Takes One to Know One, by Susan Isaacs****

I have loved Susan Isaacs’s work for decades, and so when I saw her newest novel up for grabs on Edelweiss, I jumped at the chance to read it. This book is for sale now.

Corie Geller is a former FBI agent. Now she is the stay-home mom of a fourteen year old stepdaughter, and the wife of a prominent judge.  She works as a scout for quality Arabic fiction. And she’s bored out of her mind.

But old habits die hard, and she can’t help noticing that a member of her regular lunch group, Pete Delaney, has habits that raise red flags. He’s too normal, almost as if he’s working at it. His appearance is forgettable, his occupation is dull…but he always sits facing the door when he goes out to lunch. He sets Corie’s professional sense a-jangling. Is Pete really this bland, or is it a front for something more sinister?

The few people that Corie confides in are sure she is jumping at shadows. She needs a job, or a hobby. Briefly I wondered whether Pete and Corie were going to fall madly in love, but then I remembered who my author is. Isaacs would never.

The one person that takes Corie’s questions seriously is her father, a retired cop who’s bored also. As she and her papa peel away Pete’s façade, they grow closer to uncovering his secrets. And Josh—Corie’s husband, whose work requires a whole lot of travel—knows nothing of any of it.

The thing that elevates Isaacs above other novelists is her feminist snark. It’s put to excellent use here. Aspects that don’t work as well for me are the detailed descriptions of upscale furnishings and other expensive possessions, and the whole Arabic literature thing, which adds nothing at all to the story and is a trifle distracting; I kept wondering when it would become relevant to the story, but then it didn’t.  But both of these are minor factors.

The reader should also know that this is not a thriller. There seems to be a trend among publicists to promote all mysteries as thrillers, and perhaps this helps sales in the short run, who knows; but it doesn’t serve the author well in the long run. Isaacs doesn’t write thrillers, she writes solid, feminist mysteries that pull the reader in with the story arc characteristic of strong fiction. When I hit the 62% mark at bedtime one evening, I understood that the next time I read it, I would have to finish it, and indeed, it was too exciting to read flopped in bed as I usually do. I had to sit up straight, and I kept finding myself leaning forward as I read, as if I might need to jump up at any minute.

I would love to see Isaacs use this protagonist in a series. I’ve missed this writer and look forward to her next book, whether it’s another Corie Geller story or something else. I recommend this book to feminist mystery readers that are ready for a chuckle or two. 

The A List, by J.A. Jance*****

Best-selling author J.A. Jance is something of a legend here in Seattle, and I came to her work as a huge fan of the J.P. Beaumont series. It took me awhile to bond to the Ali Reynolds series—which is set in Not-Seattle– but I am all in it now.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy.

Our story commences inside a prison where a killer is spending what’s left of his life and plotting vengeance. On his arm are tattooed 5 initials which comprise his “A list” for the five people he wants dead. He understands he’ll have to hire out the “wet work,” but that’s okay. The voice Jance gives this character sends chills up and down my neck, and I don’t get that way easily. We learn that Ali, our protagonist, is on that list.

Once the reader’s attention is secure, we go through a complex but clear and necessary recap, which gets us through the essential information that’s developed during the first 13 books of the series, which is set in Arizona. So here, I have to tell you that I don’t recommend starting the series with this book. I have read all or most of the series, but with a year or so passing between each of these, I very much needed this recap to refresh my memory. Young readers with sterling memories might be able to keep up with it, but the audience that will love this story best are middle class Caucasian women over 40. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to go all the way back to the first book to begin reading, but I would urge you to go back to an earlier book somewhere else in the series and work your way forward. The books fly by quickly, and it’s definitely worth it. While some authors lose the urgency in their prose when they get older, Jance just gets leaner and sharper, and this story is among the very best I’ve seen her write, which says a lot.

The premise is centered around The Progeny Project, a nonprofit organization that helps children born through artificial insemination find their biological relatives for the purpose of learning about their own medical background. It begins when one such young man, in desperate need of a new kidney, makes a public plea for information on Ali’s television news program. Results come in quickly and reveal that Dr. Eddie Gilchrist’s fertility clinic did not use the donors he advertised, instead inseminating his many female patients with his own sperm. Events unfold, and the doctor is convicted of murder, and is sent away for life in prison. From there, he seeks revenge.

