The Night Ship, by Jess Kidd****

Jess Kidd can write. I read and reviewed her debut novel, Himself, which I loved so much that I bought a copy to give as a gift; I called it “Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny.” I have read and reviewed her others as well:  Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (The Hoarder in Britain,) and Things in Jars. Her most recent novel, The Night Ship, is technically as good or better than any before, but I love it less, largely because of the expectations I brought to it, based on the other three before it. I’ll explain that momentarily.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The Night Ship is based on a true story, the sinking of the famous ship, the Batavia, in 1629. Our protagonist is Mayken, a child whose mother has died; she is being sent to her father in the company of her elderly nurse maid.  When the ship goes down, she is marooned on an island near Australia.

Over three hundred years later in 1989, a boy named Gil has also lost his mother, and is sent to live on the same island with his cantankerous grandfather. There isn’t much to do there, and he finds his imagination is captured by the tales of a shipwreck that occurred here hundreds of years ago.

The way that Kidd braids the stories of these two children into one well crafted novel is admirable. They are separate, and yet together, and the nearer we get to the conclusion, the more commonalities reveal themselves. Clearly, Kidd is at the height of her craft—so far, at least. Goodness knows what else she’s got up her sleeve. Her eccentricity and her appreciation of working class struggle sets her in a class beyond most authors.

And yet. When I read her debut novel, she captured my whole heart. I couldn’t stop talking about it, the way her adroit word smithery combined with a hilarious tale of sheer, spun magic. It remains a favorite of mine some five years and hundreds of novels later. And when the next, Mr. Flood, came out it wasn’t quite as magical, yet really, nothing else could be, and it was still vastly superior to what anyone else was writing, and I adored it. And the next one after it, while not as humorous, was wonderfully dark, and the ending made me smile. The author’s message was rock solid.

Every single one of her previous novels had an uplifting quality, and when I read the last page, I was smiling. And so I began to feel that I could count on Kidd to raise my spirits. In fact, I rationed this story out to myself, and when, given my penchant for reading multiple books at a time, I found myself buried in dark works—in one, I was freezing and bloody in the Ardennes Forest during World War II; in another, the devil had possessed a psychiatrist in a high security asylum; add into the mix a bio of a falsely accused prisoner in the U.S. that lost his entire youth before he was exonerated, and another young man being ‘re-educated’ in a North Korean prison camp; I figured I needed a good dose of Jess Kidd right now. Now. This instant!

And so I got her book, and then the ship went down.

So, I didn’t get what I wanted from this novel, but it had more to do with my own expectations than with any defect in the quality of her writing. Still, I cannot help feeling a trifle disappointed.

If you’re ready to go dark, this is your book. If you just love good writing, this is your book, too. But if you need a feel-good book to lighten your heart, get her debut novel.

Back to the Garden, by Laurie R. King*****

Laurie R. King is best known for her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes historical detective novels, but I have long preferred her contemporary mysteries. Back to the Garden is her latest of these, and it is excellent. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Raquel Liang, a detective based in San Francisco. When a long-dead body is found in the garden of the Gardener Estate—a famous mansion and grounds that sound faintly reminiscent of Hearst Castle—Liang, who is working on a task force to find and identify victims of serial killer Michael Johnston, becomes involved in the case.

Rob Gardener is the heir to the estate, and he had clashed often and bitterly with his grandfather before his demise in the 1970s. Upon learning of his windfall, Gardener turned the manse into a commune, with murals on the walls of what were once imposing, grandiose rooms and vegetable gardens where more formal floral ones previously stood. Now the place is being restored, and as gardeners work to clear a thicket of overgrown hedge, a huge statue topples over, exposing the bones of someone long interred there.

Meanwhile, in a hospital in the big city, convicted serial murderer Michael Johnston lies dying. During the same period that the commune reigned, Johnston was spiriting girls and young women off so that he could murder them. Improved technology has provided a number of leads, but the window in which the cops can extract information from the old bastard is rapidly closing. Liang suspects that the body found on the estate, which dates back to the same time that Johnston was slaying women in the area, may be one of his, and so she makes frequent visits to learn as much about the place and its residents, past and present, as possible.

