The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.

The Melody, by Jim Crace****

“We are the animals that dream.”

TheMelodyJim Crace is an award-winning author with an established readership, but he is new to me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Those that love literary fiction should take note.

Alfred Busi is a singer, and he was famous during his prime, but now he’s old, living alone in his villa with just his piano to keep him company. At the story’s outset he hears a noise below late at night and goes down to run the animals or the whoever out of his garbage bins, but instead he is attacked. Something or someone flies out and bites him a good one; he thinks it was a boy, a half-feral child:

“Busi could not say what it was, something fierce and dangerous, for sure…before the creature’s teeth sank into right side of his hand, and, flesh on flesh, the grip of something wet and warm began its pressure on his throat, Busi knew enough to be quite sure that this creature was a child. A snarling, vicious one, which wanted only to disable him and then escape.”

The problem—beyond the injury itself—is that Busi is elderly, forgetful, and occasionally confused. His wife is dead, and he’s grieving hard. The only people remaining in his life are his sister-in-law and her son, his nephew, and they aren’t sure he isn’t delusional. Medical staff question his reliability as well; soon, a truly nasty journalist writes a smear piece making fun of him, and it comes out just as he is scheduled to perform for the last time at a concert where he’s to receive a prestigious award. It’s all downhill from there.

Concurrently there’s discussion among the locals about the homeless people living in the Mendicant Gardens—a place entirely devoid of foliage, where makeshift shacks are erected from cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else is on hand—as well as the fate of the bosc. I find myself searching Google here because I am confused. I have never heard of a bosc, which turns out to be a wooded area of sorts, and my disorientation is compounded by not knowing where in the world this whole thing is unfolding. If our protagonist lives in a villa, and if we’re not in Mexico, then are we in Southern Europe somewhere? I am following language cues; the names of things and places sound like they could be Italian, or maybe French. Or in Spain. The heck? I go to the author bio, but that’s no help, since Crace lives in the U.S. I try to brush this off and live with the ambiguity, but I continue wishing that I could orient myself. It’s distracting. There’s a social justice angle here involving society’s obligation to its poorest members, but I am busy enough trying to establish setting that the effect is diluted.

Nevertheless, the prose here is sumptuous and inviting. Adding to the appeal is the clever second person narrative; we don’t know who is talking to us about Mr. Busi, and we don’t know whether the narrator is speaking to a readership or to someone specific. For long stretches we are caught up in the plight of our protagonist and forget about the narrator, and then he pops back in later to remind us and pique our curiosity.

I am surprised to see this title receive such negative reviews on Goodreads. To be sure, GR reviewers are a tough lot, but there are some angry-sounding readers out there. What they seem to share in common is that they are Crace’s faithful fans, and if this title is a letdown for them, I can only imagine what his best work looks like; after a brief search I added one of his most successful titles to my to-read list, because I want to see what this author could do in his prime.

And there it is. Many people won’t want to read this, because we don’t like thinking about old age and death. Busi’s whole story is about the slow spiral that occurs for most people that live long enough to be truly old. It’s depressing. Those of us that are of retirement age don’t want to think about it because it’s too near; those that are far from it are likely to wrinkle their noses and move on to merrier things. It’s a hard sell, reading about aging, physical decay, and dementia. And there are specific passages that talk about Busi’s injuries and physical maladies that caused me to close the book and read something else when I was eating. It’s not a good mealtime companion.

Crace is known as a word smith, and rightly so. If you seek a page-turner, this is not your book, but for those that admire well-turned phrases and descriptions as art, this book is recommended.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li*****

NumberOneChineseLillian Li’s debut novel , a tale of intra-family rivalry, intrigue, and torn loyalties is a barn burner; it captured my attention at the beginning, made me laugh out loud in the first chapter, and it never flagged. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company, from whom I received a review copy in exchange for this honest review.  Don’t let yourself miss this one. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

The book opens with bitter scheming on the part of Jimmy, one of two brothers that fall heir to the family restaurant after their father passes away.  Jimmy has waited for the old man to die so that he could run the restaurant his own way. The Duck House serves greasy, cheap Chinese food, and he is sure he can do better. He craves elegance, a superior menu with superior ingredients. He wants renown, and he doesn’t want his brother Johnny to have one thing to do with it.

Johnny’s in China. Johnny runs the business end of the restaurant, and he takes care of the front of the house. He’ll come back to Maryland in a heartbeat, though, when the Duck House burns down.

Li does a masterful job of introducing a large cast of characters and developing several of them; although at the outset the story appears to be primarily about the brothers, the camera pans out and we meet a host of others involved in one way or another with the restaurant. There are the Honduran workers that are referred to by the Chinese restaurant owners and their children as ‘the amigos’, and we see the way they are dismissed by those higher up, even when it is they that pull Jimmy from a burning building. There’s a bittersweet love triangle involving Nan and Ah-Jack, who work in the restaurant, and Michelle, Ah-Jack’s estranged wife, but it’s handled deftly and with such swift pacing and sterling character development that it never becomes a soap opera. Meanwhile Nan’s unhappy teenage son, Pat, pulls at her loyalties, and she is torn between him and Ah-Jack in a way that has to look familiar to almost every mother that sees it in one way or another. But the most fascinating character by far, hidden in the recesses of her home, is the sons’ widowed mother, Feng Fui, who serves as a powerful reminder not to underestimate senior citizens.