The plot is among the most original I have seen in many years, and its execution requires tight organization, which Jance carries off brilliantly. She could have written this mystery successfully without lending a lot of attention to the characters, but she doesn’t do that. It’s the combination of an intricate but clear plot and resonant characters that makes this story exceptional.

In an earlier book we were introduced to Frigg, an AI entity created by an IT guy that works for an internet security company owned by B. Simpson, Ali’s husband. Frigg disregards what she considers to be unreasonable laws against hacking, and attempts to take Frigg down completely have been foiled by the AI herself. This scenario creates all sorts of vastly amusing problems when Ali herself needs personal security; Frigg learns she is on the A List, and her vigilance is both essential and illegal, at times.

The second and most fascinating character is Hannah Gilchrist, the elderly, very wealthy mother of Dr. Eddie. When she learns that her only son has decided to have everyone responsible for his ruin killed, she decides she’s going to help him. She has terminal cancer and no other children, and a sort of modern, rich Ma Barker personality emerges. Hannah is a dynamic character and I absolutely love the way Jance develops her, laying waste to a multitude of sexist stereotypes.

If I could change one thing, I would have Jance lose the word “gangbanger,” a stereotype in itself, and include some positive Latino characters in the Reynolds series.

Make no mistake, this mystery is brainy and complicated. You don’t want to read it after you have taken your sleeping pill. But the masterful way Jance braids the plot, the return of Frigg, and the development of Hannah all make it well worth the reader’s effort. But again—don’t let this be the first of the series for you. Climb aboard an earlier entry and work your way into it. In fact, newbie readers will likely have an advantage over long time readers, because you can read these mysteries in succession without having to wait a year to come back to the series.

With that caveat, this mystery is highly recommended.

The Trespasser, by Tana French*****

My first Tana French novel, but definitely not my last. In addition to being excellent, the audio version is voiced beautifully by Hilda Fay, who is also new to me; her interpretation is outstanding, and the thick Irish accent makes it still more engaging. 

I listen to audio books when I use my stationary bike. My rule for myself is that if I stop cycling before the time I have set for myself, I also have to turn off the audio book early; on the other hand, if I complete my assigned time, I allow myself to continue listening while I prepare dinner. With this book I didn’t stop early even once, because I couldn’t stand to quit listening. 

Our protagonist, Detective Antoinette Conway, is a character from The Dublin Murder Squad, and I have read none of these. If I had had the entire series in front of me, I’d have begun with the first, but as it was I had only this one, and I had no problem keeping up with it. Perhaps if I had the insights into character that come with a longer series, it would have been even richer; in this one Conway is experiencing burnout of the first order as well as fed up with the sexual harassment that women cops deal with. An old friend has offered her a job as a bodyguard to celebrities; the fact that she is dark-skinned and female would actually count in her favor there. And she is seriously considering it, especially after she and her partner Steve are saddled with what appears to be just one more cut-and-dried case of murder-by-boyfriend. But of course, all is not as it seems.

There’s one aspect of the solution that has been used many times by other writers, but here it is fresher because of the writer’s voice and skill. However, there are a couple of curves that are also included–no spoilers–that are a complete surprise and yet also entirely credible. 

Goodreads friends recommended this writer and her DMS series to me years ago, and I told myself I’d get around to it. I cannot believe I waited this long. Tana French is on my list of authors now, and although I have heard that this book is her best, I want to go back and read her earlier work too, because I have a hunch that French’s second best, third best and so forth are likely to shine brighter than the best produced by a number of other crime writers. 