The intriguing bit about this mystery is that the members of the commune, other than Rob himself, didn’t use their birth names, and it makes them tricky to trace. With names like Meadow, Pig, and Daisy, they could be just about anybody. Is one of them the body beneath the statue?

King does a fine job of segueing from past to present and back again, and of juggling a moderately large number of characters. As I read, I never have to flip back to be reminded of who someone is. The reader should know, however, that this is not a thriller. It isn’t written in a way to grab you by the hair and make your pulse pound. The pace is a bit more laid back, but for some of us, that is a pleasure. I never lost interest, and I could read this thing while eating my lunch without gagging.

There’s a good deal of period nostalgia, and so I suspect that the greatest appeal will be to Boomers.

Highly recommended.

The Devil Aspect, by Craig Russell

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I read this creepy tale during the last half of October, and it is indeed a good way to get into the Halloween spirit. I am disgracefully late with my review—3.5 years late, as it happens—but I do thank Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is, of course, for sale now.

Here is what drew me in. This is horror of the old school variety, with gothic towers and half a dozen criminally insane inmates. It’s set in Czechoslovakia, which I seldom see. The flavor, overall, is similar to the stories we told as children around campfires or late at night during slumber parties. Of course, it has a more adult approach, but even so, this is classic horror.

Our protagonists are Viktor Kusarek, a Jungian psychiatrist who comes to the asylum to conduct experiments on the patients, or inmates, in order to prove a theory, and police chief Lukas Smolak, who is pursuing a serial killer that is running amok in Prague.

This is a story that is more about the journey than the destination, though perhaps not intentionally so. Hearing about each of the six savage killers as Viktor interviews them is vastly entertaining. There’s one spot about a third of the way in, where a patient, partially sedated, is explaining that he is innocent, and also that a guest sorely provoked him. Always so critical! He was determined to impress her with his cooking, and indeed, the longer he worked at the stove, the more reasonable she became. Viktor points out that the guest had stopped complaining because he had her head in the skillet. I laughed out loud! The middle of this novel is unmissable.

There are three things I would change. First, the book is a little overlong, and could bear some tightening. Second, the whole Nazi menace has nothing to do with the problem or its resolution. It seems more like window dressing than anything else, but it doesn’t add a thing to the story. If I were the editor, I would cut that part of it out and voila, some of the tightening would be achieved. And third, the ending is so, so predictable. I stuck with the story until around the 85 percent mark, at which point I figured all hope of an ending other than what I expected was pretty much gone. At that point I skipped to the end. Yup. There it was. I would have liked a less formulaic ending.

Still and all, fans of old fashioned horror could do a lot worse. If this sounds like your kind of book after everything I have said, then go for it. I am old and cranky, and what seems obvious to me might seem new and clever to those that haven’t read many books of this ilk. And one way or the other, getting there is a lot of fun.

The Fortunes of Jaded Women*****

The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh, is hilarious and oddly touching. It’s the best debut novel of 2022, and it isn’t as if there was no competition. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Mrs. Mai Nguyen was born in Vietnam, but has lived most of her life as a Californian. When we meet her, however, she has flown to Kauai, the home of a renowned Vietnamese psychic. The psychic tells her that the year ahead will be a pivotal one, the one in which she must repair her relationships with her sisters and her daughters. There will be one wedding; one funeral; and one pregnancy.

Well, now.

Nobody likes to be estranged from a family member, and yet it happens. But all of them? Both sisters, and her daughters, too? (No brothers, and no sons, either.) But surely, it isn’t her fault; after all, there’s the curse.

Chapter four is when everything kicks up a gear, and I have seldom laughed so hard. Mrs. Minh Pham is the first to arrive, and she has my attention from the get-go when she slips the waitstaff some money and explains there could potentially be a “small, tiny, little shouting match, with a propensity for small, tiny, little objects to be thrown through the air.” Mrs. Pham is the middle daughter, and is accustomed to being the mediator in any dispute. She takes all the precautions she feels are wise; she parks near the door for a fast getaway if necessary. She removes the sharp utensils as well as the chopsticks from the table, and requests paper plates and plastic cutlery. “Mai had a reputation for throwing things.”

