonding with friends around a backyard bonfire, Kristen and the twins have disappeared. The police take a hard look at Paul, who is seeking half of the hefty sum in Kristen’s savings account in the divorce proceedings, but nobody can prove anything. There are no bodies; she may have taken the kiddies and left. Some things are missing that make us think she’s taken off voluntarily, and yet other aspects of her absence send up flags.

Paul, for instance, is a smooth operator, but he isn’t a nice guy.

Strawser weaves a complex, credible plot with a strong feminist subtext, one that tells us there needs to be greater support for victims of domestic violence, and also that for some of us, happy endings are possible without romantic relationships. In addition, it is heartening to see a strong work of fiction that mostly features women characters.

I recommend this novel to women and those that love them, and I look forward to seeing more of Strawser’s feminist fiction in the future.

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah****

ThegreataloneI wanted to see what all of the buzz was about, and now I know. Kristin Hannah has a fresh, authentic  voice that transports her readers to a completely different time and place. The Great Alone, set in Alaska in 1974, made a believer of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the ARC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Leni Allbright is our protagonist, and she and her mother are inseparable during the early years of her childhood. But when her father, a man she doesn’t know, is released from the POW camp and then sent home, he is volatile, not the man Cora remembers. He has trouble keeping a job; he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He’s paranoid and sometimes delusional, too.

He likes firearms.

Then word comes that a friend, a soldier he served with, has died and left him a plot of land in Alaska. They’ll be away from the stimulation of the city, which seems to trigger Ernt’s anxiety and panic attacks. Cora tells Leni it’s perfect, because once Ernt is happy, everybody can be happy. And so, clueless hippies that they are, they head north in a VW van with little more than the shirts on their backs and of course, Ernt’s weapon collection.

Imagine their surprise upon discovering their new home is at the end of a long unpaved driveway and isn’t really in habitable condition. However, Mad Earl, the father of the deceased soldier that left the place to Ernt, introduces him around, and their new Alaskan friends teach them the ropes. Cora and Leni are accustomed to a passive role, but Ginny “the generator” and Large Marge assure them that if they don’t learn to pull their own weight, they will die before the end of the first winter. Soon Cora and Leni know how to fell trees, use tools, and kill their own meat.

Ernt wants his wife and daughter to be survivors; he wants them to be ready when “the shit hits the fan.”  He wakes them from a sound sleep at odd intervals and forces them, bleary eyed and bewildered, to assemble and load weapons in the dark. He assures them that it’s possible the enemy may attack in the small hours; it’s an old ruse. But over time it becomes clear that the most dangerous person they will ever encounter is Ernt.

Hannah is a feminist badass and an evocative, memorable writer. One of the finest things about this story is the recognition that domestic abuse often arrives hand-in-glove with some other challenge that muddies the water. Ernt is abusive, but he can’t help himself; something happened to his mind when he was a POW. Then of course, there’s addiction and straight-up mental illness. Who could just leave a guy that has been through so much and that loves them so hard?

Ernt says he is sorry, and it won’t happen again. Like so many abusers, he says it every damn time. But even when it has become crystal clear to Leni that she and her mother must put their own safety first, Cora won’t leave, and Leni won’t leave her mother.

By the halfway point, it becomes clear that someone is going to die; the three of them cannot continue together indefinitely through the dark Alaskan winters, and yet there they are, and he’s getting worse, not better. But then Large Marge injects new life into their domestic situation with an ingenious plan. It doesn’t last forever, but it buys them some time.

My only disappointment is with the ending. In many ways it is cleverly turned, but it’s a letdown to see such a magnificent young woman warrior take such a well-worn, traditional path. It’s a small quibble though, and it shouldn’t keep you from grabbing the nearest copy of this excellent novel at whatever price you have to pay to get it. It’s for sale now, and I recommend it to you.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

Something To Be Brave For, by Priscilla Bennett***

Bennett’s provocative new novel tackles domestic abuse. I was invited to read this one free and in advance by a representative from Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review.

somethingtobebraveforKatie Giraud is the daughter of a successful surgeon. Her father is disappointed when she chooses not to go into medicine, but he is overjoyed when she falls in love with his protégé, Claude Giraud. Claude is the son he never had. Katie is an art lover, and now she can enjoy her passion while being well provided for. Her husband is a handsome, charming Frenchman who woos her with roses and jewelry. It’s like something out of a fairy tale.

