Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna*****

TwoGirlsDownThis is a quick read and a fun one. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday. It becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 9, 2018.

A frazzled mother in a small Pennsylvania town pops into a big-box store one afternoon, leaving her two elementary-aged girls in the car. They’re old enough not to wander off with some weirdo, and she’s just going to be a minute. When she comes back, they’re gone.

Our protagonists in equal measure are Cap, a former cop who’s left the force in disgrace, and Vega, an out-of-state PI brought in by the girls’ relatives. Vega seeks Cap out after the local cop shop refuses to work with her; sparks fly.

If you take the story apart and look at its elements, it is all old material and should be stale. We have the missing children; a single grieving female detective, a vigilante type with little to lose; a slightly-older, single-dad, lonely older male detective, all of which leads to romance, because heaven forbid we should ever have a competent female private eye without a sizzling chemical frisson to keep readers from feeling threatened by her competence. We have the single dad’s (also-competent) teenage daughter left alone for long periods of time, vulnerable to the forces of evil. And of course our female detective has to be diminutive, a tiny-firecracker type.  Even Vega’s love of firearms isn’t new; consider Kinsey Millhone and Stephanie Plum. And our female detective has to be a very light eater. God forbid she should chow down at dinner time; no, she pushes her food around and away.

The pieces of this thing have been done to death. And yet.

And yet, the whole of the story is so much more than the sum of its parts. A strong writer can take overdone elements and make them gleam, and that’s what Luna has done here.

The thing that makes it work is the element of surprise. When I am looking ahead, I can often see, in a broad sense, where we are going, but when I try to predict how we’ll get there, I see three possibilities, and Luna always comes up with a fourth at the most unexpected of times.  Vega’s “roofless rage” gives her a no-holds-barred, Dirty-Harry-Lite kind of approach; she’s never killed anyone, but if she’s always as off the wall as she is here, it’s a miracle. But the other miracle? The fact that I am wondering what she is like at other times demonstrates how well Luna has developed her characters. Cap is a well of timeworn chivalrous decency, but Vega wants to take the kind of people that would deliberately hurt a child and “put them in the fucking earth.”

Luna uses lots of crackling dialogue and a spare prose style that makes this book accessible to anyone that finished the eighth grade, and possibly some that didn’t. Although there’s no indication that this will become a series, one has to wonder if such a thing might happen.  My own preference would be to see Vega act independently of romantic entanglements, because she has the potential to be a feminist hero, and we need one of those right now.

One way or another, this is a read you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

 

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.

In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende*****

IsabelAllendefall2017Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you already know that Allende is a luminary that owns the literary lane of magical realism, and is renowned for her fictional immigration stories. But it’s her accessibility, the way she spins her tale as though speaking to a good friend, along with her sparkling great humor and feminist spirit that keep me coming back for more. My bookshelves may be crowded, but when I have to clear old books away to make room for new, my Allende shelf is never up for grabs. These are books I will read again, and that’s a thing I don’t do much. In the Midst of Winter is one I read digitally and free, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review, but sooner or later I will have to find a hard copy to complete my shelf.  You will want to read it too.

The narrative shifts between three main characters. Richard Bowmaster is a 60 year old human rights scholar that has recruited 62 year old Lucia Maraz, a lecturer from Chile, to his university. Evelyn Ortega is an undocumented Guatamalan refugee that works as a domestic.  She filches her boss’s Lexus to go buy diapers for her charge on an icy day in Brooklyn and collides with Bowmaster’s car. Bowmaster is a pain the ass, but he nevertheless agrees, by inches, to help Evelyn.  The story shifts between the present day crisis—there’s a body in the trunk of the Lexus, and it’s impossible to call the cops if there’s a chance Evelyn may be deported—and the back stories of all three characters.

Allende never pulls her punches. There’s no realistic way to talk about Guatemala, about the atrocities that people like Evelyn flee, without including violence, and the details here ensure that we won’t forget once the book is done. There’s rape here, and some rape survivors may have to give this one a miss. For everyone else this is a no holds barred must-read. The author deftly alternates the difficult, horrific scenes with lighter material, and this not only makes the book an easier read, it heightens the pace and makes the gritty passages more memorable. There is also less magical realism in this novel than in her others; but make no mistake, Allende’s signature style is here in full force and voice.