As the women arrive at the dim sum restaurant, they flash their fake Louis Vuitton handbags and immediately set about trying to one-up one another with regard to social status and affluence, and especially—oh yes, especially—that of their respective daughters. Within three minutes, a donnybrook ensues, and the other diners, who are also Vietnamese and well acquainted with the curse of the Duong sisters, begin placing wagers on the winner. The sixty-something sisters commence throwing things at each other and are gently escorted out of the restaurant. They head for a bakery, and they get kicked out of there, too. Finally, the three of them end up on a park bench, their hair and clothing in dishabille, and yet none of them makes any move to leap up and go home.

These are not spoilers; this all takes place within the first 17 percent.

The chapters change points of view, moving between the sisters, their elderly mother, and their daughters, all in the third person omniscient. The fascinating thing is, these crazy behaviors, and the ways that they mold and shape their daughters and their relationships, all fit perfectly.

Although the setting changes, from Orange County, California to Hawaii to Vietnam to Seattle and beyond, this story is character based, and that’s my favorite type of novel. The skeezy men they date—mostly white boyfriends with Asian fetishes—make it even funnier.

The ending is perfect.

This is one of those rare galleys that I may actually read a second time for pleasure. One thing I know for sure is that Huynh is on my radar now. I can’t wait to see what her next book looks like!

The Winners, by Fredrik Backman*****

“Do you want to understand people? Really understand them? Then you need to know all the best that we are capable of.”

The Winners is the third book in the Beartown trilogy by the iconic philosopher-novelist, Fredrik Backman. In the afterward, he tells us, “To you who have read this whole of the saga, I’d just like to say that I hope it gave you something, because I gave it absolutely everything I had.” I am one of them, and I believe him, and yes, it did. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review. It’s been an honor.

I began reading with a certain amount of trepidation, because everything I’d heard and read, some of it by the author himself, suggested that this wasn’t going to be gentle reading. Here’s how he opens it:

“August ends with sultry, ominous heat before autumn kicks the door in at the end of the month and the temperature tumbles in free fall. The natural world around us becomes erratic and aggressive, the dogs and hunters feel it first, but soon everyone else does too. We notice the warnings, yet still the storm arrives with such force that it knocks the breath out of us. It devastates the forest and blocks out the sky, it attacks our homes and our towns like a grown man beating a child.”

Woof.

The characters we’ve met in the first two books, Beartown and Us Against You, are all present and accounted for, and now that his faithful readers already know most of the central characters, Backman gives us a few more. The new hockey coach is Elizabeth Zackell, a quirky individual if ever there was one, and smart as hell. We are introduced to a family from Hed, the nearby town whose club is Beartown’s archrival; we become attached to these people, too. But ultimately, we see the way that great love and passionate loyalty can go hand in glove with violence and even evil.

It’s a story that can take your breath away.

I won’t try to address the whole story or individual characters; that’s Backman’s job, and he does it quite nicely. I had a quibble with the way the first book ended; I said in my review that it was over-the-top, bordering on glib. I see now that this was deliberate, and he wants us to see that not every family responds to a crisis as well as the Andersons have, and not every victim of a violent crime is able to see justice done; not everyone has the heroic instincts of Amet, the player that runs toward the fire rather than away from it.

The hallmarks that make Backman’s work so special are all here. I can count on one hand the number of male authors that genuinely respect women and are willing to go to the mat for women’s rights, and he is one of them. He is a vocal champion of the rights of gays and lesbians, and his prose shows keen understanding of the struggle they face, even now that their legal rights are protected in much of the world. His capacity to juggle a large cast of dynamic characters, developing nearly every one of them in a way that is consistent, along with their relationships with each other, makes me feel as if I could recognize them on the street; I don’t mean one character, or two. I mean at least a dozen of them. There are a number of characters that do bad things or make bad choices, but only a couple are genuinely bad people, and though we see little of them, they cast long shadows on these two communities.

He got the ending exactly right.