The trouble commences when the wedding is done and real life begins. You see, Claude has a wicked temper. He has enormous control issues, and he’s unpredictable. You just don’t know when he’s going to lash out. Next thing she knows, Katie is bleeding and cowering beneath the grand piano. But after daughter Rose is born, things are better, but they’re worse; Katie is more willing to try to escape this abusive relationship because she knows that it traumatizes her little girl to see Claude hurt her, but having a daughter also makes flight more complicated.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Feminists everywhere can rejoice that the problem is so well demonstrated. Even in a home where there is such affluence, leaving isn’t as easy as it sounds. Her husband’s reputation is excellent, and he’s a smooth liar. Her parents love him, and he’s friends with the chief of police. Every effort she makes is thwarted. I appreciate this as I read it, because in cases of domestic abuse, societal conversation tends to question the victim: what is wrong with her, to make her stay in a situation like that? Why not develop a spine, get up, walk out? And yet statistics tell us that a woman is much more likely to be killed by a violent spouse, or former spouse, after she has left him, than to be killed by him while still in the marriage.

Leaving is dangerous.

That said, it seems strange that I never feel bonded to Katie. I know she is an art lover, a battered wife, and a devoted mother, and I know some of her physical attributes, but beyond these things her character remains blurry and underdeveloped. Better character development would move the entire story forward and add greater impact to the overall message.

The ending feels simplistic and somewhat formulaic. But those that care about domestic violence and champion women’s issues may want to read it anyway because it adds to the discussion, one that so often is stifled as its victims remain isolated in the shadows.

This book was published April 3, 2017 and is available for sale now.

The Education of Dixie Dupree, by Donna Everhart*****

theeducationofdixieduI rate this 4.5 stars and round it upward. Thanks go to Kensington Publishing and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This courageous novel, one that takes place in the past but couldn’t be more timely, is going to create a lot of buzz. Get your marshmallows ready, because I think I smell hot tar and burning wood…or is it paper?

A note: there’s no way to review this without providing at least the basic elements of the story. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, read the book, then come back and check my viewpoint against your own.

Although it’s billed as being a story about mothers and daughters, and about secrets that pass from one generation to the next, that wasn’t my take away from this one, I have to say. From where I sit, the story is about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse. I haven’t seen a solid YA novel take this on in such a straight forward manner, and I think there are a lot of children, girls in particular, that will benefit from reading it. Would I read it out loud to a class? No, I would not. Rather, it’s a story better saved for reflection and possibly for discussion in a small group or with a reading partner. It takes a lot of trust just to talk about this book. In some school districts, teachers may face the battery of parental approval and permission slips. Oh, good luck with that.

Dixie tells us her own story. She’s born in a tiny, impoverished hamlet in Alabama in the 1960’s. Her parents are having money problems, and their relationship isn’t going well. Evie, Dixie’s mother, is on the verge of a breakdown of some sort, and she takes out her frustration and rage on the child that looks just like her, and that of course is Dixie. In an effort to apologize, she sits down with her daughter later on and tells her that there are times she can’t control herself:

“’I can’t explain why I react like I do sometimes, you know? It’s done and I can’t take it back, although God knows, I wish I could.’

“I whispered, my voice hoarse, ‘God don’t hear us.’”

At one point a social worker shows up at the house and Dixie has to decide whether to spill it or sweep it under the rug. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.

