A New Cathedral, by James Lee Burke*****

A Private Cathedral is the twenty-third in the immensely popular Dave Robicheaux series, which began in the early 1980s. James Lee Burke has been called “America’s Best Novelist” by the Denver Post, and his books have been made into movies. Lucky me, I read this one free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Fans of this series—and there are many—will recognize all of Burke’s signature elements. Set in New Iberia, Louisiana, a small working class enclave about an hour from New Orleans, we find the usual wealthy, sleazy bad guys, in this case the Shondell family and the Balangie family; their victims, ordinary people with no money that scrape by the best they can; a pair of grizzly murders; and in this instance, a case of human trafficking. There’s always a woman or two ready to fling herself into Dave’s arms, even though he and Clete are supposedly getting old, and as usual, one of the women stands on the tops of his feet before she seduces him, or vice versa. (This has got to be some sort of private joke or reference on the author’s part, because you know that a writer with this level of skill cannot be inadvertently ascribing the identical quirky behavior to all of his protagonist’s romantic interests across over three decades of a series.)

And of course, best of all perhaps, we have Dave’s fiercely loyal best friend, Clete Purcell, a man that looks “like an albino ape” and whose impulse control is even worse than Dave’s, at least most of the time. He shows up in his pink Cadillac wearing his signature porkpie hat, and I smile. I can’t help it. Clete does this to me every single time, and I’ll bet a whole lot of other readers feel just the same way.

                “He was the trickster of folklore, a modern Sancho Panza, a quasi-psychotic jarhead who did two tours in Vietnam and came home with the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts and memories he shared with no one. Few people knew the real Clete Purcel or the little boy who lived inside him, the lonely child of an alcoholic milkman who made his son kneel all night on rice grains and whipped him regularly with a razor strop…Nor did they know the NOPD patrolman who wept when he couldn’t save the child he wrapped in a blanket, ran through flames, and crashed through a second story window with, landing on top of a Dumpster…He hated evil and waged war against it everywhere he found it. I sometimes wondered if he was an archangel in disguise, one with strings of dirty smoke rising from his wings, a full-fledged participant in fighting the good fight of Saint Paul. “

My sole complaint, a key one I probably wouldn’t give any other writer a pass on, is the way the author deals with his female characters. All the women and girls are mothers, whores, lovers, or children, and in some cases more than one of the above. No woman comes into the stories on the merit of her occupation, her character, or her abilities, aside from Helen, a long-running character that is exempted by virtue or being a lesbian and androgynous in appearance. (God forbid she be gorgeous and gay, or gorgeous and straight and completely sexually uninterested in Dave.) But the fact is, Burke has been writing and publishing great novels since 1965, and now he’s an 83 year old author and it seems unfair to expect him to change direction with regard to his female characters, or to suddenly regard them as equals in all respects rather than to nurture the whole pedestal package.

Moving on.

The story commences with Dave suspended from the sheriff’s department, and he’s behaving badly, embarking on a series of “dry drunks,” a term used liberally throughout this series and that I’ve never seen or heard of anywhere else. He’s so far out of line that Clete has to reel him back, when more often it’s the reverse. A teenager named Isolde is being sold by her parents, and Dave is attempting to rescue her. But it’s a useless endeavor because there is so much money and power buffering the offenders. Meanwhile, Clete is kidnapped and hung upside down and tortured by a being that seems otherworldly to him—mostly because it is. And this is a departure for Burke, a good one, as it turns out.

Those familiar with the series and the author know that redemption is at the core of every story he writes, and given the amount of mystic imagery that appears in his prose, it isn’t a long stretch to go from imagined spiritual beings to actual ones, which is what he does here. And I can only bow in awe at a writer—even one with residual sexist attitudes—that can take a long-running, iconic series like this one, a series that has run for more than 30 years, and decide to expand it across genres now. This would be remarkable for anyone, but for an octogenarian, it’s jaw-dropping.

I also enjoy the way he develops the side character, Father Julian, who is heroic and who pursues pedophiles and brings them to justice. Way to fight stereotypes.

I love the ending.

Highly recommended to Burke’s many fans, and to new readers as well.

A heartfelt tribute, featuring a lot of famous writers:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cwNHIsoHG0

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

The Plotters, by Un-su Kim*****

The author of this surreal, expertly crafted tale has been called “the Korean Henning Mankell,” but I say he is the Korean Kurt Vonnegut. Enter a world in which the most ignorant and uncurious survive, one in which “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame.” My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the advance review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This novel will be available in the U.S. February 12, 2019.