The way Bowmaster is developed, inch by inch, into a civilized human being is indeed mesmerizing. Feminist readers will cheer for the way Lucia owns her destiny. Older women aren’t old ladies; they are women first, and nobody drives it home better than this writer.

My favorite moment is that between Marco, Lucia’s Chihuahua, and a moose, a memorable bit of side business.

Undocumented immigrants are a greater part of our national conversation than ever, and so there’s no better time to read Allende. Like all of her work, this book is funny, smart, tender, wrenching at times, and in the end, it tells us that humans are intrinsically good. I came away with a lighter heart and a spring in my step.

You have to read this book, and it will be for sale Tuesday, October 31, 2017.

Protocol, by Kathleen Valenti****

Protocol“It was all so clear. She’d been so stupid…Cue the flying monkeys.”

The Maggie O’Malley series has taken wing. Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I was invited to read free in exchange for this honest review. In a crowded field, Valenti stands apart. Her snappy wit and precise pacing combine to create a psychological thriller that’s funny as hell. I didn’t know it could be done until I saw it here.

Maggie’s career is off to a promising start when she is recruited to work as a researcher for a major pharmaceutical firm. It’s a perfect chance to make the world a better place, and the beefy salary lets her take care of herself and send desperately needed funds to save her ailing father’s restaurant. It seems too good to be true, and we know what that means.

She’s barely through the door when she receives a mysterious meeting reminder on her refurbished new-to-her cell phone. Who is this person, and why would she meet her? And then, quick as can be, she sees the woman she is supposedly about to meet, die. Since the meeting reminder vanishes from her phone once it’s played, and since the reminder itself isn’t sinister, the police brush her off…until it happens again. Eventually, of course, she herself becomes a suspect.

This is a page turner, and we look over Maggie’s shoulder all the way through, wondering whether this friend or that one is to be trusted. Which date is a godsend, and which one is a snake in the grass?

The most notable difference between this story and others is the way Valenti sets up what looks like an error either on the part of the author or stupidity on the part of the protagonist, and then on the back beat, we see exactly why that was there, and that she anticipated our reaction all along. She does it over and over, and it’s hilarious. I feel as if the author is speaking to me as I read, howling, “Gotcha again!” It’s zesty, brainy writing. Valenti is the new mystery writer to watch.

This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to those that love funny female sleuths.

The Blackbird Season, by Kate Moretti*****

theblackbird seasonBy now you’ve heard the buzz about Kate Moretti’s newest novel, and it’s true; this is one you shouldn’t miss. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book is for sale today.

Nate Winters is in big trouble. He’s the math teacher; he’s the coach; he’s everyone’s favorite guy in this small Pennsylvania town. “They all think he’s God. He’s like the God of Mt. Oanoke.”  He has charisma, and he makes you feel as if you are the only person in the world when his eyes latch onto you. But Nate has relied on his charm too heavily and pushed the envelope a bit too far, and now all hell is breaking loose.

Alecia, his wife, is miserable. She is home almost all of the time with their autistic preschooler. Gabe makes progress, but oh so slowly. Not the private tutor, not the special horse camp, nothing, nothing, nothing will get him ready for a mainstreamed kindergarten class. His mom has tried her hardest, and goodness knows she can’t take her eyes off him for a minute; he’s a danger to himself in no time at all, fearless, reckless, and without the filters that children usually develop. His communications skills are nowhere near that of other children his age. Poor Alecia is a nervous wreck, and his father screens the whole thing out by being gone, gone, gone.

I want to smack that man.

When the reporter turns up with a photograph of Nate embracing high school student Lucia Hamm, Alecia learns just how few boundaries Nate has honored. He has social media accounts, priding himself on knowing all of the social issues that his students are thinking about in class. He follows them. He meets them away from school, away from their families. And when Lucia goes missing, everyone wonders if Nate is behind it. The town is polarized between those that call Lucia “That poor girl” and those in Nate’s camp, who warn against undue haste. Alecia isn’t entirely sure what to think. Best thing to do, she figures, is to go back in the house with Gabe and close the door…and have Nate go elsewhere. Just for now.

