Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

Africaville, by Jeffrey Colvin****

Narrated by Robin Miles

My thanks go to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy; after publication, I used an audio book to finish it, thanks to Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s available to the public now.

There are two reasons I was drawn to this story. The first is the setting, which is primarily in Nova Scotia’s Black community. I have never read or heard a story set there, and so I was intrigued. There’s also a Civil Rights Movement tie-in, and for me, that sealed the deal.

The book starts out as a rough read, involving dead babies and “bad luck” babies that weren’t dead but needed killing. I was so horrified that I had to restart the book several times to get past it. Now that I have, I can assure you that once you’re past the introduction, that’s it. The dead babies are done. I’m not sure I would have lead off with this aspect, because I’m probably not the only reader to pick the book up and put it down fast. In fact, had I not owed a review, I would not have returned to it. I’m glad I did.

The story itself is ambitious, covering three generations of a family there. At the outset we have Kath Ella, who has ambition, but also a mischievous streak. I find this character interesting, but there are times when I don’t understand her motivation. The story is told in the third person and not all of her thoughts are shared with us, and so there are times when I’m left scratching my head. When the end of the book arrives, I’m still wondering.

Kath’s son and grandson comprise the second and third parts of the story; apparently the term used back then for passing as Caucasian was called “crowing,” and we see some of that. There are too-brief passages involving the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow in the Southern U.S., and I am disappointed not to see more about this or have the characters involved more deeply. What I do see of it is the surface information that most readers will already know.

Toward the end there’s a subplot involving getting an elderly relative out of prison, and I like this aspect of it, in particular the dialogue with the old woman.

The setting is resonantly described throughout.

All told, this is a solid work and a fine debut. I look forward to seeing whatever else Colvin has to offer. As to format, although Miles does a lovely job reading, something of the triptych is necessarily lost when we don’t see the sections unfold. For those that can go either way, I recommend the print version.

Old Newgate Road, by Keith Scribner*****

I fucking love this book. I received an advance reader’s copy free courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday, and I am late with my review, but it’s not too late for you. This dark, brooding tale of family secrets that intertwine with the present is both a literary gem and a deeply absorbing read. It’s for sale now.

Cole owns a construction business in the Pacific Northwest, but he returns to his childhood home on a mission to purchase some wood, a hard-to-find variety of chestnut. He hasn’t been back in thirty years, but now he is mature and ready to face the old house, or so he thinks. It’s the first time he’s been to his family’s Connecticut home since it happened. The family’s historical colonial home is located on Old Newgate Road, which leads to Old Newgate Prison; the way that he recalls that his parents posed and made much of this place and then the way that they treated each other and their children are juxtaposed in a way that I find absolutely believable.

There is a host of ominous foreshadowing, and the events of the past are revealed a layer at a time, like an onion, and the way Scribner uses them in developing his protagonist is brilliant. Each time that I think I see something in Cole’s behavior that doesn’t make sense, it comes up later and turns out to be an intentionally included inconsistency related to the character’s inner struggle.  And right now I feel as if I am making this thing sound so dull—struggle, development, blah blah blah—but I am not providing specific information the way I ordinarily would because it would be a disservice to even reveal what we are told at the ten percent mark, or the twenty.

I read a few negative early reviews, and I suspect these are due to the unfortunate tendency to overuse specialized terms used mostly by architects and builders. Perhaps the aim was to make us believe that Cole knows his field, or maybe it’s a part of the setting. One way or the other, the author has gotten carried away with it, but the reader that soldiers through that junk at the outset can expect to see much less of it during the great majority of the book. I read it digitally and occasionally ran a search as I was reading, but if any of these terms is useful in understanding the book, then I am too shallow to see it. You can safely skip over them if you want to do so, and you will be none the poorer for it.

The best lines of the story go to Cole’s adolescent son, Daniel, a social justice warrior who gets into trouble at school when he pushes boundaries; Cole brings him to Connecticut to work the fields as he himself did in his teens, and this is when the story starts to hop. I spent my career teaching adolescents, and over the years I had five of them at home. If there were a weak point in Scribner’s construction of Daniel, I would see it (as several other unfortunate authors can attest.) Daniel is bright, insightful, and rebellious, and everything he says and everything he does builds a credible character. By the halfway mark, my notes are written to the protagonist rather than to myself, the publisher or the author; I’m watching this kid and telling Cole to listen to him. Daniel is almost a prophet, and he’s almost a one person Greek chorus, but he is still always, always a kid, impulsive, full of passion, and unafraid to say what he sees, what he thinks, and what he knows. If I were to make a short list of my favorite fictional teenagers, Daniel would be on it.

That being said, this story calls for at least a high school literacy level, even if you skip the architectural and woodworking terms. Because of the many memories that flood in when Cole returns home, I suspect that those of us that came of age in the 1970s (give or take) may enjoy it most;  however, for younger readers it may have a bit of a noir flavor.