Our protagonist is Reseng. Orphaned at a young age, he grew up in Old Raccoon’s library. He is an assassin. Killing others for hire has grown into a huge industry, and the story begins with Reseng watching an old man through a scope. He has a job to do.

Readers are forewarned that this story is not for the squeamish, and I almost abandoned it, because although I like dark humor, this is triple-dark. I set it aside fairly early, unsure whether I was coming back or not, but despite its brutality, it drew me back, and I am glad I returned to it.

Bear is Reseng’s friend, and he runs the pet crematorium.  That’s what it’s called, because the murder industry is still officially illegal; it wouldn’t do to announce his business as the place to dispose of a freshly assassinated human victim. Not yet anyway; the way things are going, this may change. Reseng is there on business, though, because the old man he just killed has to be processed. And as he and Bear converse on the state of the profession—so many immigrants are coming to South Korea and taking these jobs; Chinese, North Koreans that sneak over, Vietnamese. They’ll work cheap, and it makes it harder for guys like Reseng to get what the jobs are worth. And then there’s outsourcing. Assassins are hired by plotters, but Reseng reflects that “Plotters are just pawns like us. A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them that tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter…You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

 Reseng’s greatest concern is Old Raccoon, Reseng’s aging mentor who is being edged out by unseen forces. Old Raccoon isn’t an assassin, but he has kept himself out of the crosshairs by permitting his library to be used as a meeting point between shady individuals looking to make deals. That’s worked for him pretty well, until recently. Old Raccoon is all the family Reseng has, and so out of concern, he begins asking questions. It’s a reckless thing to do, and he knows it.

Before long, Reseng’s life turns into a hall of mirrors, and it’s hard to know who to believe, because he can’t trust anyone. Where does Hanja, who was also mentored by Old Raccoon, fit in? What about the cross-eyed librarian? Is she on the up and up, and if so, where did she go? Is The Barber involved here? His queries take him to visit Hanja, who is now wealthy and influential, a giant among giants in the industry, and his offices take up three whole floors in a high-rise building:

“As if it wasn’t ironic enough that the country’s top assassination provider was brazenly running his business in a building owned by an international insurance company; the same assassination provider was also simultaneously managing a bodyguard firm and a security firm. But just as a vaccine company facing bankruptcy will ultimately survive not by making the world’s greatest vaccine but, rather, the world’s worst virus, so, too, did bodyguard and security firms need the world’s most evil terrorists to prosper, not the greatest security experts. That was capitalism. Hanja understood how the world could curl around and bite its own tail like the uroboros serpent…There was no better business model than owning both the virus and vaccine…A business like that would never go under.”

The struggle unfolds in ways that are impossible to predict, and what kind of fool would even attempt to make sense of it? When challenged, Hanja tries to warn Reseng that when an anaconda tries to swallow an alligator, it instead dies of a ruptured stomach, but Reseng will not be stopped. His journey builds to a riotous crescendo, and there’s a point past which it’s impossible not to read till the thing is done.

It’s a scathing tale of alienation told by a master storyteller, and the ending is brilliant as well. There’s nobody else writing anything like this today. Highly recommended.

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden****

The stirring, much-anticipated conclusion to Arden’s Winternight Trilogy is here. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now. 

The scene opens on a charred palace. The Tatars have attacked the Russians and been driven off; an attempt to dethrone Grand Prince Dmitrii has been averted, but all that is left to defend stands in ruin in the late winter snow. Arden is one of the deftest word smiths to emerge this century, and the tableau laid before us is stark and resonant; at the same time, the suspense is palpable, because readers aren’t that deeply concerned about the Grand Prince. We want to know where Varya is. 

Varya—Vasilisa Petrovna– is a badass warrior that communes with the chyerti, which are Russian folk spirits; these specialize in particular realms, with some guarding the home, others the forest, the river, and so forth. All of these are presented with historical accuracy, according to the author’s note (as well as my occasional perfunctory Google search.) 

Speaking of which: those that have read the first two volumes, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, know that there are a tremendous number of specialized terms in Arden’s writing. There are words for types of clothing, domiciles, spirits, and all sorts of things. Although there is a serviceable glossary at the back of the book, I found it very useful to read digitally, because definitions, images and so forth could be called up literally at the touch of my fingertips. If you read the first two volumes in paper and found yourself either skipping a lot of words—which you can do, but your mental movie won’t be as rich—or flipping around in the book looking for things, consider shifting to the digital version for the last volume. 

This begs the question: can we read this book as a stand-alone novel? 