The things that set this mystery apart are its déjà vu settings, each rendered so well that I feel as if I have already been there; its impressive character development and allegory; and a credible ending that is surprising, yet doesn’t cheat the reader. I checked Moretti’s author blurb three times because I couldn’t believe she had not taught public high school; authors never get this right, but Moretti does. I admire her bang on facility for developing teen characters internally and externally, and for giving them voice.  Moretti has done good work before, but this book advances her work into the realm of literary mystery.

One word of warning: in order to heighten suspense, the point of view jumps between four characters, and it also jumps around in time. Those that ignore chapter headings are going to be confused. That’s why those headings are there.

The Blackbird Season is the perfect Halloween book, and teens will want to read it too—but read it yourself before dropping it onto the classroom shelf. It will doubtless excite controversy.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and that relish good writing.

Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown*****

WatchMeDisappear“…how can you ever really know the truth about another person? We all write our own narratives about the people we know and love…”

Billie Flanagan is living the good life in Northern California. Her husband, Jonathan, has a lucrative career that permits her to stay home, even though Olive is now in middle school. But one day she heads out on one of her favorite hiking trails, the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness, and she never returns. Search and Rescue crews find a single hiking boot and a cell phone far below the trail with its screen smashed. Her bank cards and checking remain untouched. Jonathan and Olive are forced to face the truth: Billie is never coming home again. They hold the funeral, and a year later, Jonathan sits down to write a memoir of his life with Billie. It is here that we join the family.

Many thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public July 11, 2107.

This psychological thriller starts with daughter Olive, who is in middle school, seldom a proud or happy time for any of us. But one day Billie appears to Olive in the hallway and tells her that she should be looking harder; she isn’t trying. Olive is convinced that her mother is still alive and trying to reach her. Eventually Jonathan starts to wonder as well. Neither of them is able to move on effectively without knowing the truth, yet there it is: they have no body and they have no proof of anything. As their journeys unfold, both externally and internally, Brown develops the hell out of both of these characters and through the memories both evoke in word and thought, she develops Billie best of all. An interesting side character named Harmony rounds things out nicely.

As each layer of each character is revealed—I was planning to say it’s like having three sets of Russian nesting dolls, but that’s not right; each has many more layers than that, more like onions–the reader’s viewpoint is forced to shift from one point of view to another, and so we wonder at various times about alternate possibilities. Could Billie really be alive somewhere? Did she just up and fucking leave them? She’s done that before. She is a runner. She has been known to drop people with no warning at all, just ghost them. It was a long time ago, but it’s true.

Or is she dead at the hands of…hmm, the ex-boyfriend that surfaces at the funeral? And we wonder whether maybe Jonathan, whose memories of Billie are not all as rosy as the ones we hear at the outset, did something to harm her. And then we wonder about Billie’s friend Harmony, who moves into Jonathan’s life rapidly enough to disturb Olive considerably. She’s so needy, so hungry for his attention; would she have offed Billie in order to have a crack at him? Many of these ideas are merely hinted at rather than voiced by the narrative, and this is part of what makes it so tasty. At first, I think my idea is original because I am so smart, but then I look back, as a reviewer has to do, and I can see it’s not really about my being smart (darn), but rather about very subtle foreshadowing. Brown uses lights and mirrors to get our minds moving in different directions, and the disorientation is, in its own twisted way, part of the rush.

A last note goes to the tangential but rarely-seen moment when a character muses about why it’s so hard to find an abortion clinic when you need one. This is the reverse side of a pet peeve of mine, the commonly used notion that every accidental pregnancy necessarily must end in childbirth, as if the year were 1950 or 1960 rather than the 21st century. I wonder whether Brown had to fight to keep that reference in her novel? One way or the other, this was going to be a five star review, but when I found that courageous little nugget, I wanted to shout for joy!

As to the end…I can’t tell you what happens of course, but I will tell you that this doesn’t end ambiguously. By the conclusion, the reader knows what happened to Billie.

When all is said and done, this is fiction that every feminist can embrace. If there is a heaven, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is looking down, and she is cheering.