Li is one of the most exciting, entertaining new voices in fiction since the Y2K, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Gan bei!

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton*****

socialcreature“Chop chop, Cinderella.”

Here it is, a story of our time.  Lavinia is spoiled and wealthy; Louise is newly arrived in New York City, and apart from her rent-stabilized apartment and a handful of part time jobs, she has nothing. Wealth and want collide and as Louise is swept up into Lavinia’s world—not to mention her Facebook and Instagram pages—the tension mounts. We know that Lavinia is going to die soon, but we don’t know how or why, and of course we wonder what will become of Louise once that happens. Burton’s story unfolds with sass and swagger, and you want to read this book, which is for sale today.  Get it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

More than anything, Louise wants to become a writer. She has tremendous talent, but between three part time jobs and Lavinia’s endless and unreasonable demands, she has no time for it. Lavinia wants to party, and she’s generous at times, furnishing Louise with expensive dresses, high-end trips to the beauty salon, and eventually, housing. In exchange, she more or less owns Louise.

Louise moves in with Lavinia, but Lavinia has the only key.

Perhaps even more alluring to Louise are Lavinia’s seemingly endless connections to the literary movers and shakers in New York.  Lavinia, you see, has had time to write a book, and she’s done it. It’s terrible, but Louise cannot say as much. She has too damn much to lose.

Burton’s voice is like no one I have ever read, and in some ways the comparisons that have been made to well known writers are unfortunate, because her work is wholly original. The thing I love best about this story is that nothing is overstated. The narrative takes off hell-bent-for-leather, and the reader has to follow closely to find out the basic ground-level information about both both women. It’s as if we have landed as invisible companions in the middle of a party, and we have to hit the ground running, exactly as Louise has had to do.

This is risky writing. The first half has very little plot and little action; its success hinges entirely upon its characters. Burton carries it off brilliantly, with genius pacing and the disciplined use of repetition as a literary device.  This is a novel that should take all of us by storm, but failing that, it has all the makings of an amazing cult classic.

This is cutting edge fiction, written by the most unlikely of theologians. I highly recommend it, even if you have to pay full jacket price.

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.

In It for the Money, by David Burnsworth***

InItfortheMoneyHere’s the thing that makes this title so difficult to review. It has tremendous strengths–strong concept, engaging protagonist, fearless prose. I like his animal sidekicks, Dink and Doofus. Crome is one of the finest sidekick characters I’ve seen in a mystery.

Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

On the other hand, there are some serious issues with pacing, which is clearly uneven, and also some of the worst grammar disasters I have ever come across in prose written by an adult. “Had brang” comes to mind, but they are legion. I wanted to ignore this aspect, given that it’s a galley, but I’ve seen hundreds of them, and yet nothing that isn’t self-published has grammar this awful. The result is a deeply frustrating read.

What I suspect is that this could be a terrific series given the services of a high profile editor.

The Island Dwellers, by Jen Silverman*****

TheIslandDwellersJen Silverman is a playwright with a list of awards as long as your arm. With this impressive collection of short stories, she steps into the world of prose with guns a-blazing. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book is now for sale.

Silverman’s contemporary fiction is themed, as the title suggests, around people that live on islands in various parts of the world. Everything here is edgy and a little bit dark. Her characters are melancholy, naïve, neurotic, bent, and at times laugh-out-loud funny; she doesn’t leave her endings—or her readers—hanging, and I didn’t successfully predict the way any of her stories would turn out. We have destructive relationships; relationships that are hellishly unequal; artists that aren’t really; strange, strange animals—oh, hell, that Japanese pit viper! But the thing that ties these tales together, apart from the theme, is deft, tight writing.

Anyone planning a vacation should pack this title, whether in paper or digitally. Short stories are terrific for bed time and when traveling, because the end of each story gives the reader a reasonable place to pause even when the prose is masterfully rendered, as it is here. This volume was released May 1, 2018 and is highly recommended.

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.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell****

ThenSheWasGone3.5 rounded up. Thanks to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC. This book is now for sale.

This is my third title by this author, and she is consistently strong. Our protagonist is Laurel, who is struggling. Her daughter Ellie–her favorite child—is missing. She’s been missing for years, and it hasn’t really gotten any easier.  Her marriage is over because Paul could move on, while Laurel could not; she is no longer close to their other two children, because all her thoughts and feelings went to the child that was missing.

Then one day she meets Floyd. He is warm and delightful, and his daughter Poppy, who seems too good to be true, calls to her.

I have read other reviews that suggest that the mystery here is easily solved. That’s true. But it hardly matters, because I wasn’t in this thing for the mystery. I was in it for the character. There are so many observations, small tidbits of mom-philosophy, some of which I didn’t know anybody shared with me. I have notes in my reader, where I usually ask questions or point to technical aspects of a story, that simply say, “I know, right?”

All of the characters in this story are Caucasian, and so I suspect that the main target audience is white mothers in their forties and beyond. I recommend this story to everyone in that demographic that enjoys women’s fiction.