Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger*****

I’d been in a reading slump, with most of my reading carrying an element of obligation; I love reviewing except when I don’t. Something had poked a hole in my reservoir of joyful discovery, and all the juice was leaking out. William Kent Krueger’s new entry in the Cork O’Connor series, Fox Creek, put a stop to all that. I found myself looking for extra openings in my day, craving the chance to bury myself in this absorbing mystery. I haven’t felt this great about a galley since last winter.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review.

The story is set way up north in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, in the tiny community of Aurora. Cork, our protagonist, has left law enforcement and instead runs a diner, hiring himself out as a private investigator when the opportunity arises, which doesn’t happen often. When a man comes to the diner and asks Cork to help find his wife, Cork says he’ll think about it. Meanwhile, Dolores, the wife in question, is engaging in a sweat ritual out in the woods where the ancient and very wise Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux lives. It turns out that Cork’s would-be client is not her husband, and she doesn’t know him at all. He’s got a hidden agenda, alrighty, and he’s brought some rented thugs along to make his chore easier. Now there are two tasks: the first is to hide Dolores, and the second is to find out who these guys are and why they want her so much. Meanwhile, Cork’s wife, Rainy, guides Dolores deep into the woods near the Boundary Waters; Henry joins them. What follows is one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read recently. I have a hunch that Cork will be okay, since killing him would also kill the series, but the others—Henry, Rainy, and Dolores—might make it out, or they might not.

I was about to say that this is character-based fiction, so well rounded are the main characters, but the setting is resonant and important to the characters and the plot. All told, this is the way a novel is supposed to work, with strong characters and settings that make the plot believable and urgent. And as always happens when I read Krueger, I also learn some things about the setting, and about Ojibwe culture and history. (His depiction of the art of disappearing and eluding pursuers reminds me a little bit of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, but that’s all the two series have in common, apart from genre.)

This is the 18th book in the series. Can you dive in, right here right now?  Emphatically, yes! I began with the prequel to the series, which came out last year, and I loved it so much that I went to the library to check out the first book in the series—and then, I found it disappointing, because over the course of this long series, Krueger’s skill has increased, so the first book, Iron Lake, is decent, but nowhere near as brilliant as his more recent work. Now I look forward to more of this series, but always going forward, never back.

This riveting novel will be available to the public on August 23, 2022. If you love this genre, you should get this book and read it—or better still, preorder it right now. You won’t be sorry.

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow****

Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.

The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.

As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.

The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.

Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.

Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.

Cold Fear, by Webb and Mann*****

“Christmas is special here. In Reykjavik, nothing bad ever happens at Christmas.”

Cold Fear is the second in the Finn thriller series. Last year authors Webb and Mann launched the first, Steel Fear, to widespread acclaim, and I loved it, too.  My thanks go to Random House Ballantine and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist, Finn, is a singular fellow. A Navy Seal (like one of our authors,) he is currently on the run, being sought for questioning regarding war crimes that took place in Yemen. He doesn’t think he is guilty, but he isn’t sure; a large chunk of his memory of that time has vanished, leaving him—and us—slightly off balance. But Finn is a survivor, and now, in Iceland, three members of his own team are here too; he thinks they may have the information that he needs to fill in the gaps he can’t access. There’s another more worrisome person, an assassin, looking for him as well.

Meanwhile, a woman has been found dead, face up under the ice. Suicide has been suggested, but that notion quickly falls apart. When her body disappears from the morgue, the police kick into overdrive. Iceland has almost no crime of any kind, let alone murder, and so immediately, they begin eyeing the Americans in their midst, including Finn.

Finn is a memorable character. He’s funny looking, like a cross between a Gecko and E.T., and yet, thanks to his training, he can merge seamlessly into a crowd and be invisible. His traumatic childhood haunts him, but the authors don’t beat us to death with this aspect of his personality. To my delight, he is burdened with none of the overused tropes used by lesser authors such as alcoholism. He is not on a mission to avenge the deaths of people in his personal life, and he doesn’t get kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car or van. Bad guys don’t try to harm his family—of which there is none, in any case—or his pets. He doesn’t get neurotic and bite his lip till he tastes blood, or bunch his fists up so tightly that he cuts his palms with his own fingernails. Feel me? I have quite a list of things I never want to see in a novel again. This happens, once one reads over a thousand novels in this genre, and for awhile I quit the genre entirely, thinking that there was nothing new left to read. Webb and Mann have proven me wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One last word about setting. Though Finn is a resonant protagonist, the setting is more important here than in most thrillers; that was the case in Steel Fear, which was set on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and it’s true here, as well. The descriptions are resonant, but they don’t slow us down. This is a true thriller, with a pace that never flags.

