The Book Woman’s Daughter, by Kim Michele Richardson****

Kim Michele Richardson broke new ground in 2019 with her blockbuster novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, which features an oppressed minority in Appalachia. In the early years of the 1900s, and possibly before, tucked into the hills and hollers of rural Kentucky were a small number of people that had blue skin. This first novel featured Cussy Mary Carter, a Blue woman that worked as a pack horse librarian as part of the WPA, a new government agency created by the FDR administration. In this sequel, it is her daughter, Honey Mary Angeline Lovett that joins this organization and in doing so, struggles toward emancipation when her parents are jailed for violating the miscegenation laws existing at the time.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks for the review copy.

When her parents are jailed for having intermarried—with “Blues” considered colored—Honey Lovett is sent to live with Retta, an elderly woman that has been like a grandmother to Honey. Returning to the area where she was born, Honey—who is also Blue, but only on her feet and hands, particularly when she is distressed—collides with many of the same biases and legal obstacles that her mother faced.

This sequel features more women that occupy nontraditional occupations; in her notes, Richardson says that she wanted to “explore themes of sisterhood.” The sentiment is a welcome one to this feminist Boomer; at the same time, it’s important to recognize that until the outbreak of the second world war, women seldom occupied positions with the government (our protagonist, plus her friend Pearl, who works for the Forestry Department as a fire lookout,) and as miners (another woman friend, who is harassed relentlessly.)  For there to be three such women inside such a sparsely populated area would have been unusual. That said, I like the character of Pearl a lot, and providing Honey with a friend and peer gives the author more opportunities to flesh out her protagonist.  

The novel’s greatest strengths are in the research behind it, the concept—informing readers about the existence and victimization of the Blues—and in the general setting of the time and place. Richardson knows her field.

Once again, I enjoy the return of Junia, the mule that I confess was my favorite character in the last book, as well as Tommy the Rooster, who is new. Another strength is that Honey is depicted in a more even and credible fashion than Cussy Mary, who was too saintly to be entirely believable.

However, I would still like to see some nuance in characters. There is a wide cast of characters here, but every single one is either a good guy—one that never does anything wrong—or a bad guy that never does anything good. This is a failing that would take the novel down, in my eyes, if not for the fact that Richardson has pioneered this particular time, setting, and topic. Even when a novel is primarily driven by setting, as this one is, the main characters need to be rounded out.

This book is for sale now.

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.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.

City of the Dead, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

The Alex Delaware series began in 1985 with the publication of When the Bough Breaks, and it’s been going strong ever since. City of the Dead is number 37, and in many ways, its style is closer to the original than more recent editions, and I consider this a good thing. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is available for purchase today.

The story begins with a moving van, and two drivers looking to beat that nasty Los Angeles traffic by starting early. They’re making their way through an upscale residential neighborhood when something hurtles toward them in the dark, and the van makes a sickening crunch as it rolls over it. It’s a man, clad in his birthday suit alone; nobody can see the face anymore, because that’s where the wheels went. Once it becomes clear that the man was already dead when he was tossed into the street, Detective Lieutenant Milo Sturgis is called in. Milo is a homicide cop; Alex Delaware, our protagonist, is a child psychologist as well as Milo’s best friend. Milo often consults with Alex—sometimes officially, sometimes not—when a case has tricky psychological contours.

There are two threads to our plot. The first is the aforementioned corpse under the van; a small trail of blood leads the police to the house from which it came, where they find another body, that of the woman that lived there. There are all sorts of twists and turns; the woman turns out to be someone Alex knows slightly from a case in which he testified, but the man proves much harder to identify.  The second thread is more straightforward, a custody case he’s been asked to evaluate for the court. Ultimately, there is some overlap between the two threads, and this is not something I can recall seeing in other books in the series. It’s very well done.

One thing I often forget between Delaware novels is how funny Kellerman can be. In this case, the story unfolds fast, and it isn’t until about the 70 percent mark that the humor is interjected. Delaware and Sturgis are interviewing a couple of enormous bodyguards, and the scene makes me snicker out loud. The pacing never flags, and there is a lot of dialogue that crackles and makes the pages turn

There are two elements I’ve complained about in recent Delaware novels. The first is the sordid stuff; kinky sex that comes off as a bit seedy and leaves me with a sour gut. None of that this time! I’m so pleased. The second is the unrealistic elements in which Alex does way too much cop stuff for a civilian. There have been times, in other books, where Alex tackles bad guys, or is given a Kevlar vest, and when that happens, the magic is compromised. It makes me think about the author, because I’ve stopped believing 100 percent in the characters. Again, that is scaled way back here. In fact, there’s one instance where Alex suggests that he be the one to entice a suspect into giving up a coffee cup or something else containing DNA, and Milo shuts that down. It’s not necessary, and they’re not doing that.