No. No you cannot. 

Moving on, characters we know are gradually reintroduced like a slow drum roll, and then finally, here she is! I love this character. Vasya is unforgettable, and she defies every stinking stereotype. So many authors feel the need to compensate for creating a strong female character by making her tiny, or physically beautiful, or both. Vasya is neither. Her nose is long, her mouth is wide, and as if these features weren’t sufficient, she gets burned, beaten and starved in the course of her adventures. When she chooses to masquerade as a male, she can pass. 

I grew so attached to this character during the first two volumes that I held my breath—would it be possible to see her all the way through all three volumes without having her fall in love or have a roll in the hay? And so here, I am a wee bit disappointed, because the answer is no, but almost. Nevertheless, her romantic life is never allowed to define her or alter the course of her plans, which is a considerable consolation. 

Tragically, Vasya’s magnificent horse, Solovey, is killed early in the story, and I had to wonder about this; I decided that it had to happen to show us that Vasya is able to do great things without her horse to swoop in and save her, but that theory is shot to hell in the second half of the book. 

On the other hand, new characters are introduced, and although I love Ded Grib, the mushroom spirit, and I find the Bear vastly amusing, my favorite is Vasya’s great-grandmother. 

Vasya’s mission is to save Rus’ from the Tatars, and to persuade its leaders that Christianity and chyerti can coexist. The book (and the trilogy) ends with the Battle of Kulikovo, which happened in real life. The ending is beautifully rendered, moving, and deeply satisfying. 

A surprising amount of this engaging story has historical basis, and Arden gives a concise but specific explanation at the end. 

Those that have waited for the conclusion to this excellent series need wait no longer; those that haven’t read it yet should get the entire trilogy. It’s a wonderful place to get lost, providing the ultimate in escapist fiction. 

Recommended to feminists, and to all that love excellent historical fiction.

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett***-****

Foundryside RD4 clean flat3.5 rounded up. This title is the first in a new series. Those that love fantasy, and especially those that already enjoy this writer’s work will want to check it out. My thanks go to Crown and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. Bennett comes to this project with a list of awards as long as your arm, so I was excited to read him. I probably would have been more impressed by this book if there hadn’t been so much build up. Still, it has a lot going for it. It will be released August 21, 2018.

The fictional city of Tevanne in which this story takes place is even more polarized than the developed world of today; there is a walled city in which the haves get everything and live in tremendous luxury, and then we have The Commons, where not only is there no law enforcement or legally held private property; in fact there are no laws at all. This is where the dispossessed try to stay alive. Our protagonist is Sancia, a thief that has been commissioned to steal a valuable artifact. Buildings speak to Sancia through her hands, so when she doesn’t want to be distracted or drained, she must wear gloves. The technology of the time is scriving, a magical method similar to artificial intelligence on steroids, and this dominates the plot. Sancia discovers Clef, a key that is scrived, and Clef becomes her sidekick.

The story starts out with a lot of noise, but not much of substance takes place; we have scriving, and we have a lot of chasing, running, hiding, climbing, jumping, running, fighting, running some more and…well, you get the idea. I generally prefer a more complex plot along the lines of Stephen Donaldson or Tolkien, but I was glad I stayed with it when I saw where it ended up.

I am pumped to have a series that has a strong female protagonist, and here we also have a female villain. I would be even more pumped if rape were never even mentioned. I read an interview years ago with movie director Jodie Foster, who said that working with male writers, directors and producers was frustrating, because so few of them were able to imagine motivation for a female character without landing there. Why would this character do [whatever]? Why, she must have been raped. It was rape. She’s afraid of rape.

Still, after all of the scriving, running, chasing, hiding, fighting and fleeing, we come to an ethical quandary that makes it worth the wait. And of course, the series is still in its infancy, so it’s fun to get in on the ground floor.

Bennett’s fans will be delighted, and those that love fantasy should consider adding this book to their queue.

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, by Jess Kidd*****

MrFloodsLastWho do I enjoy reading more than Jess Kidd? Nobody.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book, which was also published in UK as The Hoarder, is available today in the US.  And I have to tell you also that although her work is billed as similar to Fredrik Backman, I find it to be better—and that’s saying a good deal.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver, which in the USA would translate as a combination social worker and home health provider. She’s been sent to the large, rambling home of Cathal Flood, a tall, fierce old man who has driven his previous caregiver to a nervous breakdown. Speculation abounds: is he an innocuous old fellow in need of some organization, treatment, and TLC, or is he dangerous—perhaps a murderer, even? What about the missing girl that was last seen at this address?  It’s enough to make even Maud’s staunch heart tremble:

“In the musty depths of Cathal’s lair, one eye flicks open. Noise has pulled on the strings of his web, setting his long limbs twitching. He’ll be slinking out of his trapdoor and threading through the rubbish. Crawling up the staircase with a knife clampled between his dentures and a lasso of fuse wire in his hand, ready to garrot me and hack me to pieces.”