I’m in this series for the duration. I also urge other women to ignore the promotions that boast that this is Alpha Male material. Last time I looked, I was an old lady school teacher, and I am all in. If you love a good thriller, I highly recommend both Finn books to you.

When the Summer Was Ours, by Roxanne Veletzos***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I had proclaimed myself to be over and done with World War II fiction; there’s been a glut of it in the publishing world, and I have well and truly had my fill. My soft spot, however, is for any book written by an author whose work I have read and enjoyed. I reviewed Veletzos’s charming debut, The Girl They Left Behind, in 2018, and so when the opportunity came up, I agreed to read and review this one, too. It was a good decision.

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

Eva Cesar, daughter of the well-to-do but terribly strict local bourgeois, falls in love when Aleandro, a Romani artist stops in her tiny town in Hungary. He is a painter and a fiddler, raising his younger brothers alone following the deaths of their parents. Eva’s father knows nothing of this romance, and it’s a darned good thing. Not only is her father a Nazi sympathizer and bigot, but she is already engaged to marry Eduard, a dedicated Red Cross physician whom she also loves.

The story follows all three of them over the years, shifting points of view. All three are likable characters; Aleandro is obsessive enough that he seems a little creepy at the outset, but as the story develops, that’s no longer the case. Eduard is a stable, likable human being, but he is the one that is least developed. Eva often makes passive decisions, which I find grating, yet these are the early 1940s, and women don’t yet know they’re entitled to be decisionmakers, at least in many regards. The plot seems to go all over the place, but it comes together quite nicely at the end.

There are two related developments I would have liked to see handled differently. First—and I’m telling you this because it occurs early—Eva becomes pregnant after just one night of passion with Aleandro. Picture me sticking two fingers down my throat. Gag, spit, gag some more; what an overused trope. But then it gets worse. Eva heads to a clinic where abortions are performed quietly, since the procedure isn’t legal; the facility is filthy, and the staff are rude; we briefly meet the doctor, who virtually has horns and a spiky tail, and dines regularly on the flesh of aborted embryos and fetuses. More or less, anyway. And with women’s rights to choose our own reproductive decisions under attack, this is the very worst possible time to put such vile propaganda into a novel. She flees, of course, and has the baby, of course. In fact, as I write this, I question my choice to knock off only half a star from my rating. I’m growing madder by the minute, just writing about it.

Moving on!

The most difficult aspect of a complex story like this one is deciding how to end it. I come back around when I see how tastefully and realistically this is achieved. The ending is both credible and sweet.

There it is; you decide.  

Joan, by Katherine J. Chen****

“Once you lift a sword, it is hard to put down again.”

I’ve been curious about Joan of Arc for a long time. I love military history, and as a feminist, I also love that Joan was responsible for leading French victories centuries before women were permitted to serve in the military of any major power. When I saw that Katherine J. Chen had written a “secular reimagining of the epic life of Joan of Arc…a feminist celebration of one remarkable—and remarkably real—woman who left an indelible mark on history,” I was all in.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

In her end notes, Chen tells us that Joan’s biographers tend to leave out her difficult home life, with a violent, angry father that hates Joan from the moment she draws breath; he has wagered heavily on her being male, and she’s failed him. Chen sees it as a major factor in Joan’s development as a warrior.

When Joan leaves home, after her beloved uncle leaves and her elder sister, her one true friend within the family, commits suicide after she is raped by English soldiers, she expects to labor for her bread, which is nothing new to her. But ultimately, she wants to get word to the Dauphin, the heir to the throne, who is in hiding: she knows how to win this war.

I absolutely love the version of Joan that Chen develops, and my only frustration is in not knowing what aspects of Joan’s life she has had to invent, and which are historically accepted as truth. She tells us that Joan’s biographers would have her praying constantly, and that they depict Joan as little more than a totem that they carry to battle, a sort of human version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. And then I wonder even more: what facts are undisputed? Of course the Church would depict Joan as hugely religious, given that she has been beautified as a saint. Did she actually influence the battle plans? This part is frustrating to me. Had more information been provided, this would be a five star review.