The last several Delaware novels have been four stars from me, because although I did enjoy them, the elements that I just mentioned kept me from going all in. This time I feel everything was exactly right. You can jump in if you’re new to the series, but once you do, you’ll want to go back for the others. Highly recommended.

The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

“Connections with others were what made life bearable…We all need reassurance, she thought. We all need people to tell us that everything is going to be all right, even when it is not, and that we should not worry, even when we clearly need to be concerned about something. We are only human, after all, and that is why reassurance is so important to us. That is undoubtedly well known.”

I am not generally fond of cozy mysteries, yet I love this series hard. I told a friend—who works as a therapist—that the #1 Ladies Detective books are the cheapest therapy on the planet, and she agreed.

My great thanks go to Edelweiss and Penguin Random House for the review copy. This charming tale will be for sale November 16, 2021.

As is usual, we have two equally important story lines woven into a single narrative. The detective story has to do with a client—a most unpleasant fellow, but a client, nonetheless—that has come to the agency looking for help with his father’s will. His father is still alive, but not entirely himself anymore, and is planning to leave his valuable home to his nurse. Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are enlisted to dig up information about this woman, and to see if anything can be done to reverse his father’s decision. The second storyline concerns Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who has decided to invest in a dubious-sounding scheme to turn secondhand buses into a bus service. Mma Ramotswe is horrified, because in order to invest the necessary sum, it will be necessary to take out a bank loan, using the building that houses the businesses—Matekoni’s auto repair, and Ramotswe’s detective agency—as collateral. There’s also a smaller thread involving human trafficking of small children locally, and as usual, it is dealt with tidily and in a most entertaining fashion.

The book begins with Mma Ramotswe wondering what makes men happy. This is a tricky way to start a book, given the current social climate especially. Many readers, women in particular, are sensitive to having a male author write about a female character’s fervent longing to make her husband happy. The internal monologue could use some tightening up here, and that’s unusual for this writer. However, this passage is near the beginning, and once it’s done, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

What is the alchemy that makes this series so successful? Certainly at the start, there was the novelty. It’s unusual for an English-language series to be set in Botswana, or at least, it was when this one began. But it takes a lot more than that to sustain a series over so many years.

For me, the gentle humor goes a long way. I also appreciate the depth of respect for working people that shines out of every book in this series. Mma Potokwane, who runs the orphan farm and is Mma Ramotswe’s closest friend, reflects on the squabble over the old man’s will. “Rich people are always forgetting that they are only rich because of the work of others. They do not dig their money out of the ground, you know, Mma.”

Also? There are a lot of us out here that are also “traditionally sized,” and we love seeing lovable, successful characters that look, to some extent, like ourselves.

There’s the notion that people are inherently good—try finding that in your average noir detective story—and also, the idea that ordinary people can and should intervene to the best of their ability when they see wrongdoing. “Sometimes those people simply did not see what others could see; sometimes their hands were tied; sometimes they felt threatened. And all of that meant that there were times when it was left to people like them, a private detective and the matron of an orphan farm, to do what had to be done.”

This story, however, is singular in that both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi manage their husbands through deception. Grace Makutsi reveals that she gets her husband, Phuti, to take his vitamins by stirring them into his breakfast tea without telling him. Precious Ramotswe, when unable to persuade Matekoni not to apply for the bank loan, sneaks around behind his back, looking for a way to kill the deal without his knowing it. Neither of these things leads to marital disaster, yet I find myself wondering whether these things may come back on them in a future installment.

The fact that I find myself feeling concerned about the marriages of two women that are fictional, fictional, fictional says a great deal about Smith’s capacity to develop characters with depth and breadth.

I can talk about this series, and these characters, and this book all day. I’ve already come close to it. But the best way for you to appreciate it is to get this book. It comes out in a week, so I suggest you order a copy now. Highly recommended.