Highly recommended.

Best Debut Fiction 2018

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                                                                                           Honorable Mention:

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 Grand Tour, by Adam O’Fallon Price*****

thegrandtourDoctors tell us that laughter improves our health. Now and then, I go in search of laughter in my favorite medium, between the covers of a good book. Thank you to Net Galley and Doubleday Publishers for this DRC. Not only is The Grand Tour achingly funny, it’s also strong fiction. It is available to the public August 9, 2016, and you ought to read it.

Our story centers around two protagonists in equal measure. Richard Lazar is an author who has written one lukewarm release after another, drunken, cynical, and utterly thoughtless of anyone other than himself. He’s lost his family and his health can’t be far behind, a “smoking Yugo of a body” constantly drenched in alcoholic beverages. Suddenly and unexpectedly, his most recent novel has become a blockbuster. A tender, idealistic young man, a fan club of one named Vance, our second protagonist, quits his job at the Pizza Boy, desperate to get away from home and spend time with the writer he idolizes. He becomes Richard’s roadie, dragging him out of one bar after another, conveying him across the western USA to speaking engagements and book-signings.

His Portland book signing takes him to a fictitious bookstore, a thinly disguised version of Powell’s City of Books, one of my favorite places. Richard manages to disgrace himself there, and it won’t be the last time he does so.

The journey through Las Vegas is the most resonant and brilliantly described I have yet seen in literature; each your heart out, Hunter Thompson.

Often literature billed as dark humor turns out to be merely dark, and I was delighted to discover otherwise here. I laughed out loud in a number of places. At the same time, the author does a tidy job of developing both main characters in much greater depth than I had anticipated. Hoping for a romp, albeit a grim one, I wound up holding my sides at the same time I absorbed a fine novel. It is excellent surprises such as this one that keep me reading galleys by new writers. This one is smart and wickedly clever. Of particular satisfaction was the denouement involving Vance’s character.

All told, it’s a savagely funny read. It comes out today, and you should get it and read it.

Two if By Sea, by Jacquelyn Mitchard*****

twoifbysea“Whoever really believed that thing you feared most would come to pass?”

It’s Christmas, and Frank is outside Brisbane, Australia celebrating with his wife Natalie and their family, awaiting the birth of his son. It’s to be a boy, and he’s so excited. But then the tsunami comes while he is away from the house, watching on high ground in speechless horror as Natalie and nearly all her family are washed away. Gone, just gone. Unthinkable!

I was fortunate enough to read this riveting novel in advance, courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, in exchange for an honest review. And what follows the disaster is purest spun magic, laced with moments of breathless fear, anticipation, and gratitude. Because if this story doesn’t make you want to hold your family and even your pets close to you, nothing will.

Frank is in a boat assisting with the rescue effort when he pulls the little boy out of the sinking minivan. He has a child that appears to be 7 or 8 years old in a good firm grip, but the boy pushes his younger brother out and says to take him first, because he’s important. When Frank reaches back for the first boy after saving Ian, it’s too late. The van has gone down.

Frank tells himself that he will hang onto Ian for a bit, knowing that these family-destroying events are fertile hunting ground for pedophiles and other sick bastards on the hunt. That’s what he tells himself anyway. But ultimately, he can’t make himself drop the child off with the others that have been rescued, and the fiction develops that this is his nephew.

He takes him home with him.

One thing he had feared proves true: there are other people that are very interested in Ian, and willing to go to extreme lengths to find him and take him. Even the watchfulness of a former cop is challenged by those that are stalking his new little son. Ian has a way with people that is sometimes a better defense than what any cop could provide. Sometimes Ian’s method works; sometimes, not so much.

Mitchard incorporates elements of fantasy and the supernatural into this remarkable story, and when I sit back and analyze it, I don’t understand why I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes. When you take the story apart one step at a time, it seems absurd. No no no! But just as a lousy writer can’t make us believe much of anything, so can a gifted writer make us believe anything. Michard removed all doubt before it could even get a toehold near my imagination.

When I read something particularly excellent, I return to my desktop to see what else the author has published. In doing so, I discovered that Mitchard’s first novel is regarded as the second-most influential fictional writing in the UK (topped by Harry Potter, I am so sorry to report). That book will now hold place of pride on my extremely short list of books I’d be willing to pay for.

Whether you are headed to the beach or just looking for something to provide you with a really great weekend curled up at home, you have to read this book. So, as Ian advises, just “be nice.” Please? Get it and you’ll be glad you did!

This brilliant novel is available to the US public March 15, 2016.