In any case, the battle scenes are riveting, and Joan’s character is unforgettable. I look forward to seeing what Chen writes next.

Recommended to all that love the genre.

The World Cannot Give, by Tara Isabella Burton**

Four years ago, I read Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature, a novel that was one of my favorites that year. I said it was “full of sass and swagger…genius pacing…a novel that should take all of us by storm…the makings of a cult classic.” Did I love it? Yes I did. So imagine my excitement when I saw that she had a new one coming out. Sad to say, The World Cannot Give doesn’t reach the same level. It’s dull, and it takes itself far too seriously.

Nevertheless, my thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Laura Stearns arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy; she is inspired by a novel written by a long-ago alum named Sebastian Webster. Laura yearns to find the “shipwreck of the soul” she finds in Webster’s book. Indeed, Webster has an enthusiastic band of followers at St. Dunstan’s, and so in a sense, Laura has come to the right place.

So we have these elements: a private boarding school—and this setting is in danger of being overused lately, but nothing that excellent writing cannot overcome, although that doesn’t happen here. We also have a slavish clique and hyper-religious students; and we have a whole lot of navel gazing. Or, as the synopsis tells us, “The World Cannot Give is a shocking meditation on the power, and danger, of wanting more from the world.”

If anything here makes your pulse quicken, by all means, go get this book. As for me, I tried. I did. When I couldn’t push myself through my digital copy after multiple tries, I checked out the audio version from the library; if anything, it was more pretentious and obnoxious than the written version. Yikes. I stuck with the audio version through the first two torturous hours, and then I threw in the towel.

This shipwreck is available to the public now.

Patricia Wants to Cuddle: The Audio Version, by Samantha Allen and a host of excellent narrators

Note: after hearing the audio version, I changed my rating to 5 stars. 5 stars shouldn’t be reserved for Shakespeare, for Toni Morrison, for Elizabeth Strout. 5 stars means the book is among the very best in its genre; Patricia Wants to Cuddle is among the best humorous novels being published this century.

A further note: this is the first time I can recall an audio book making a narrative easier to follow rather than harder. The presence of multiple, very skilled readers (Cindy Kay, Justis Bolding, Laura Knight Keating, Susan Bennett, and Jasmin Walker) makes it easier to tell the Catch contestants apart.

It is great to encounter my favorite parts a second time; within the last twenty percent of the book, the figurative language involving a weathervane and a turkey absolutely slay me.

Below is my original review.
________________________________________

“You have to watch out for the quiet ones.”

I had an ugly upper respiratory flu, and this excellent novel was exactly what the doctor ordered. My thanks go to Net Galley, Recorded Books, and Zando Publishing for the review copy. Patricia Wants to Cuddle will be available to the public Tuesday, June 28.

As the story begins, we are midway through filming “The Catch,” which is a reality television show similar to “The Bachelor.” Our cast includes the four lucky women to have made it this far; producer Casey; a handful of crew members; and oh dear, Jeremy, a scuzz bucket if ever there was one. Jeremy is this season’s catch. We also have a handful of locals, since we are filming on location; included is a bashful cryptid in the woods, a lonely creature that reacts very badly to stressful situations. As you may guess, Patricia is that cryptid.

These people are on Otter Island, a fictional addition to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Think deep woods, rain, and glamping. And…what the hell was that, just now? Too big to be a bear. And why are the sheep so agitated?

Baaaaa.

The contestants are mostly not interested in love; they are interested in publicity, for various reasons of their own. The shooting schedule leaves them sleep deprived on an almost permanent basis, and so given the premise of the show—competition, not cooperation—it doesn’t take long for the women to turn on one another.

Samantha Allen is new to me, but she’s on my radar now. This story is snicker-worthy at the outset, and by the time we reach the climax, I am howling with laughter. Part of the joy comes from the plot and pacing, but the biggest laughs for me are those that combine these outrageous events with some of the funniest figurative language I have ever read. In fact, were I to rate this story solely on its humor, without rating the more traditional elements such as character development, this would be a five star read.

This book will appeal most to those that lean to the left.

Recommended to those that love darkly hilarious fiction.

The It Girl, by Ruth Ware****

Ruth Ware’s novels are one more reason to look forward to summer. I’ve read four of her mysteries, and this is among my favorites. My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Press for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

Our protagonist is Hannah, and the setting is England with alternate time periods about ten years apart. In the past, we are in Oxford, where Hannah is a poor-girl-making-good. Today she works in a bookstore, is married to Will, whom she met in school, and she’s pregnant with their first child.