Forget Me Not, by Alexandra Oliva****

Oliva made her debut in 2016 with The Last One, a genre-defying story in which technology fails with disastrous consequences for reality show contestants. I was delighted when I received the invitation to check out her current novel; big thanks go to Ballantine Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Linda Russell lives alone. She has had a traumatic past, and she is naïve in some ways about the world around her, having been kept apart from it for so many years. Money isn’t a problem, though; she has inherited a pile of it. Yet we cannot envy her, because the unspeakable horrors she has seen outweigh the benefit of her wealth.

When we meet Linda, she is in her nest chair surfing the internet. Her sheath provides her with information, but we have to figure out what a sheath and nest chair actually are by examining context, which takes a little while. And this is a key part of the suspense, giving us some information about the time period, the place, the technology and the characters, but also withholding quite a lot, doling it out to us in small portions so that we can follow along, without ever getting a firm grip on the situation till we are far into the story. And for me, there were moments when I became confused enough that I wanted a little more information in order to follow events as they unfolded, but most of the time the narrative was paced effectively. I began to have a solid enough grip on the basic facts to follow the story well at about the 36% mark.

Linda is a clone, and her story went big several years ago, when she was found emaciated and filthy, having been more or less feral inside a walled property where her mother abandoned her. The part of her past that weighs on her mind most heavily is the fate of her twin. Lorelei, whom she must not call “Mother,” loved Emmer, but not Linda. Both of them were created in an effort to duplicate Lorelei’s deceased daughter, Madeleine, and Emmer resembled Madeleine more. Of course, everyone knows that eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable, and so it is with Linda’s memories, but she knows this for certain: after a particular point in time, Linda never saw either Emmer or Lorelei again.

Meanwhile, a cult of sorts has sprung up around Linda, whom social media has dubbed “clone girl.” Rumors are spread; even the tiniest hint as to her possible whereabouts is greedily devoured by those following her story. And so, Linda hides, and she talks to no one; that is, until her new neighbor, Anvi, pushes her way into Linda’s life. Anvi is new in these parts, and she wants a friend.

To say that this story is a thriller or a mystery is unfair, and will lead the reader to a dissatisfying end. The focus of the book is not on unraveling a crime, and the hair-on-fire pacing that marks a thriller isn’t present here. I keep turning the pages, not because my heart is slamming in my chest, but because I am curious. The story really is about our character. Likewise, although the story is technically science fiction, my interest isn’t captured and held by complicated new technology, but by Linda herself, wanting to see her unharmed and able to lead something resembling a normal life. So I urge interested parties to come to this novel with an eye for character, because that’s the anchor here.

At the climax—and I’m being fairly vague here so as not to spoil the ending—there’s a moment when Linda behaves fairly stupidly when she is faced with an urgent problem, and I feel let down, but then she rallies and pulls herself together, and I let my breath out and smile. Go, girl, go.

When I learn what is really in back of the personal mysteries Linda faces, I’m inclined at first to regard it as far-fetched, but then the sci fi aspect kicks in, and let’s face it: science fiction and fantasy both permit and even require far-fetched material. What needs to be credible and consistent is Linda, and Oliva does a fine job developing her protagonist. I believe Linda at the outset, and as she changes over the course of the story, I believe her every step of the way.

I enjoyed this story a great deal, and I look forward to seeing what Oliva comes up with next. I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys good fiction that is character driven.

Right After the Weather, by Carol Anshaw****

Carol Anshaw has written a good deal of fiction, but this is the first time I have read her work. Right After the Weather turned up on Net Galley when I ran a search for humor; thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy.  This book will be available to the public October 1, 2019.

Cate is a set designer working in Chicago. She’s divorced and looking for the right woman to settle down with. She’s in her early forties, and the clock keeps ticking; Dana is the one she wants, but she wants to be more than Dana’s woman-on-the-side, and Dana isn’t leaving her girlfriend for Cate. Cate meets Maureen who is actually fairly awful, but Maureen makes her life easier and wants her desperately, and so she is trying to persuade herself that Maureen is the woman she wants. Meanwhile her ex-husband, a nice guy that she dumped when she came out, is camped out in her apartment. All of these things make it hard for Cate to move forward.  Her role model is her best friend Neale, a single mother that lives nearby, but all hell is about to break lose at Neale’s place.