The Two-Family House, by Linda Cohen Loigman*****

TheTwoFamilyHouse What an amazing book! Once I began reading Loigman’s masterful historical fiction, my other galleys waited, meek and neglected until I was done with this one. Thank you twice, first to Net Galley and second to St. Martin’s Press for giving me a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

I have seldom seen such brilliant character development in a novel. Although Loigman is proficient with setting, it’s really the characters that drive this book. It begins just after World War II. Mort and Rose live downstairs with their three daughters; Abe, Mort’s brother, lives upstairs with his wife Helen and their sons. Though Rose and Helen are not biologically related, they are emotionally closer than many sisters. And what a great thing it is when they both find themselves pregnant, just when they believed they were finished having babies! Mort has wanted a son forever, and his resentment has begun to damage his marriage. He isn’t abusive, but he is cold toward Rose. When she says another baby is on the way, he becomes almost sentimental, making a deal with the cosmos that if he treats his wife well enough, she will bear him a little boy.

Helen loves her sons of course, but she sure would like a daughter; just one. Please.

And then during a blizzard, both women go into labor. Nobody can get to a hospital, and no doctor can reach their home. Instead, a midwife makes her way into the bedroom where both of them labor. Two babies are born.

This story grabbed me by the front of my shirt and wouldn’t let me go. Where I ordinarily make remarks about pacing, setting, and characterization, my e-reader is instead full of indignant comments. First I have become annoyed with Rose, and jot down notes about the things she says and does as if I were gossiping; eventually my remarks are made to Rose herself, because all of these people are so real to me, and she is behaving so badly. The author’s development of her characters, primarily Rose, Mort, and Judith, is so subtle and so sly that at first I wonder if I am imagining the change; eventually I just want to grab Rose and yank her into the kitchen for a good talking-to.

Maybe you think I have said too much, but there is oh so much more. I never saw the ending coming until we were there, and it was so cleverly done. When the story was over, I felt bereaved in a way I had not felt since I read The Goldfinch.

Those that love excellent historical fiction, strong literary fiction, good family stories or all three have to read this book. I gobbled it up early and had to sit on my hands for awhile prior to reviewing; a number of other books have passed between then and this writing, but The Two-Family House still stands out in my mind as having met excellence and surpassed it.

This book is available for purchase March 8. Highly recommended!

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan*****

GLITTERANDGLUE

Whoops, nearly forgot! Thank you, thank you to Ballantine Books and the First Reads program at Goodreads for permitting me to read this book free and in advance!

This isn’t Corrigan’s first book, and it shows. At first it appears to be light, fluffy material, a beach read. The confidential one-gal-to-another tone may create the illusion that we’re going to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a little chat, just us, and the book.

It goes deeper than this, though. The complexity of relationship between mother and daughter is not a new topic, but Corrigan is a strong writer, and she makes it feel new. She recounts how she had saved her money so that she could leave home to find out who she was, following college graduation. She needed to go out into the world to do that, she explained to her mother, who thought she should do something more practical with her nest egg.

In Australia, Corrigan runs low on money, and she finds herself signing on as a temporary nanny. The dad has just been widowed, and his 5 and 7 year old children are smarting from the loss. Reminders of “Mum” and mortality seem to be everywhere. And Corrigan, who is for better or worse playing the role of surrogate mother, finds herself channeling her mother. Everywhere she goes, her mother is still in her head. I recognize some of the truisms and turns of phrase from my own mother, though I am about a decade older than Corrigan. And gradually, Corrigan comes to realize that what her mother had said before was true: her father, who always praised her and was always positive, but didn’t deal with any of the details of raising her or disciplining her, was the glitter. Her mother was the glue.

Later she comes to realize that there is not one woman inside each woman, but dozens of them: the mother who has always seemed a trifle harsh, undemonstrative, curt, and (my word) anal at home is “a hoot” at the office. Everyone finds her hilarious there. She isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model, so she cuts loose. What a revelation!

Two favorite moments: toward the beginning when she is a “classic” snoop while babysitting. Whoa, I totally did that, and my friends did too! We used the house phone where we were babysitting to call each other up and announce our findings! Funny. Another favorite was toward the end, when the author, fuming a bit at home in San Francisco because she has been back home to her folks many times, but her mother hasn’t visited her, is told by a friend that she needs to invite her mother. “Maybe she thinks you don’t care.” Again, hell yes! My own mother instilled in me the notion that once your kids are grown, you don’t push yourself at them, sure as hell don’t drop in on them. I have been inside my own son’s house just once, and last summer he made an ironic remark about it. Hey, I was waiting for the invitation! Last thing any mom wants is for her kid to pull back the curtains and hiss to whoever is present, “Oh crap. It’s my mom.” *cringe!*

Ultimately, Corrigan experiences the role reversal that inevitably must come, and she becomes her mother’s glue when she falls ill. Her father is still the glitter.

I end a lot of reviews by saying that the reader shouldn’t pay full cover price, but consider reading it if your library or used book store has it. Not so this time. If you love an accessible yet intelligently written memoir as much as I do, cut loose and buy this when it’s released. If not for yourself, read it for your family. You’re bound closer than you may think.