Can you read this book without reading the other two first? Don’t be a dick. Of course not. Without familiarizing yourself with the characters in the first book before the second, and the second before the third, you won’t be able to keep everyone straight; also, this third volume is about the same length as the first and second combined. Start with the first one.

Highly recommended.

Upgrade, by Blake Crouch***-****

I loved Dark Matter, Crouch’s award-winning science fiction novel based on the notion of parallel universes. When I was invited by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine to read and review Upgrade, I jumped on it.

This is a story that hits the ground running. Logan is a scientist, and he’s also a husband and father. He leaves home one day in the normal fashion, and he never gets to go back home. He’s been kidnapped, more or less, by his own government; they plan to use him in experiments, but then he’s busted out of there by a badass ninja type that turns out to be his sister.

Surprise!

The pacing is swift and at times, the story is electrifying. However, the first half of the book is more interesting than the second half. My main criticism is the unhappy appearance of one of my least favorite tropes, the Bad Mommy. How has any living author missed the fact that this device has been done to death? Without this annoying feature, I would rate this book 4 to 4.5 stars.

As always when I read science fiction, I cannot tell you whether the science aspect of this novel is credible or entirely made up. I am a humanities animal through and through, so with every scientific explanation of a development in the plot, I just nod along. Okay. I believe that. Of course, I’d believe anything when it comes to scientific explanations. I have no idea how much is actual science, and how much is pseudo-, and I am okay with that. After all, it’s also fiction.

Crouch’s fans will likely appreciate this novel, and those without my own aversion to the trope mentioned above may very well like it, too. It’s for sale now.

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land***-****

The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land marks the debut of a talented writer. Omer Friedlander’s short story collection has already made reviewers sit up and take notice. My thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This collection is for sale now.

All of Friedlander’s stories are set in Israel, and all of them evoke their setting in a way that is fresh and immediate. My favorite stories are the title story; High Heels (except for the ending; more on that in a minute,) and Alte Sachen.

Here’s my issue with these stories, and it’s true of nearly all of them: the author uses endings that don’t feel like endings, leaving the reader to figure out for herself what happens. This is particularly painful when a story builds in a most suspenseful manner and then ends on a cliff hanger.

I don’t think so.

I understand that this is considered a valid choice in literary fiction, but I doubt it will ever become a popular one. When an author leaves the rarified world of literary journals and writers’ groups and opens his work up to a general readership, adjustments need to be made.

The sweetness of a well-built story that culminates in tremendous frustration when the end is left dangling finally got the better of me, and I didn’t read the last story.

Now you know; if you want it, go get it.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle, by Jennifer Ryan***

Jennifer Ryan has created a niche for herself as a novelist that writes stories for and about women during World War II, set in England. In this one, a group of villagers form a club for the purpose of recycling and reusing wedding gowns, which are otherwise impossible to procure due to war rationing. We have three main characters and a manageable number of side characters. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

I experienced an odd mix of reactions to this novel, at various points. At the outset, it’s an information dump tied together by story components. That’s okay; I’ve seen it before. We get it over with so that we can go forward knowing the relevant facts.

Our main characters are Cressida Wescott, a London fashion designer driven back to the manse of her birth when both her home and business are struck by Nazi bombs; Grace Carlisle, an underconfident vicar’s daughter who’s about to enter a marriage of convenience to a much older man of the cloth; and Violet Wescott, niece of Cressida, who is desperately in search of an appropriate Royal peer to marry, because she deserves nothing less. Through circumstances, the three become close friends. Using Cressida’s professional experience and the generous donations of women in the village, and eventually beyond it, they are able to create lovely dresses for themselves and others, with the understanding that each dress must be passed on to another bride once the first user’s nuptials are over.

By the 40% mark, my notes say that although this story is becoming a bit predictable, I am so in love with these three women that I don’t mind at all. There are some bumps along the way, to be sure. For example, Violet is aghast when she is called up by the British government to serve her time doing war work. On the one hand, I had never known that (many) British women were drafted during this conflict to serve in noncombatant roles, so this is interesting; on the other hand, it takes about ten pages for Violet to transition from the world’s most obnoxious snob, to a positively egalitarian one-of-the-girls. There’s no process, no development; it’s as if Houdini has appeared suddenly, drawn his cape over her, whisked it away, and presto, she’s a different person. At this stage, however, I make a note to myself and then resolve to enjoy the rest of the story.

