The Grammarians, by Cathleen Schine*****

Oh hell yes. This charming little book had me on the first page, and when it was over, I was sorry to be done.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the review copy.  This is the first time I have read anything Schine has written, but it cannot possibly be the last. You can buy it now.

We start in the dark; we start behind bars. Happily, it’s because our protagonists are infants, and they’re in a crib. As light streams through the open door, we enter the lives of Daphne and Laurel, who are identical twins. They are brilliant, and they are in love with the written word from the get-go.

At the outset this story seems like a romp, but its success is in the details. As children we see the girls move in lock step; the first one out of the womb is the alpha, and they both understand this. But as they grow up and define their places in the world, there’s tension and at times, competition. In order to develop relationships and families separately, they have to pull away from each other, and when two people are very close, the only way they can become independent is through a hard break. Schine is absolutely consistent in the development of her characters, and this also includes their intellectual gifts.

One aspect of fiction that grates on my nerves is when I see a gifted child protagonist that’s developed in an amateurish way. Some writers want to use a child in their writing, but don’t have any clue about the qualities inherent in a child at the age they have chosen, and so they build giftedness into the character as an excuse, so that they can provide the child with adult-level dialogue and dodge the stages of childhood.  Schine doesn’t do that. Instead, she creates completely believable little geniuses that are nevertheless coping with the growing pains, developmental milestones, attitudes and frequent self-centeredness that characterize children and adolescents. Her care and skill result in characters that are entirely believable. I like the side characters a lot also.

The wit and sass shown by Daphne and Laurel as they indulge in their secret twin language as well as word play using standard English is original and makes me laugh out loud more than once, but as they grow older, both twins encounter broader philosophical issues that connect language with class, ethnicity, and other variables, and they must find their way through the ethical slough. They don’t choose the same paths, and their anger and pain toward one another is visceral. But in the end…well. You’ll have to find that out for yourself.

This book is highly recommended to those that have twins in their lives; those that love the English language; and those that want to howl with laughter. However, I don’t recommend it to anyone whose first language isn’t English.

I read several books at a time, and while I was reading this one, it became the reward for finishing a chapter in a less rewarding read. You, however, can reward yourself right now by ordering a copy.

Right After the Weather, by Carol Anshaw****

Carol Anshaw has written a good deal of fiction, but this is the first time I have read her work. Right After the Weather turned up on Net Galley when I ran a search for humor; thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy.  This book will be available to the public October 1, 2019.

Cate is a set designer working in Chicago. She’s divorced and looking for the right woman to settle down with. She’s in her early forties, and the clock keeps ticking; Dana is the one she wants, but she wants to be more than Dana’s woman-on-the-side, and Dana isn’t leaving her girlfriend for Cate. Cate meets Maureen who is actually fairly awful, but Maureen makes her life easier and wants her desperately, and so she is trying to persuade herself that Maureen is the woman she wants. Meanwhile her ex-husband, a nice guy that she dumped when she came out, is camped out in her apartment. All of these things make it hard for Cate to move forward.  Her role model is her best friend Neale, a single mother that lives nearby, but all hell is about to break lose at Neale’s place.

Alternately with Cate’s narrative, we have infrequent but unsettling blurbs from a different point of view.  Nathan and Irene are addicts, “casual sociopaths.”  Every now and then there’s a page or two– distinguished by a different font—that articulates their priorities and plans, such as they are.  Anshaw is clever as hell, planting these tiny landmines that let us know that at some point, Cate and our criminals’ lives will intersect; at the same time, when it comes to people like this, less is more, and so they pop into the story just long enough to leave me feeling a little jarred, and then it’s such a relief to return to Cate’s story that I immediately forget about these other guys. The author plays fairly in letting us know that something is coming, but it takes awhile before I start anticipating what their role in this story will be. It’s so much easier to not think about them.

