Let’s Not Do That Again, by Grant Ginder*****

“Justice always comes first.”

Grant Ginder is one of the funniest writers alive. I read and reviewed Honestly, We Meant Well when it came out in 2019, and I knew then that I’d read whatever he wrote from that time on. Is Let’s Not Do That Again as funny? No, friend, it’s even funnier.

My thanks go to Net Galley, MacMillan audio, and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

Nancy Harriman is running for Senate in New York City, with the assistance of her loyal son, Nick, and hindrance from her rebellious daughter, Greta. She’s focused; she’s determined. And that’s a good thing, because her daughter is focused on ruining Nancy’s life.

Parents don’t always know what their children get up to online; this is doubly true when there’s only one parent, and she’s busy running for the public office her late husband used to hold. And so Nancy doesn’t know that Greta is in league with the devil, till Greta has obtained an ungodly sum of travel money from her grandmother, and has flown to Paris to be with him.

With Greta is Paris, one thing leads to another and in a breathtakingly short amount of time, the wicked little Frenchman has manipulated her into causing destruction on a level that makes international news. Nick, the good son, is sent across the Atlantic to retrieve his sister, who appears penitent, but isn’t.

From there things spiral further out of control, and it’s hard to imagine just how this story will play out, but when I see where Ginder takes it, I bow in awe.

I am fortunate enough to have received both the digital and audio versions of this delightful spoof. Susannah Jones is such a skilled narrator that at times, I forget that there’s only one person telling the story. On the other hand, there’s some creative, very funny spelling peppered into the narrative that you’ll miss out on if you don’t see the text. All told, I’d say it’s a toss-up. Go with whichever mode makes you happiest.

Highly recommended, especially if you lean a little to the left.

A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, by Sarah Bird***

I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Bird’s historical fiction since I read Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, which was published in 2018. When I saw that she had a new book coming out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to start reading it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and McMillan Audio for the recording. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Evie Devlin; the setting is in Texas during the Great Depression. This is a time before government relief exists. Jobs for capable men are scarce, and for women, nearly nonexistent. Evie’s father is dead, and her mother has let her know that she won’t support her efforts to become a nurse. When hard work and determination land her a scholarship, Evie is over the moon, and she makes her way to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Galveston. The director is not happy to see her; she disapproves of scholarship girls in general—a low class of girls, she believes—and in particular, a Protestant one! What is this world coming to? However, Sofia Amadeo likes Evie, and she wants her admitted, and since the Amadeo family’s money and power drive absolutely everything in Galveston, the director is forced to let Evie in. She and Sofie become roommates first, and then the closest of friends.

We follow Evie through nursing school, but on graduation day, she hits a snag and is sent away without her pin, which is the equivalent of a license to practice. Now homeless and nearly penniless, Evie is adrift, until she learns about the dance-a-thons that feature cash prizes. She was forced to dance for money as a small child and doesn’t care to do so again, but when she sees what passes for a nurse in the show—basically someone off the street recruited to play the role of nurse, but with no training of any kind—she persuades the manager to hire her instead. From there, romance and all sorts of other entanglements and complications ensue.

For roughly the first eighty percent of the book, I am enthralled. The plot is fascinating, the historical accuracy commendable. Soon this becomes my favorite galley. And this is why I feel such a colossal sense of disappointment, almost a sense of betrayal, in fact, when the ending is cobbled together with feel-good revisionism and wishful thinking. Without going into spoilerish detail, a member of an oppressed minority becomes Evie’s focus, and suddenly we roam so far from the historical truth that we never find our way back again. And make no mistake: the actual truth is ugly. But if you’re going to write in the kitchen, you have to be able to bear the heat. Or, something like that.

Sarah Bird is a badass writer. Just reading her figurative language alone gives me joy, and I am hoping fervently that this bizarre departure is an anomaly. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

As for the audio, Cassandra Campbell does a serviceable job, though the Italian accent sounds a bit like Dracula. This is a common issue, I find, and so I’m not terribly concerned about this aspect. Everything else she does is right on point. If you are going to read this book—which, sadly, I cannot recommend—I’d say it’s a toss up as to audio versus print. Go with whatever you’re most comfortable with, but do it free or cheap if you decide to acquire it.