At the same time, I am becoming uncomfortably aware, having read three of Ryan’s four novels, that these books follow the same formula: different women are thrown together during the war in order to solve a problem of some sort; we have a character from the lower income bracket; another character is a wealthy woman; and there’s a complete brat that will nevertheless be transformed and redeemed by the story’s end. Group hug.

There’s another concern here, too; Violet is assigned to drive a brash American officer around London. Every time she does so, the guy hits on her, and not subtly, either. He stalks her, he harasses her, and so she falls for him. Better make her a dress.

Have we not progressed beyond this hazardous trope?

The story has a hurried quality to it. At first, as I note that every time someone is happy, they grin—never smiling, smirking, chuckling, guffawing, or giggling, they grin, grin, and grin some more—I chastise myself for picking at a perfectly lovely story and I move on. But it gets worse, and by the end, I run a quick search, thanks to my digital galley and my reading app’s features—and discover the word has been used 51 times.

Editor?

By the time we reach the conclusion, everything seems so obvious that I wonder if someone’s AI did most of the work here. And yes, of course that is hyperbole, but it’s also a disappointment.

Those that haven’t read anything by this author and that love historical romances may enjoy this book, but by the merciful end, I confess that I no longer did.

The Matchmaker’s Gift, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

“The heart is big enough to hold both grief and love.”

I read Loigman’s debut novel, The Two-Family House, followed by The Wartime Sisters, and I loved them both, so when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review The Matchmaker’s Gift, I leapt. Once again, Loigman has me at hello. This outstanding historical novel is for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

The story is told from the point of view of two protagonists, a woman and her grandmother; they were close, but Sara the grandmother has died, so her story is told in the past, beginning in 1910, when she arrives in the U.S. as a child, along with her family. Abby is her granddaughter; her story begins in 1994. Their stories are told alternately, but both are in the third person omniscient and told in a linear time frame, so I am free to lean back, relax, and get lost in their stories, without any confusion or doubling back to check things.

Sara was a matchmaker, although she initially had to be very careful, because Jewish tradition dictated that matchmakers be married men, and she was still just a girl. But she was gifted with visions of a sort, and could tell who belonged together. And so she was forced to create matches “in secret, pairing people together like a rogue puppeteer.” She never missed. And upon her passing, she leaves a cryptic message indicating that upon her death, Abby will inherit her special talent.

Abby is nonplussed by this, and even as she grieves her beloved grandmother’s death, she is confused as to what she should do. She’s a divorce lawyer, for heaven’s sake! Is she to toss her education and become a modern day yenta? She hasn’t even found a man for herself yet, let alone for others.

It’s always a joy to find a story that diverges from the well-worn path, and novels involving Jewish matchmakers—or any others, for that matter—are thin on the ground. But that is only a small part of this novel’s appeal. I love Sara and Abby; I almost feel they are my friends. I feel their sorrows and admire their courage and integrity. When either of them meets with unfair opposition, I want to smack their detractor with my cane.

But there’s something extra that’s infused into Loigman’s stories, an intangible but unmissable warmth. Nobody can teach anyone this. I can count on one hand the number of authors that can write heartwarming stories that don’t follow formulas or insult the reader’s intelligence. Loigman is one, and this makes her golden.

When I was halfway finished reading this glorious novel, I saw that an audio galley was available. I was a bit cautious, because I had already developed a firm sense of how these women sounded in my head, and I was afraid I might not like the narrators’ interpretations, but my concern was unfounded. I had a road trip ahead of me, and I listened to the next forty percent as I drove, and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t love. Narrators Eva Kaminsky and Gabra Zackman do a lovely job, and I have never had such a seamless transition from the digital galley, to the audio, and back again.

Highly recommended, and bound to be one of the year’s best loved books.

Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.