There’s some very uncomfortable material about Maureen about ten percent of the way into the story, and if I hadn’t had a review copy I might have stopped reading. However, that business gets put into context right away, and the rest of the story, though edgy, isn’t in that same out-of-bounds zone. Instead, Anshaw makes me laugh out loud several times with her dry humor and the perception that goes with it; in particular the scene with Cate’s mother is uproariously funny. I am ordinarily not pleased by bad-mother humor because it’s becoming a cliché, but when Anshaw goes there, she outclasses others and there’s no putting this book down.

I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry*

I have never in my life dropped a galley so quickly. Thanks still go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, but I couldn’t finish this thing. Actually, I couldn’t even hold to my own reviewing rules.  This book is horrible.

The promotional description mentions several qualities that appeal to me.  I like literary fiction; dark humor; Irish fiction; and the Booker Prize nomination sealed the deal.  I was also aware that there would be violence and and that the characters would include terrible men, but I read grit lit—in small frequent bites when I can’t deal with longer stretches than that—and have reviewed many titles that include these things. But this is something else.

The distinctive writing style doesn’t appeal to me; I like a good paragraph, and having vast yawning spaces in between single brief entries seems wasteful to me. But that isn’t the deal breaker. The deal breaker is the hostility toward women.

Now of course one could say that twisted misogyny is not the author’s perspective but that of the characters, and blah-de-blah-blah, but let’s extend this a step further, for the sake of those that buy that kind of bilge as an excuse. Let’s write the whole thing, the whole book, as repeated child rape, with graphic descriptions and maybe a quick comeuppance or two at the end to make the reader feel better.

Would you buy that? Would you read that?  Then maybe you should give this a miss as well.  After all, this is fiction; its two purposes are to entertain and to convey ideas through the art of literature. How do either of these jibe with ugliness such as this?

My usual practice for a galley I don’t favor is this:  I read up to about 30% in order to give the author a chance, and then if I am still not engaged I skip to the last 25% to make sure there isn’t something wonderful about the climax and the conclusion that might make me reconsider. Fair is fair. But this book feels like a form of violence against women all by itself. I had trouble sleeping after having read five percent; I gave it a couple of days and came back, read another four or five percent, and queasily realized that this novel is the exception to my policy. I am not reading more of it for anyone or anything.

Usually when I don’t recommend a book, I consider whether there’s a niche audience that might still like it. Sometimes a lukewarm book gets a recommendation to read the book free or at a deep discount. But for this thing I confess that I would rather not be around anyone that wants it any time for any reason.

Carnegie Hill, by Jonathan Vatner***

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.  This work of fiction started out like gangbusters and left me feeling confused in the end. What the heck is the author’s purpose here?

The premise is that Pepper, the child of hugely wealthy, influential parents, has left home to live an adult life without her mother’s interference. She meets a man from a working class background and they fall in love; they purchase an apartment at the prestigious Chelmsford Arms, and the ancient chairman invites her to join the building’s board of directors. She likes Pepper’s pedigree, and the board is comprised entirely of elderly people, so it’s good to have some fresh perspective. Or so the old lady thinks.

At the outset, I think this will be a satirical poke at the rich, and as the story unfolds it is on its way to being just that. We see the building through Pepper’s eyes, and we see it through the eyes of the door men that work there. The only people of color here are employees, and Pepper’s effort to create a more diverse community meet a wall of resistance. And Pepper’s fiancé, whom her parents distrust, turns out to be untrustworthy.  There are several places that make me laugh out loud, and I have high hopes.

But as we move on, the message becomes muddy and the pace slows considerably. Pepper’s fiancé has his own concerns, and we see things through his perspective—all points of view are told in the third person omniscient. Part of the time he seems to be exactly the dirt bag that Pepper’s parents say that he is, but part of the time he is just a loving, misunderstood guy. Ultimately, after a plot that goes all over the place with no apparent destination, it is he that proves to be the most dreadful racist of all of them.

When the board meets, Pepper makes the acquaintance of two other couples, both of them elderly, and both apparently in content, long-term marriages, and she believes they will be her role models, since her own parents are divorced. However, neither couple is happy, and we see their relationships deteriorate. Indeed, the healthiest relationship she sees is between two of the doormen, who are closeted at first, but later come out.