Ultimately, Evie summons her family for help, and Uncle Ray comes all the way from New Hampshire to lend assistance. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray has a whole lot of demons of his own.  Dixie doesn’t like the way Ray stares at her as if she were his next meal; she doesn’t like the way he brushes up against her. But when she tries to tell her brother how she feels, he laughs at her and points out that she isn’t all that attractive, and her body hasn’t exactly grown boobs; why would a grown up man be interested in dumb old Dixie? And so Ray, who is the sole source of grocery and clothing money for this miserable clan, is left to do what he wants to do unchecked.

“Uncle Ray smelled different, not of Old Spice, but something else, something sharper.”

When Dixie threatens to expose him, Uncle Ray points out that it’s basically his word against hers, and would she prefer he close his checkbook and drive back to New Hampshire? By now Dixie knows what it’s like to be genuinely hungry for days on end. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan has not yet taken root; there isn’t any assistance available from the state. Sometimes a kid had to stay quiet or starve.

“I felt something break, something turned off like a light switch in the very center of me.”

It’s a hard, hard story to read, and yet I can’t help think of all the girls and women that will read this book and know that they aren’t so strange or terrible, and that this does happen to other girls in other families.

I’ve tried not to give away more than the broadest contours of the story so that you can find out the details for yourself. One thing that I would change if I had the power is the whole adoption thread, which is superfluous and In its own way, more harmful than helpful. It’s almost as if the author is afraid to acknowledge that blood relatives will do this thing to their very own children; yet they will. Hell yes, they will. Any teacher that’s been in the classroom for a few years can tell you that much.

As for me, I have my own story.  [Skip paragraph if you prefer to stick to the book itself.] There were some awkward guitar lessons I had when I was about twelve years old. My guitar instructor had recently decided to teach out of his home; he lived alone. One day after my private lesson, my father asked me, in the car, how that lesson had gone. I was a little afraid of being made fun of, but I told him anyway that my instructor made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if I spent as much time walking my folding chair away from his as I did working out the chords on the neck of my instrument. I’d move over; he’d move over. His hand would land on my thigh while we were talking. I’d flinch, pull away, and move my chair. He’d move his chair. All of this within the framework of a perfectly normal guitar lesson, if you ignored all the strange furniture and hand-moving. My father, who died in 1978, heard what I said and told me we could get another guitar teacher. I asked if I would have to be the one to tell the man that I wasn’t returning, and he said no. Just consider that chapter over and done.

If only it could be so easy for everyone.

The book isn’t easy, but girls deserve the chance to read it if they want to, and likely there are some boys that could stand to read it, too. This book is for sale now; highly recommended.

The Postman Always Rings Twice****

thepostmanalwaysringstwiceWell, they do say karma’s a bitch.

I fell heir to a first edition hard cover copy of this classic 1934 crime fiction. It’s too well worn to be a collector’s item, so instead of selling it, I decided to just enjoy holding a book in my hands that could have been held, hypothetically, by my great-grandparents. I think I enjoyed the crispy yellow pages and the old school print more than I enjoyed the story itself.  With wide margins and plenty of dialogue, it was a quick read, and before the weekend was over I’d finished it.

Our protagonist, Frank, is a drifter that does odd jobs and occasional crimes as he travels through Mexico and the Western USA; the story itself is set in California. He comes to an out-of-the-way place where a Greek immigrant and his wife run a small roadside restaurant. The owner is interested in expanding the business to include car repair, and hopes that a free meal and a bed for the night will lure Frank to stick around and work for him. Instead, Frank stays and finds a white-hot attraction to Cora, the owner’s wife. The two of them make love like cats in a pillowcase, snarling and biting and tearing at each other, and they like it so well that they decide to kill the Greek guy so they can do it together forever.

Those that don’t follow history may not know that at the time this story was published, U.S. xenophobia toward immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was at its pinnacle. Jim Crow and the Klan had silenced any open dissent from African-Americans with a reign of terror, but it was somewhat commonplace for Caucasians, who were by far the largest group in terms of population and certainly in terms of power and money, to make nasty assumptions and references about people from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the surrounding area.