Highly recommended, especially with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner. 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


Best Feminist Fiction 2018

ASparkofLightA Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

Goodbye, Paris by Anstey Harris*****

GoodbyeParisThis novel took me by surprise. The first time I saw it, I passed it by, because the cover suggested a light romance, and that’s not a genre that appeals to me.  It’s been compared to Jojo Moyes and Eleanor Oliphant; I read neither. Later I saw an online recommendation for this book and changed my mind, and I am so glad I did. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Touchstone for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

You see, when we begin we recognize that Grace is deluded about David. Oh, how many of us have either been that woman or had her as a friend? Grace and David have been together for eight years, except when he needs to be present at home, for the sake of his children. Grace tells us that David is a devoted father, a dedicated dad who’s promised that he will do a finer job than his own father did, and so even though there’s nothing left between him and his wife, he cannot divorce her until the kids are grown. No, really. And then of course there’s some concern about her mental stability. What if he files, and then she does something awful?

So Grace totally understands why she must be alone every Christmas:  David is with his kids. Grace spends all the most important occasions of the year by herself, making stringed instruments in her workshop; and David is with his family in Paris. He wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true, and she doesn’t ask too many questions, because he is terribly sensitive.

It’s all about trust.

She assists in staying out of the public eye, and she is ever so discreet, but then a random event puts David’s face in the news, a hero that pulls a woman off the Metro tracks just before the train comes. Who is this mysterious man, they ask. And then it all hits the fan. And as we knew—we tried to tell Grace, but she wouldn’t listen—David isn’t a stand up guy. He isn’t even that good as a parent. David is just a philanderer, and Grace has spent eight years of her life planning a future with this asshole, not because she is stupid, but because she is a decent person that expects others to be as upright as she is.

I have never assaulted another human being in my life. I am getting old. But let me tell you, if David had been flesh and had been standing before me, who’s to say he wouldn’t be the exception? I fumed as I prepared dinner, did the dishes, let the dog out.  That rotten scoundrel, treating poor sweet Grace this way. Oh, how crushing for her. It isn’t fair; it really isn’t.

Every reader sees it coming, but what surprises me is that David is outed so early in the book. And here’s the glorious thing: this story appears to be a romance, but it isn’t. It isn’t about Grace and David, and no new knight arrives toward the climax to sweep her away. No, the story is about Grace, and it’s about the ways that friends—true friends—help us pull ourselves together when everything seems to be coming apart. And the metaphors are resonant ones:

 

“I have to take into account that this violin didn’t really work very well, didn’t have much of a voice. If I take these ribs off completely and remake a whole new set, it will give the instrument a better chance to sing.”

 

Grace rebuilds her career as she rebuilds herself, scaffolded by the warmth and emotional nourishment of the friends that love her, and one of them tells her, “You have to grasp life by the balls, Grace…and don’t bloody let go until you have to.”

Ultimately, this is a charming story you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

39 Winks, by Kathleen Valenti****

39winksValenti’s droll new series continues, with Maggie O’Malley and her hunky boyfriend, Constantine riding in to rescue his beloved Aunt Polly. Those that read Protocol, the series opener, know that Valenti writes with swagger, often with tongue in cheek. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is now for sale.

What would induce a woman to walk away from her job in order to play amateur sleuth? Maggie wouldn’t know. She is currently unemployed. Her career with Big Pharma tanked after she turned whistle-blower, and now she’s been sacked from her position as a retail sales clerk. Damn. But it’s just as well in a way, because Constantine’s Aunt Polly served as “the woman who fit the mother-shaped hole in her life,” and she needs Maggie’s help. She’s in declining health—Parkinson’s? Alzheimer’s? Bad air, bad water, poisoned food, poison gas? And following the murder of her husband, Howard, who even Polly acknowledges “was a bit of an ass”, Polly is under investigation, a favorite suspect since she is the surviving spouse of an unhappy marriage.

Valenti’s feminist spirit could not be more welcome than it is today, and her dialogue crackles. This is a fast read, part satire, part suspense, and I love the banter that unfolds between Polly and Constantine, reminiscent of the snappy patter of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in the 1980s TV show “Moonlighting” (which actually draws a mention toward the story’s conclusion).

Take Maggie O’Malley on vacation with you. It will be better with her than without her. Try not to wake the passenger snoozing next to you on the plane with your snickering, though—unless you’re bringing a second copy to share.