None of these characters is developed much, but the one that seems least credible to me is Sergei, who does a complete turnabout in his willingness to come out of the closet and be in a public relationship with Caleb. We don’t see any kind of struggle on his part and the change is abrupt. Given the importance that Vatner attaches to these two men, I would have thought we would see much more of Sergei’s perspective leading up to the transition.

The worst part for me is that in the end, all of the characters seem much more equal to one another, the filthy rich having their share of misery and the working class being content. Give me a damn break.

Despite this rant, it’s clear that Vatner has talent. There are several passages that make me sit up and take notice. The challenge he faces is in creating a bigger picture with better developed characters, and better pacing. Since this is his debut, he has plenty of time to grow, and I look forward to seeing what he publishes in the years to come.

Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton***

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing. Buxton has had her work appear in The New York Times and some other impressive places, and I was drawn by the buzz. To be honest, this book didn’t work for me, but I also have to admit that I am probably outside the target audience.

The setting drew me first; it’s hard to resist work set in my own hometown of Seattle. The premise has to do with a smart crow and a dumb dog setting out to save what’s left of their world. It’s billed as a romp, and I make a point of punctuating my other reading with humor so it doesn’t get too dark out there. So there were reasons to think I would enjoy this book.

But I was expecting a story arc and a plot. And I noted at the ten percent mark that I had seen enough product placements for the rest of the story and a boxed set to go with it. I quit about halfway through and skimmed till I reached the 80 percent mark, and then read the ending; no joy.

If a friend has read this book and says they think that you will like it, that friend might be right. But I can only share what I have seen and give you my honest opinion, which is that this is only something to be obtained only if it’s free or cheap unless your pockets are deep.

The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell*****

Annie Clements is a badass union warrior, nearly six feet tall with fiery red hair and a voice that carries.  When the men that work the Quincy mine strike for better wages, an eight hour day, and an end to the treacherous one man drill, Big Annie leads the women’s auxiliary, and her role makes headlines around the world. This magnificent novel, which holds closely to events as they unfurled, came to me free and early, thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s for sale right now.

The Quincy mine is owned by Calumet and Hecla, and it is one of the deepest underground—and therefore one of the most dangerous—in the US.  It’s on the upper peninsula of Michigan, an isolated location closer to Canada than to other states or even the rest of Michigan; the winters are fierce. The only thing crueler than winter there is the heart of the general manager, James McNaughton, a vicious, vindictive man, who vows that “Grass will grow in the streets of Calumet before C&H recognizes the Western Federation of Miners.”

Charlie Miller is our union organizer, traveling from camp to camp, gathering support from working families. He intends to attack the smaller, more outlying mining companies first and save the huge, wealthy ones like Calumet for after inroads have been made around them. But miners are angry about the one man drill, a recent change that saves the company on wages, but leaves a single miner at risk of being injured or buried without a second miner present to help get him out of there. The company won’t send workers in after the injured, so working in pairs is a critical part of what little safety exists. Too many have gone home dead or maimed, and emotion is high. The women’s auxiliary organizes the wives and other family members of miners, and the women are rising up as well. Miller doesn’t see a strike as winnable right now, but if the union doesn’t get behind them soon, it may well become a wild cat strike, one in which the workers strike without union backing; that would embarrass the WFM.

Russell combines beautifully woven prose with careful attention to historical detail; not much has been changed here, but in her end notes she explains what has been altered and why. Where possible she uses direct quotes, and this is above and beyond what most novelists will do.

Although the story is about Big Annie Clements, my favorite part is when Mother Jones comes to Calumet. (Those interested in labor history should also read Mother Jones’s autobiography, which is shorter and better than what any biographer has done for her.)