So it’s within that context that Cora declares that although her husband Nick loves her and treats her really well, he repulses her because he’s “a little soft greasy guy with kinky hair”. He wants her to have his baby, and she doesn’t want to touch him. She’d hate to go back to turning tricks, but she would far prefer to be with fair, blonde-haired Frank than Nick Papadakis.

The story arc here is flawless, and I can see how it became a classic, but it has many aspects that haven’t aged well. There are nasty remarks about Mexicans; Cora urgently wants Frank to know that she’s white, even though her hair is dark. She isn’t “Mex”. And although I understand that some people do like rough sex, I had to take a deep breath when Frank became aroused and showed it by blacking Cora’s eye for her.

Right. So you see what I mean.

The way the story is plotted is ingenious, and the characters are consistent all the way through; the ending is brilliantly conceived and executed.

For me, though, one reading is enough.

The Disappeared, by Roger Scruton***

thedisappearedThe Disappeared was published in UK, and is now available to readers in the USA. Scruton shines a spot light on victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and rape. It’s a timely issue, and no one can read his story and walk away unmoved. Thanks go to Bloomsbury Reader for inviting me to read and review the DRC free in exchange for an honest review. This book is available to the public tomorrow, February 26.

The stories evolve around three women’s stories; we have Sharon, Muhibbah, and the reader is the third, with the narrative switching to the second person, a woman being abducted and raped on board a ship: “…you are nothing but female meat.”

The default for the second-person character is female, which I found gutsy and laudable. Unfortunately, positive treatment of women in this novel begins and ends here…and the second-person character is going to be raped right away.

Justin and Stephen are the two goodhearted men that are trying to assist Muhibbah and Sharon, both of whom are being cruelly abused at home. In each case, it is an immigrant that is doing the abusing. And here I winced.

On the one hand, I can see that Scruton is letting us know that the cultural mores of Islam should not be considered a legitimate excuse for domestic abuse. He clearly can’t do that without including a Muslim woman. Yet if we could have some positive depiction of a Muslim individual somewhere within the text to cut across the stereotype that is so widespread, and which this novel tends to embrace, it would make for better literature and a fairer accounting. Because not all Muslim families hurt their women. I have taught Muslim girls in Seattle that are well educated and whose parents permit them to choose what their futures will hold. Scruton’s depiction of only sneaky, violent, and abusive Muslims makes for a two dimensional telling, which is a shame, because his academic background and word-smithery indicate he is capable of better things.

The central part of the novel slows, and here the plot drags when the writer tries to do too much with a single story. Justin lapses into philosophical musing, which would perhaps work for mainstream fiction or romance genres, but not as much for a suspenseful, missing-woman mystery or thriller. The character worries about the environment, and a lot of detail is given to wind farms and solar panels that not only fails to move the plot forward, but brings all action to a halt. He loses himself in heavy metal music, and several pages are suddenly devoted to hard rock. What? Why? Scruton is by trade a philosopher above all else, but to write a strong thriller, the message has to be driven home through story only. A drifting inner narrative in the midst of what has been action, action, and more action leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Toward the end of the novel, the pace quickens once more, and ultimately the three narratives are braided together at the story’s end in a way that is masterful.

Spoiler: don’t read past this point if you want the ending to be a complete surprise.

I find myself perturbed at the gender stereotypes that seem to belong to another era. Women here are either victims, sex objects, or both. The only female professional is one that steps in as a bureaucrat and foils the rescue effort one of our two male heroes is attempting. In addition, I found myself wondering why neither man can use his position and authority to lend comfort and aid without either becoming sexually involved with the girl or woman he is trying to help, or wanting to do so. The 16 year old girl that can’t get over her crush on the older male teacher and immediately drops her clothes for him despite his reticence sounds like something out of a men’s magazine. No, no, and no.

Scruton is an experienced writer, and is eloquent in painting a portrait of abused women hidden in plain view in the major urban centers of Western, developed nations. If he can cut across stereotypes and introduce greater complexity as he develops his characters, the next novel will be even better.