The suspense builds as Kidd moves our point of view from Maud’s by day, to her frightening, confused dreams at night, to those of the missing and the dead. Because Maud is gifted in her ability to see those that have gone before, particularly saints, she receives their cautions and advice in ways that are often truly hilarious. The result is a story so enjoyable that it became the dessert book that I held out to myself as a reward for having finished less enjoyable galleys. Had I no other obligations, I would have gobbled this deliciously dark tale up in a weekend.

As it is, I found myself going back and rereading passages twice, partly for fun and partly to try to pick apart what makes this writing so effective. But although I can point to several components—brilliant development of Maud, Cathal, and friend Renata; some of the finest figurative language in contemporary fiction; a hugely original voice and concept; a soaring climax in which the weight of Western society’s failure to care adequately for its elders comes crashing down before us—ultimately the book is much more than the sum of its parts, an alchemy that is spun magic with a few naughty bits of raunchy humor sprinkled in, and a social justice issue nailed to the wall where we cannot help seeing it.

Should you purchase this title for your magnificent, outrageous mother on her special day, for which there are just 12 remaining days to shop? Should you order a copy for your own fabulous, fierce father, whose day is about a month later? Well of course you can, and you should, assuming you aren’t going to try to force them into a home. But it isn’t nice to break the binding open, and so they’ll be able to tell if you have fudged a free read before gifting it. Better to get a copy for yourself as well, fair and square. You’ll want to read it more than once anyway.

Warm and clever, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort is the most entertaining novel of 2018 to date, hands down.

This I Know, by Eldonna Edwards*****

“Sometimes I wish I could catch Mama’s voice in a jar and keep it beside my bed at night, let each note light the darkness like a captured firefly.”

ThisIKnow Eldonna Edwards makes her debut with the best written child protagonist since Scout Finch appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the digital review copy.

Grace Carter is eleven years old, one of several daughters of a strict evangelical preacher.  Her mother has come undone, slowly unraveling from grief that began with the death of Grace’s twin brother, Isaac. Grace misses Isaac, too, but she has the comfort of his counsel; she hears and knows things that most other people do not. Her mother and Aunt Pearl call it “the knowing”, but her father calls it the work of the devil. Grace grows up understanding that she must keep her head down and avoid getting into trouble. It’s a treacherous path, and now and then things pop out, as they will with adolescents.

Edwards is a gifted writer, and she’s tackled an ambitious project in writing a first person narrative. It’s hard to voice a child in a way that is developmentally appropriate and consistent, and she’s nailed it spot on. Many writers would try to dodge this literary obligation by creating a precocious, academically gifted character, which is so common that it’s clichéd, and as I read this story and see that Grace is just an average kid, apart from her supernatural talent, I hold my breath to see if she can carry it off all the way through, and she does it masterfully. The way Edwards develops Grace, adding layers to her personality and melding it with the dead-accurate setting—the Midwest during the 1960s—makes her one of the most exciting new voices to emerge this generation.  The plot never slows, but with a character and setting this resonant, Edwards could send Grace to sit in her closet for the whole book and her readers would be captivated regardless.

I would have preferred a more nuanced ending, but it’s a small concern. Everyone that loves strong fiction will want this book. Order yours while you can get it on the first printing.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*****

Oh hell yes. Congratulations to Jesmyn Ward for making the long list of the #NationalBookAward for 2017.

Seattle Book Mama

SingUnburiedI had never read Ward’s work before, and now that I have I will follow her anywhere. Sing Unburied, Sing is a literary masterpiece, and one that fits the time in which we live. It opens up all sorts of thorny questions for examination, but like most thorns, it stings. I received my copy free and early courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley. This title is available to the public now.

Jojo and Kayla have been raised by their grandparents in rural Mississippi; Mam and Pop are their source of love and stability. Leonie, the mother they call by her first name as if she were a sister, drifts in and out, using copious amounts of meth and other drugs. Michael, the children’s Caucasian father, is being released from Parchman, the notorious prison where he has been sent after having killed Leonie’s brother, Given. Given comes to her when she’s…

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