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

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

The Craftsman, by Sharon Bolton****-*****

TheCraftsman“One night…what’s the worst that can happen?”

4.5 rounded up. I am late to the party where this author is concerned; a literature chat session directed me toward this galley, and now I am sure to read Bolton’s work again. My thanks go St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, October 16, 2018.

Is it a thriller, or is it a horror story? Bolton successfully rides the center here, and there’s a good case to be made in either direction. Our protagonist, Florence Lovelady, is a high ranking cop in the UK. Her career was made when she identified a serial killer and was instrumental in his arrest; now he is dead, and she returns to the small town where he nearly made her one of his victims 30 years ago. The plan is to attend the service with her 15-year-old son in tow, and then spend the night or two in a hotel, where her spouse will join them.

Things don’t go according to plan.

The plot is cunningly constructed, beginning with one of the creepiest fictional funerals in literature. The foreshadowing will give even the most cynical reader a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. As for me, I know my limitations, and as soon as I saw how things are in this one, I decided it could not be the last thing I read before falling asleep at night. Ever.

The interesting thing here—and what keeps this story from actually becoming too horrible to be any fun—is that we know, at the outset, how this case, which takes place in 1969, comes out. We are told in a smooth first person narrative what the broad contours of the case are. We know what the crime was; what happened to Florence while she investigated it; who did it; and that he was caught and convicted. There now.

So as we look back to the teenager that was kidnapped, then buried alive, I confess my eyes skipped over some of the explicit horror, but really the description isn’t a lengthy one, and after all, we know that the guy was apprehended. We see the numerous humiliations to which Detective Lovelady is subjected, in the day when female cops are scarce on the ground and expected to run along and make the tea for their colleagues and to comfort the crying women; I love the scene in which she is told she’s being (punitively) put on a desk to type up reports, and it turns out that she doesn’t know how to type. Ha. But then again, we also know that her career is a successful one, that she has weathered these miseries and now outranks most of the men that treated her badly.
But there are surprises in store too, as new developments surface while she’s there in town. One thing after another unravels till we are on the edge of our seats—and this time we don’t know how it will all shake out.

At about the eighty percent mark, a plot element that I won’t identify comes into play that makes me stop cold for a moment and roll my eyes. Oh please. Not this thing. Every steadfast reader of the genre has a mental list of overused devices they hope never to read again, and after doing so well at avoiding them all, Bolton lets a big, beefy one loose, and just as things are on a roll, too. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it took the wind out of my sails for a moment. However, after a brief visit to the literary corn-and-cheese factory, she comes out on top again, and the ending is deeply satisfying.

The story features witches—yes, real ones! As well as shadowy, mostly unnamed stonemasons, and Dwane, who is by far the best-written sexton in a thriller or mystery anywhere.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy a creepy murder story with supernatural elements.

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

The O Henry Prize Stories 2018, by Laura Furman, editor*****

TheOHenryPrize2018This collection is guaranteed to be good, and I was thrilled when I received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday. Those that enjoy strong fiction should buy it and read it, even if you have to pay full jacket price. This year’s edition holds 20 prize winning stories along with a bit of judging commentary at the end. This book is now for sale.

The first story in any short story collection is bound to be good, and so I knew that Joanne Beard’s Tin House would be strong, and it is, in a dark, surreal way. I wouldn’t read it at bedtime lest it enter my dreams, but it’s memorable, original, and gritty. I also enjoy Brad Felver’s Queen Elizabeth, and Past Perfect Continuous, by Dounia Choukri. My favorite of all of them, the one that made me laugh out loud, is Why Were They Throwing Bricks, by Jenny Zhang, a story that features a cagey, manipulative Chinese grandmother and the grandchildren whose lives she enters, leaves and reenters. Zhang appears to have mostly published poetry up to this point, but I hope she writes more fiction, because I want to read it.