Alternately with Cate’s narrative, we have infrequent but unsettling blurbs from a different point of view.  Nathan and Irene are addicts, “casual sociopaths.”  Every now and then there’s a page or two– distinguished by a different font—that articulates their priorities and plans, such as they are.  Anshaw is clever as hell, planting these tiny landmines that let us know that at some point, Cate and our criminals’ lives will intersect; at the same time, when it comes to people like this, less is more, and so they pop into the story just long enough to leave me feeling a little jarred, and then it’s such a relief to return to Cate’s story that I immediately forget about these other guys. The author plays fairly in letting us know that something is coming, but it takes awhile before I start anticipating what their role in this story will be. It’s so much easier to not think about them.

There’s some very uncomfortable material about Maureen about ten percent of the way into the story, and if I hadn’t had a review copy I might have stopped reading. However, that business gets put into context right away, and the rest of the story, though edgy, isn’t in that same out-of-bounds zone. Instead, Anshaw makes me laugh out loud several times with her dry humor and the perception that goes with it; in particular the scene with Cate’s mother is uproariously funny. I am ordinarily not pleased by bad-mother humor because it’s becoming a cliché, but when Anshaw goes there, she outclasses others and there’s no putting this book down.

I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

In West Mills, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow***

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

Winslow’s debut is set in 1941 in North Carolina. Our protagonists are Azalea Knot, an alcoholic school teacher in an African-American community, a woman shunned by her neighbors and kinfolk for her unconventional behavior and obnoxious personality. Otis Lee has family troubles of his own, but seeks redemption by helping Knot, who has two babies out of wedlock at a time when you really could not do that without terrible social repercussions. Otis is a helpful sort, and ultimately, the story becomes one about the family we choose.

I abandoned and restarted this book three times, and in the end, I never did engage with it much. I read the first thirty percent, the last twenty-five percent, and skimmed the middle. The writing style didn’t speak to me, and I couldn’t understand why Otis would care about Knot. But to be fair, Southern fiction has been a competitive genre for several years, and I was reading books by Attica Locke and Jesmyn Ward at the same time I read this.

I have a hunch Winslow is just warming up. He’ll be one to watch in the future.

That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

Never Have I Ever, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Amy Whey has everything she has ever wanted: a successful marriage, a lovely home in Florida, an adorable baby and a stepdaughter she genuinely loves. Her roots in the neighborhood are deep and secure, and her dearest friend is right there as well. Then all of it—every last bit—is threatened by a newcomer with an agenda all her own.

Jackson has had a string of bestselling novels, most notably Gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia.  She is among my favorite writers, and this is her best book to date. My thanks go to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the review copy; however, this is one novel I would have paid full jacket price for if it had come down to it. This is the finest mystery you’ll see in 2019, and it will be available to the public July 30, 2019.

It’s time for the monthly book club to meet, and although Char is the host, the group has temporarily relocated to Amy’s for logistical reasons. The members have gathered, but then there’s a rap on the door. Who in the world…?  It’s the newcomer, a renter that has taken residence in “the Sprite house,” named for its unfortunate paint color. She hasn’t been invited, but she’s come, just the same:

She was the pretty that’s on television: symmetrical features, matte skin, and the kind of long, slim, yoga body that still made me feel self-conscious about my own. I hadn’t been seriously overweight since I was a teenager, but looking at her I was instantly aware of the little roll of baby weight still clinging to my middle…She didn’t look like my own destruction to me. She looked…the world was ‘cool.’…An odd thing to think. I was forty-two years old…I looked at the loaded gun on my doorstep, and, stupid me, I hoped she had the right house.”

This new neighbor is Roux, and she is a darker, more adult version of The Cat in the Hat. Instantly divisions are sowed, and old established friendships are tested as she manipulates these women into competing for her approval.  She’s done her homework, and she knows everyone’s darkest secrets, especially Amy’s. But Roux hasn’t bargained for the kind of adversary she has chosen. Amy proves to be a bad enemy.

This is a compelling thriller, the sort that takes over my life until it’s done. I finished reading it months ago and have read dozens of other books since, but something in me still stirs when I glimpse the book’s cover. In fact, I wasn’t able to write this review until I had allowed myself to read it a second time.

Part of Jackson’s magic is in addressing real parts of women’s lives that seldom make it into our literature. It is gratifying to see her address emotional overeating as a component of Amy’s story; yet I would love to see her write another novel in which the protagonist is a good person with heart and dignity, and yet is still obese (rather than formerly.) If anyone can do that well, it’s this author.

Run along now; you’ve got a book to order. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the library’s waiting list. Nothing else can take the place of this story.