This is the first time I have read Russell’s work, but it won’t be the last. A measure of how much I love a book can be found in how much I read, quote, and carry on about it right here at home. My husband could scarcely enter a room without my demanding whether we have any other materials about the copper strikers, and does he know about (this, that, the other thing)? I was reading ten different books, but he was hearing about only one of them. My own grandfather was a miner and died of Black Lung many years ago, but I felt him beside me as I read; I find myself hungry for pasties, the recipe preserved from my Finnish great aunt. But I digress.

Finally, readers should also know that this is a tragic read, positively miserable in places. There are dead and dying children, and the ending isn’t heartwarming. Yet it contains elements—an unlikely romance, and in James McNaughton, a villain of monstrous proportions—that could not be written into a purely fictional tale because nobody would believe them; and yet, these are aspects that stick closely to historical reality.

For those that love excellent historical fiction, this is a must read. For those that love both historical fiction and labor history, it provides the sweetest of crossroads. Highly recommended.

The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware****

Ruth Ware is on a roll. The Turn of the Key is a lot of fun; I received it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books.

Our protagonist comes across the job posting almost by accident while web-crawling, looking for something else. It sounds too good to be true, a live-in nanny position with a professional salary and the use of a car. The location is a beautiful home in Scotland, and the children are 3 adorable little girls, along with a middle schooler who’s away at boarding school. But the funny thing is, they haven’t been able to keep anyone in the position.

Rowan is called for an interview, and she stays overnight in the room that will be hers. It’s gorgeous. The bed is sumptuous, and she has a private bathroom, with state-of-the-art everything. The house was originally an historic pile, but it’s been updated with all sorts of smart house features.

This, I think, is what sets this mystery apart from others, because it speaks to an anxiety many of us face today. Everywhere, we are monitored. Cameras keep us and our belongings safe, but we are always watched. We don’t always know whether we are being watched or not; sometimes cameras are tiny and concealed, and sometimes there are drones that come and go. Every time Rowan—who of course gets the job—has a bad moment, either because she has snapped at one of the kids, or because her clothing is stained or disheveled, or because she’s getting ready to take a shower, she wonders if someone is looking at her.

To me the most surprising thing is that she never pushes back. Why doesn’t she ask about the camera in her bedroom? When she is told that she is only getting about a third of her monthly salary, with the rest being held back as a “completion bonus” after one year, she doesn’t bat an eye. At the end we learn of an additional motivating factor that could account for these things, but that factor feels contrived to me and doesn’t add to the story. It actually weakens it, partly because Megan Miranda just published a mystery with similar features.

The ghostly noises that come in the night are augmented by the smart home features, and here I can only bow in admiration. I also appreciate the poison garden, which is wickedly cool.

The red herrings are obvious ones, and I figured out most of the outcome early on. The shocker at the end didn’t seem credible to me. It took me a long time to buy into the format. The beginning is in the form of a letter our protagonist writes from prison to obtain legal help. But Ware is skilled at creating a hypnotic narrative, and by the ten percent mark I forgot about that aspect and focused on the story itself. Despite a predictable outcome or two, I found the ending satisfying.

That said, I love the use of the microphone feature in gmail that gives Rowan’s charge Ellie, the kindergartener, the capacity to send messages; particular the cute little errors (the messages that read “fairy” instead of “very” and so forth) are adorable.

This is a fast read and a deeply absorbing one. It’s available now.

That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

The Book Charmer, by Karen Hawkins***

Grace Wheeler is stuck. She has the perfect life; job, home, fulfillment. But filial duty calls; she is needed by her orphaned niece and her foster mother, who is showing signs of dementia. The obvious thing to do would be to take them back to the city and resume life as usual, but with adjustments; however, she can’t do that because a sense of place—Dove Pond, North Carolina, where she has always lived–is what ties Mama G to what’s left of her real world. Also, there’s a house they can have there.  When Grace proclaims loudly and often that she’s only staying for a year, we know right away that she will fall in love with Dove Pond and stay forever.

 I like the cousin who owns the house that Grace, Mama G, and niece Daisy will live in, but she is with us for just a short time before she hops in her RV and drives away. Mentally I am standing on the curb shouting, “Come back! Come back!”