Hannah doesn’t graduate from Oxford; she is too traumatized by the murder of her roommate, who was also her best friend, and whom she found that night. The flashback scenes—not only the night of the murder, but the close friendships that she developed there, along with her relationship with Will, and an assortment of memories, some of them good ones—are so well depicted that I feel as if I am there with her. The group in which she travels consists of herself, Will—who was her roommate April’s boyfriend at the outset—along with Emily, Ryan, and Hugh. These last three aren’t as intimately developed, but that doesn’t matter much, because the two that count for the most in terms of her memories are Hannah herself and April. I feel as though I could pick either of them out of a crowd.

April comes from a ruling class family, and she tells other students that she has been admitted largely due to her family’s money. Eventually Hannah realizes that this isn’t entirely true; yes, her family is rich, and they’ve been generous with the school, but April is also a highly capable student and a diligent one. In fact, April seems to be very everything; today we might say that April is a lot, that she sometimes sucks all the air out of the room. She’s effusive, she’s generous, and she’s given to pulling pranks that are nasty enough to cross a line. Perhaps it’s true that opposites attract, because though Hannah is a more low-key person from a working class household, the two of them bond immediately, and Hannah considers her friendship with April more important than her attraction to Will.

The night April is murdered, Hannah and Hugh see a security guard leaving their building. He’s not supposed to be there, but he is a sleaze bucket, that guy, sometimes using his passkey to enter Hannah and April’s room, and who knows what he was doing this time? When April’s body is discovered, freshly killed, it doesn’t take long before Neville, the creepy security guard, to be arrested, convicted, and put away for life. (A note: there are a lot of Britishisms here that I had to look up. Apparently, a security guard is called a proctor, at least at Oxford.)

Now, in the present day, a friend of Ryan’s that is also a journalist contacts Hannah. All of the students in their group have been overwhelmed by press requests since the murder, and usually, they avoid them like the plague, but Ryan thinks this pal of his is onto something. The friend, Durant, believes that Neville, who has died in prison, was innocent. Now Hannah is moving heaven and earth to find out whether her evidence has sent the wrong person to prison. But who might have done it? Not Hugh, since he entered with her that night; what about the others in their group, including her own husband?

I must confess that I have a bit of trouble accepting Hannah’s sense of mission, and the extent to which she pursues it. This man was not exactly a pillar of rectitude; today he might have been fired or even charged for his misbehavior toward the girls he was supposed to be protecting. And the fact is, he’s dead. He’s never coming back, no matter what Hannah’s amateur detective work reveals. Why upset the apple cart like this, especially when she considers her own husband might be implicated? But she is pregnant, and I know from experience that when our hormones are jumping, we can sometimes have over-the-top reactions. So okay. I guess.

The other thing that gives me pause is Will’s puppyish devotion. During the last half of the book, Hannah does something that I would think would be a marriage ender. That toothpaste is never going back into the tube. Why does Will come panting back to her? This one is harder to accept.

Nevertheless, I was riveted. By the forty percent mark it was impossible for me to read anything except this book until the last page was turned, and so I recommend it to you.

Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett*****

There are indifferent writers; good writers; outstanding writers; and then there are writers like Hartnett, that leave me with my jaw dropped down to my knees, thinking that I like to write, and you probably do, too, but friend, neither one of us will ever write like this. Not ever.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy.

Emma Starling is our protagonist, and she was born with healing powers in her hands. She went away to medical school, but was expelled for reasons that we don’t understand until later, and her healing touch is gone. She has quietly left school without telling a soul back home. She hasn’t even returned for a visit, but now she has been summoned unequivocally; her father is dying, and her mama wants her to come home. NOW.

There are enough points of view in this story to make your head spin. We have the graveyard crowd, for example, and since Everton, New Hampshire is such a tiny town, everybody knows everybody, dead or alive. When I first see that the dead are discussing the affairs of the living, I am dismayed, because the legendary Fannie Farmer has already done this in The Whole Town’s Talking. But soon it becomes obvious that this story isn’t derivative in the least; Hartnett takes this device and uses it in a different way, and it doesn’t dominate the story as Flagg’s does; these characters are there to provide a slightly more objective perspective than those that still live.