I’ll Be You, by Janelle Brown***

Janelle Brown has written several successful novels, among them Watch Me Disappear and Pretty Things, both of which I read and reviewed; I rated both five stars. So I was greatly looking forward to I’ll Be You, anticipating the same sort of page turner I associate with this writer. Sadly, that’s not what I found. Though it has some nice moments, the pacing doesn’t measure up, and the whole thing is burdened with trite story elements and devices.

Nevertheless, my thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public April 26, 2022.

The premise: Samantha and Elli are twins, and they grow up in Southern California as child actors, with the sort of rabid fan base that makes it hard to go out in public. Sam loves acting, but Elli doesn’t, and as they grow up, Elli leaves it all behind, attends college, then marries a successful career man and buys a home in the ‘burbs. They can’t have children of their own, but adopt Charlotte, who is now two.

Samantha discovers the horrible truth, that her skills were good enough when she was a child actor; twins are popular in the industry, because child labor laws prohibit any child from working more than half a day. Identical twins can each work a half day, and so filming can take place all day. Once she is grown and looking for a single, adult career, however, she finds roles hard to come by. The drug habit she’s developed as an adolescent burgeons into something larger, more horrible, and she’s been in and out of clinics ever since, sometimes on her sister’s dime.

Now Elli has taken off and left Charlotte with their mother, who is having trouble keeping up. Mom calls Sam, figuring that helping care for Charlotte is the very least that Sam owes their family. And Sam comes. Soon it becomes clear to Sam that Elli isn’t just off on a weekend retreat, but has been absorbed into a cult; in order to save her sister, she has to (yeah, this again) pretend to be her. Meanwhile, Mom is no help whatsoever, caught in a combination of denial and family roles, in which Elli is the good daughter, and Sam isn’t.

So we have here just about every overused element I’ve seen in the last ten years. We have the alcoholic addict that wants to drink but mustn’t, needs to use, but must resist. Over. And over. And then we have Bad Mama, a very popular mechanism of late. Mothers can rarely be good guys in today’s novels, and they’re (we’re,) such low-hanging fruit. As if that isn’t sufficient, we also have the twins-changing-roles trope, slightly modified. Even the name—Elli—can anybody out there write a novel, oh please, in which the protagonist is not Allie, or Alex, or Ellie, or some other variant on this same, eternal name?

I made it through the first forty percent or so withholding judgment, because I figured this author is one that can pull it out of the water and make it shine. But I realize this book is not up to snuff when I see how frequently I am setting it aside to read my other galleys. When I read the other two of Brown’s novels mentioned above, I started them, stuck with them to the exclusion of other books, finished them fast, and reviewed them. This time I would often consider opening it, and then decide on another book instead. Finally, I resolved to finish it, and so I did, but as you can see, I wasn’t impressed.

Brown is a capable novelist, and I’m not giving up on her. Anybody can have a dud someplace in their career. But as for this book, I advise you to read it cheap or free, if you read it at all.

The Ogress and the Orphans, by Kelly Barnhill*****

This book is not at all what I expected; it’s much better than that. My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin Young Readers for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

This lovely story is told in the second person omniscient, and we cannot tell, until the end, who the narrator is. Our setting is the sweet (fictitious) village of Stone-in-the-Glen, and it’s told in linear fashion. Because its telling is straightforward, with no changes in point of view or time period, and no heart-hammering suspense, it is ideal for bedtime reading. It’s marketed as a children’s book, and here I disagree, in part anyway. The vocabulary is too advanced for an early reader, but would serve well as a story to read aloud to students in upper elementary classes, or as a read-alone for the gifted child. There is no sexual content, drugs, or bad language.

Because I believed this was going to be a children’s book, I thought I’d whisk through it in no time and review it the same week I started, but I sensed immediately, once I’d begun, that this was not that kind of story. Its length, density of page and paragraph, and content call for a more leisurely pace, but also, it’s just too good to rush through. I am a sucker for excellent alliterative language (see what I did there?) and Barnhill is a champion in this regard. I found myself going back a page or two to reread, highlighting the best passages for no reason but my own pleasure.

The plot is easily summarized. The lovely little village is friendly and flourishing until the town library, which has magical powers, burns down. Without benefit of the library, villagers keep to themselves, and they become secretive and greedy. The mayor could help, but chooses not to do so. He’s a real piece of, um, work.

The orphanage in particular is in dire straits. They haven’t been getting their promised funding lately, and the place is starting to fall apart. The children are hungry. Were it not for the largesse of an anonymous donor, one that leaves big boxes of vegetables at the gate for them to find in the morning, they would starve.