The only aspect of any short story that I don’t enjoy is the open-ended sort that conclude with no real resolution. This screamingly frustrating inclination is minimal here, showing at the ends of a just a couple of the featured stories.

Short stories are terrific to leave, once you’ve finished them, in your guest room, because people that stay with you briefly can read a story or more without the frustration of having to either leave an incomplete novel behind or beg to borrow it, not knowing when they can return it. If you need an excuse to get this excellent collection for yourself, there it is.

Highly recommended.

In Her Bones, by Kate Moretti****

InHerBonesMoretti’s mysteries are addictive, and when I found this galley in my email, I jumped it to the front of the queue. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for letting me read it free and early. You can buy it now.

Edie is an outcast, spurned by her friends when her mother Lilith is arrested as a serial killer. Since it is so rare for a serial murderer to be female, the press is everywhere; meanwhile, all Edie has left is her brother Dylan and later, his young family. Otherwise, the people to whom she feels most closely bonded don’t know Edie, don’t realize that she is watching them, obsessing over them in person and in cyberspace; they are the bereaved family members of Lilith’s victims. It gives me chills.

One day Edie takes her voyeuristic tendencies to the next level; when the man she’s been stalking is found dead, police immediately suspect Edie of being his killer. And as we read Edie’s narrative, which tells us some things but not everything, we wonder too: is Edie a lonely, isolated young woman searching for connection to another human being; or is she a chip off the old block, a stone cold killer just like her mama?

The first person narrative alternates with a third person study of Lilith, and so the voice switches from Edie’s very personal story to a clinical, dry report regarding her aberrant mother. (Let me tell you, whatever issues you may have with your own mother—she’s going to seem like the mother of the year once you’ve read this.)

I’ve read a few unhappy reviews by online friends. but I like this book. It helps if you approach it as a mystery rather than a thriller; those in search of a grab-you-by-the-hair page-turner may not get what you’re looking for, but I wanted an interesting story with an original premise and a credible ending, and this is that. In addition, the third person case notes written by social workers and their ilk ring true to me. In fact, I made a wry note to myself, wondering whether Edie or Dylan might have been in one of my classes; I have never taught the children of a serial killer to my knowledge, yet the wanton neglect and lack of nurturance, even a simple effort to provide the basics eludes Lilith in a way that seems familiar. You think I am exaggerating? Not so much. There are terrific parents; there are indifferent parents; and there are, I am sad to say, more than a few Lilith Wades out there in the parent pool.

This is my third galley by this writer. Whereas I liked The Blackbird Season a little more than this one, mostly because of its amazing word smithery, I find this story more original and memorable than The Vanishing Year, which has the sort of denouement that makes me roll my eyes. Here Moretti pulls the ending together in a way that keeps me thinking about the characters rather than the author, and I sigh with appreciation when it’s done.

All told, it’s a solid mystery with a satisfying conclusion. Recommended to all that enjoy the genre.

Across the Great Lake, by Lee Zacharias***

AcrosstheGreatLakeI received this book free from Net Galley and University of Wisconsin Press in exchange for this honest review. It will be available for purchase on September 18, 2018.

Conceptually this story has great promise.  The Great Lakes are where important American naval battles have taken place, and yet very little fiction is set there. This reviewer lived near Lake Erie for most of the 1980s, and I thought this novel would be a sure fire winner.

An elderly woman is looking back at her life, and the story starts with her earliest memories, when her parents separate and her father, a sea captain, takes her from her unstable mother and the girl goes to sea with him. Sailors mutter dark things. There’s a ghost ship that the crew speaks of ominously.

Zacharias nails Fern’s developmental stages, which is critical for anyone writing about a child, particularly if that child is going to voice some of the narrative. Failing to do so breaks the spell entirely, and I am cheered when I see it done correctly. There’s also a great deal of painstaking historical and nautical detail here. As a history teacher I appreciate it, and I learned some things.