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books.  I read the first thirty percent, skimmed, and then read the last twenty-five percent.

Sarah Dove is the town librarian as well as a book whisperer. Books speak to her—literally—and they have decided they like the looks of Grace. Sarah is lonely, and when the books speak, she listens, and she pesters Grace relentlessly as she tries to befriend her. Ultimately it is the Trojan Horse in the form of Daisy that creates the connection Sarah desires. Daisy is going through a rough time and is grieving and acting out; she and Sarah bond over Little Women. (Insert eye roll here.)  However difficult she may be, Daisy is actually quite clever, gifted even.

Ohhh goody.  My eyes roll again. Fictional children are always so precocious, aren’t they?

 Grace’s new next door neighbor, the bad boy on a motorcycle, as well as Sarah’s old flame, who’s come back around, create romantic side stories whose paths are clear from the get-go.

So here’s the thing.  I confess that the cozy genre is not my main literary lane. Usually when I find a cozy series that works for me, other cozy reviewers just hate it because it’s too edgy. This story will make a lot of cozy readers very happy. It’s wholesome and has a soothing tone; the narrative voice is charming. I know there is an audience that will eat this up, and when I step away from this cozy banquet, I won’t be missed.  

But for me, the story feels formulaic. If I can tell how the main story thread will go, and how some of the side business will turn out, by the ten percent mark, I’m not a fan. The one place I really connect is when the bad boy on the motorcycle gets his hair cut, and I am so sad, because I liked this character and now he’s ruined for me.

So for those of you that want a soothing, wholesome feel-good story you can read in a weekend, maybe this book is for you. If you aren’t sure, consider reading it free or cheap.  

It’s for sale today.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos***

I was invited to read this work of science fiction by Net Galley and Random House; it’s for sale now.

At the outset, I was thrilled with this story’s audacity. The Farm is a luxury retreat that exists for the purpose of pampering young surrogate women that are carrying babies for the most privileged families. In some cases the mothers that will claim these babes after birth are sterile; some waited until they were too old to bear a child naturally; and some just don’t care to deal with the discomfort, the pain, or horror of horrors, the stretch marks.

Mae runs the show. Her talent scouts look hither and yon for suitable young women, and though few white women are available, those that are paler are considered most desirable. Most of all, they need to have incentive, which pretty much translates as desperation. The fees for carrying healthy children to term and through delivery are hefty; money is the carrot as well as the stick, and impoverished young women with helpless dependents will do a great deal to avoid penalties, to earn a bonus.

The set up makes my feminist heart sing.

Our primary protagonist is Jane, a Filipino with a tiny daughter of her own. Who doesn’t want the best for her child? The surrogacy fee will permit her to move her baby, her aging cousin, and herself out of the tiny, nasty dive that is their current residence, and in return for being sequestered away from her family for nine months, she will be able to give her daughter a much better head start in life. Her cousin Ate will watch the child while Jane is away; she is so young that she won’t even remember having been separated.

But piece by piece, we see what appears to be a reasonable business deal descend into a dystopian nightmare. Such things as constant surveillance, personal communication that is monitored without regard to the women’s privacy, and other Big Brotherish components make it clear that the surrogates are little more than meat. Their health is important only as long as they are pregnant; they are kept from their loved ones and deceived in nefarious ways, all with the end result—a healthy baby for each client—as the sole consideration.

Up to the climax I am riveted. For three-quarters of this story, I am making notes and occasionally exclaiming over it out loud. But unfortunately, the message that I believe Ramos intends to drive home is more or less tossed out the window in the end.  I don’t want to spoil it and so I won’t be specific, but it is a massively wasted opportunity. In the end, I am left with my mouth hanging open, not in surprise but in disappointment. I read back a few pages to see if I missed something, because surely a writer competent enough to write the beginning and middle so cleverly wouldn’t write an ending as stupid as it seems to be. But actually? I’m afraid that’s what’s happened.