There are several points of view from among the living, too. And there are references throughout to the writings of Harold Baines, a naturalist instrumental in shaping the town and in particular, the iconic yet bizarre Corbin Park, which is open only to a chosen few. There are points of view offered from the critters as well; not all of the critters are real, however. And at the EXACT moment when I begin to think that the author should have pared this thing down, for heaven’s sake, because the organization appears to be all over the place, the narrative explains that “A good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent…It might seem unrelated, but sometimes a minor character doesn’t become important until later…The lives of the living often get tangled up in unexpected ways, especially in a town as small as ours, even when a ten-foot electrified fence splits it up.”

I howled, because it felt as if the author had read my mind!

An important plot point is the disappearance of Crystal Nash. Crystal was Emma’s best friend, and had lived with the Starling family as sort of an informal foster child. Crystal developed an addiction and disappeared; Emma and Crystal had had a falling out, and Emma tries not to think about her too much now. Clive, Emma’s father, seldom thinks about anybody else. He’s turned over every rock; slapped a poster on every telephone pole.

To say the least, it’s an interesting homecoming for Emma.

As if the many points of view don’t make for a complex enough story, Hartnett takes us back in time—sometimes just a few years, at other times, way back in the past—and I am awestruck at the way she pulls all of it together at the end, with no loose ends hanging. At the outset I had been sure that this story should have been streamlined, but at the end, when I look back to see what, if anything, could be cut without detracting from the story, there is nothing that’s superfluous. Not one thing. All of these odd bits and pieces are essential to the story she is telling; “meandering,” indeed.

Because I had fallen behind in my reading, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it is brilliantly performed. Usually a story this complicated doesn’t work for me as an audiobook, but this one is outstanding and not hard to follow (although I did go back over the DRC for some quotes.)  Mark Bramhall and Kirby Heyborne do an exceptional job as narrators.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest novels we’ll see in 2022. Highly recommended in whatever format makes your heart happy.

An Honest Lie, by Tarryn Fisher**

Nope.

An Honest Lie is a thriller by Tarryn Fisher. Thanks go to Harper Collins for the review copies; I wish I had something good to say, but the truth is, this is one of the worst written novels I have seen in my many years of reviewing and blogging.

Our protagonist is Rainy, although we learn that her given name is Summer; she fled a terrifying cult earlier, and she changed her name to make herself harder to find. Now she is living in an upscale home on a mountain in eastern Washington State with her boyfriend; her boyfriend is trying to integrate her into his friends’ group, and has pressured her into going on a “girls’ trip” to Vegas while he is travelling on business. She goes, though only because she sees no way out. He bought her a ticket; she should be a good sport.

The story changes point of view from present, to past, etcetera, and we see the cult where she was more or less imprisoned in the Nevada desert during her childhood. However, adult Rainy doesn’t develop much, at least during the initial sixty percent, which is as far as I am willing to read. Fisher has wrapped Rainy’s character and the suspenseful aspects of the story together to such an extent that she can’t let us see much of the character without giving away plot points that she is saving for later. Consequently, I get tired of Rainy’s whiney anxiety fairly early in the book. But that’s not what limits this story to a two star rating.

Here’s the insurmountable problem. As noted, Rainy is an anxious mess, and the mere idea of setting foot in Nevada nearly undoes her. When they get to their swank hotel, the women discover that all of the bedrooms but one has a gorgeous desert view; the last one, the one with the view of the parking lot, is the one Rainy requests, because just looking out the window and seeing the desert is triggering for her.

And yet, somewhere shy of the fifty percent mark, Rainy hops into a cab and pays the driver to take her to the little town closest to the compound from which she escaped, and suddenly she’s playing detective, asking questions and snooping around. And reader, there is no development that explains this; there’s no aha moment where she gathers her wits and develops a plan of some sort. We aren’t even all that clear what it is that she hopes to achieve, out there in the scary, triggering desert all by her lonesome. Our protagonist goes from I-can’t-look-at-the-desert-or-I’ll-have-an-anxiety-attack-and-nightmares, to I-think-I’ll-go-see-the-place-and-maybe-seek-vengeance with no segue way, no clear goal, even.

If I were to guess, I’d say maybe the author changed a whole section of the story during the latter stages, and the sequencing and character’s motivation got messed up due to sloppy editing, but I don’t really know what went so badly wrong. It isn’t my job to know why this book is a train wreck. Whatever the reason, the result is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. I feel this way, and I got to read it free. How might others feel once they’ve shelled out the purchase price?

This book is for sale now, but I don’t recommend it to you.