Sadly, the character feels weighted down by the setting instead of developed by it. I never feel as if I know the protagonist, but rather as though the author has a great deal of research done and is going to use as much of it as is humanly possible. I pushed my way through it until just before the halfway mark, and then I abandoned ship.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart****

Lakesuccess“’All I know is I never had any advantages,’ Barry said. ‘I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents.’”

Schteyngart’s wry new novel takes a swift kick at the funny bone of the American ruling class. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy.

Barry grew up as the son of the pool guy, the man that serviced the swimming pools of the wealthy. Now between one trade and another—some of it inside, some of it legal—he has become one of the wealthiest men in Manhattan. His entitlement and vast privilege rubs up against his flimsy social conscience; meanwhile he tries to avoid coming to terms with his two-year-old son’s Autism. (When the children of the very rich are Autistic, it’s referred to as “on the Spectrum.”) His midlife crisis comes to a head when rumblings suggest he may be held accountable for his dubious business practices, and with his marriage teetering on the brink and the law breathing heavily down his collar, Barry flings himself onto a Greyhound bus and rubs elbows with the hoi polloi. Obsessed with becoming a mentor to someone with brown skin, Barry takes his rolling case of impossibly expensive wristwatches and embarks on a series of failed friendships and romances as he hurls himself due south and then west to San Diego. Who knows? Maybe he will even start an urban watch fund so that children that live in poverty can learn to appreciate fine timepieces.

Humor is a hard field for many authors. Some get stuck on a single joke, which is funny at the outset but tired by the end of an entire novel; others simply bomb, and unlike stand-up comics, the bad humor is enshrined forever in published form. So I approach humorous novels cautiously; but Schteyngart is no novice, though he is new to me, he has a good sized body of humorous work before this. The result is smooth and professional, but also original and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

The ending is brilliant.

This book will be available September 5, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lido, by Libby Page***-****

thelido3.5 stars rounded up. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review this charming debut. This book is for sale now.

Kate is a journalist, painfully shy, anxious, and lonely. Rosemary is an elderly widow. When the Lido—which I learned is an open air swimming pool—in Brixton is slated to close, Rosemary is up in arms. She isn’t usually an activist, but she has swum in this pool her entire life, and many of the most memorable events she has experienced took place there. She loves it still, and she cannot abide the fact that the lido is being sold to private developers who want to put up “swish new high rises.” Rumor has it that it won’t even remain a swimming pool; they may pave it over and put in tennis courts. Rich folks love tennis.

Kate smells a story, and she wants to interview Rosemary. Rosemary makes a counteroffer: she’ll do the interview only after Kate has swum at the Lido.

For Kate, this is traumatic. She isn’t crazy about her own body, and the thought of disrobing in front of others in a locker room nearly undoes her. But she swims, and she gets her interview. Over the course of the fight to save the lido, which Kate joins, she and Rosemary become good friends, and Kate’s own life blossoms. At the same time, there’s a bit of history here as we wander back in time with Rosemary to the war years when she met her husband, George.

The text has a soothing quality that you don’t see much of anymore. It’s not a page turner, and gets a bit slow in places, but sometimes a more sedate pace is what’s needed. I found it good bedtime reading, because it helped me unwind. My feminist heart is cheered by a story in which both main characters are female, and neither of them fits the tiny-but-fierce model that so many writers seem to favor. Kate is awkward. Rosemary is a fat old granny. Oh hell yes. Both are white women; there is a side character named Ahmed, but those looking for a truly diverse bit of fiction will have to look elsewhere.

Some readers are disturbed by blue language and sex scenes. Though the story isn’t entirely devoid of these, there’s very little of it.  The text is accessible to anyone with a high school education.

There are moments where the sweetness goes over the top. I gagged when the Brownie troop joined the protest to save the pool, and I wondered how Rosemary could have dozens of sweet memories of George and not even a single resentful or ambiguous one. But these are relatively small concerns.

For those looking for a feel good story, this book is recommended.