The Ogress is their benefactor. We know this early on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. However, due to the misconceptions of the villagers, which the mayor feeds shamelessly, the Ogress soon becomes a scapegoat. These two problems—local poverty, and the hostility toward the one among them that is different—form the basis of the story.

As to the allegory, which is dropped in midway through in a fairly heavy-handed manner, I am of two minds. On the one hand, my philosophy is similar to the author’s, and so I snicker when I see what she’s doing here. On the other hand, this is exactly the book one reaches for when one has had enough, enough, enough of current events and the outside world, and allegory becomes something of a distraction. When I see who the mayor represents, I start eyeing the other characters. Does the Ogress represent someone in the real world as well? What else am I missing? These musings are more likely to lodge themselves in the mind of a language arts teacher; I recognize that. But my preference would be to either turn the whole thing into a piece of political satire and own it, or to leave it alone and have a sweet story devoid of political content, one that readers on both ends of the political spectrum can enjoy—maybe even enjoy together.

These minor issues aside, I love this story. It’s my first taste of Barnhill’s writing, but it surely won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout*****

Nobody writes more convincing characters than Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novel, Oh William!, she brings back Lucy Barton, the protagonist in My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; this book is for sale now.

Reading Strout is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s a glorious thing to read writing this strong. On the other, poor Lucy Barton has endured a tremendous amount of pain, and Strout’s skill enables her to communicate every inch of Lucy’s pain and suffering to the reader. I wasn’t sure if I was up for it, but now I am glad I read it, because in this installation, most of her dreadful early years are left in the past, where they belong, and she is a successful novelist that can afford to provide for herself and when necessary, her adult daughters.

The premise is that Lucy’s ex-husband, William, has once again been left by his most recent wife; this is what happens when a man can’t keep his zipper shut. But he has taken an ancestry test, and he’s discovered that he has a half-sister that lives in Maine. His mother is dead, so there’s no asking her about this. Should he contact this sister? Well, probably not. But he’s curious. Should he? Maybe. Well, no. Unless.

Lucy is recently widowed, and she is hurting. Her second and last husband, David, was a wonderful man, and it was a terrific marriage. She misses him terribly. But she has remained friendly with William; after all, they had two daughters together, and so there are occasions. William calls Lucy to ask her advice about the half-sister, and later, he wonders if she’d drive with him to Maine. He’s not sure what to do.

I am always astonished at people that can divorce, yet remain so friendly. It’s hard enough to be courteous on occasions involving children and grandchildren; to be chummy enough to chat on the phone, to seek each other’s advice, to go on a road trip together, for heaven’s sake, seems to me like a tremendous gift. At any rate, Lucy and William are friendly, and she agrees to go with him to scope out the land of his forefathers, and do a little recon on Louise, the secret sister.

The magic of Strout’s prose is in her sterling character development. Earlier here, I was discussing how amazing it is that Lucy and William are on such good terms; these are fictional characters, but to me, they have become flesh. Lucy’s first person narrative is so intimate that I feel as if I am talking with an old friend over coffee.

If I could change one thing, I’d tone down a couple of Lucy’s mannerisms. The title, Oh William!, is used so frequently in the narrative that by the last quarter of the book I want to say, Yes, okay, I get it already. The other one is “What I mean is…,” and “…is what I was thinking.” These are legitimate devices that contribute to the writer’s voice, but I would use them less often.

Because I had fallen behind–or more truthfully, I had been avoiding this galley because I expected it to be grim—I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. Kimberly Farr is an exceptional reader, and for that reason I recommend the audio book over the print, although both are excellent.

Highly recommended to those that treasure fine literary fiction.  

Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden*****

Though I usually review books that are either newly published or are about to be, once in awhile I reach back and discuss books that have been around for awhile. This one is excellent, and I consider it unmissable.

This book is phenomenal. How much do any of us know about Genghis Khan?

One thing I learned in discussion with my spouse, who is a Japanese citizen, is that whereas we from Western cultures pronounce the warrior’s name with a hard G, Asians–including the Mongolian culture from which the Khan emerged–pronounce it softly, like a J. I figure Mongols know how the name should be pronounced, so I have begun to pronounce it that way, too.

I wanted to read this series, or at least the first entry, because although I have read at least something about most of the greatest warriors in the world over time, I had read nothing about Genghis. We have a nonfiction tome, but it’s the sort of slog one only undergoes out of desperation, or as assigned coursework.

The first two or three chapters seemed fine, but not great. I wasn’t even sure if I would read the rest of the series. By the halfway point, however, my mind had changed completely! I found myself online doing image searches for the housing, clothing, and other parts of the nomadic life.

I have purchased the next in the series. I rarely buy books for myself, because I have so many already and have such constant access to galleys that it isn’t necessary; yet now and then, there’s a book I’ve gotta have, and that’s how I feel about this series.

Highly recommended for those that are interested in this time and place in history; in Genghis himself; or in military history.

Chevy in the Hole, by Kelsey Ronan***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Chevy in the Hole is Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel. I love strong working class fiction, and the title and book cover spoke to me. But while it shows a good deal of promise, it’s also a cautionary example of how, in trying to do too much, one can do too little. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale today.

The protagonists are Gus Molloy, who is Caucasian, and Monae Livingston, who is Black. The book opens as Gus is being revived with Narcan on the floor of a dirty restroom in Detroit. We follow him as he meets Monae, a student working at a farm outside of Flint. Their stories are told alternately with bits and pieces of the lives of their predecessors.  

The story is promoted as a love letter to Flint, and a tribute to the resilience of its people; it’s a story of “love and betrayal, race and family.” And we do surely see all of those things, but as soon as one aspect or another is touched on, I wink and poof, it’s gone. Gus and Monae are both sympathetic characters, and I can’t help pulling for them, but I suspect the author could have developed them more fully had we not spent so much time and detail on fragments of their parents, grandparents and so on.

If the author’s purpose is to use these characters from the past to showcase the various struggles through which Flint has gone—sit-down strikes, Civil Rights marches, and now, this horrifying industrial sludge that has polluted the town’s drinking water—it could have been done in a paragraph or two, or through some other device than shifting the point of view. The frequent changes of character and time period make it confusing as heck, particularly while listening to the audio version; that’s a shame, because Janina Edwards is a warm, convincing reader.

But we frequently shift from one protagonist to the other, even after they are married, and all of these people from the past have to be sorted by both time period, and by which protagonist they are related to.  A story like this should flow. As it is, it’s work listening to it, and had I not been granted a digital review copy as well to refer to, I might have given up.

My other frustration is that both the labor history and the Civil Rights issues—with Black people shut out of company housing in the past, and the issues with cop violence as well as the pollution that is visited most within the Black community—are huge. The pollution problem is immense, and ties back into both of the other issues. This book could be a powerhouse, a call for change to reward to the plucky souls that have stuck with this place through hell and high, toxic water. Instead they present almost like postcards; oh, look at this! Now look at that! Okay, never mind, let’s go on back to the present.

That being said, the author’s mission is an ambitious one, and her word smithery is of high caliber. I look forward to seeing what else she publishes.

If you choose to read this book, I recommend using the printed word, whether digitally or as a physical copy.

Our Country Friends, by Gary Shteyngart*****

Gary Shteyngart is a funny guy. In Our Country Friends, he tells a story in which Sasha, a former literary luminary, up to his eyeballs in debt, invites five friends to join him and his little family at their country estate to weather the pandemic. The results are not at all what he anticipated.

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

Shteyngart does us the favor of listing the cast of characters (“Dramatis Personae,”) at the book’s opening, and I relied on it heavily. Because all of the characters are introduced at the outset, I took a ridiculously long time getting them straight, but it was worth it. The group’s dynamic would be fairly stable but for the introduction of “The Actor,” someone he knew back in the day but who is an A-lister now. But frankly, some, if not all, of the other guests would probably not have come but for the mention of The Famous One as a possible addition. When he comes, the women practically swoon in his presence, and then nothing is the same for the rest of the story.

The first third of the book seems relatively formless, but I suspect the author (should I say, “The Author?”) is warming us up, letting us get to know the characters before a lot of other action takes place. The promotional blurb tells us that this story encompasses six months and four romances, and that it’s about love, friendship, and betrayal, and that sums it up.

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy novels about rich people, but because Shteyngart is setting them up for satirical misery and angst, I dive in, and I emerge shortly afterward, laughing. This sly humor is unmissable.

Because nearly all of the characters are over forty, I highly recommend this story to readers of a literary bent—if you know Chekhov, it’s even funnier—who are forty or over.