Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.

Before the Rain Falls, by Camille Di Maio***

beforetherainfallsThose looking for a sweet, light romance will find it here and come away happy. It was just published, and you can get it now. Thanks go to Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The story is divided between three protagonists, and the narrative alternates to include each of their points of view. Two of the characters are Della Lee, a very elderly woman recently paroled from a life term in prison for the murder of her sister, and Paloma Vega, a young doctor that’s returned to her hometown on the Texas border to take care of family business.

One thing that drew me to the title is that the most important characters are both women, and it is they that prove to be the most dynamic. Our third character, Mick Anders, is a journalist seeking Della’s story. He is changed by it, and yet really his character exists as a foil for the two women. So far, so good.

Because the premise starts with the woman who’s spent her entire adult life in prison, I was expecting something grittier. Women in prison haven’t really made it into a lot of fiction, and so my interest was piqued. I was also hoping for a social justice angle, and to be fair, the teaser promises no such thing, and so to an extent, this disappointment is one I brought on myself. Though Della’s reminiscences as she unspools her memories for Anders recount some of what she went through, it really isn’t a prison story, but the story of Della’s own life and the sacrifice she has made.
The parallels between Della’s life and Paloma’s intrigued me and I was hoping the novel would veer in the direction of literary fiction, some allegory perhaps; something subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This isn’t that either. Soon the parallels feed into a tidy package, and the coincidences are just too many. I had reconciled myself to the likelihood that this really would, in fact, be a straight up historical romance, and if the end had been crafted in a more nuanced way I could have given it four stars, but instead it is predictable, and when that happens there can’t be magic, because the Great-And-Powerful-Wizard’s curtain has been pulled away by the unlikeliness of the story. Toto has the curtain in his mouth, and instead of looking at Della, at Paloma, and Nick I am looking Di Maio and saying, Oh come on. Seriously?

Some of the better moments in the story are the side elements, the interaction between Paloma and her sister Mercedes, an adolescent smarting from Paloma’s abandonment when she moved away. Paloma is wooing her back into a sisterly relationship, and her clumsy missteps and the ways in which she corrects herself are resonant and absolutely believable.

Although Della’s back story feels over-the-top to me, her present, the return to her home after seven decades away, the changes in the home and the strangeness of being back in the world and at liberty are also well done. The author does a nice job in crafting Della’s present-day setting and wedding it to her story.

Those looking for a traditional romance, something to pack for a vacation that will leave a warm, fuzzy afterglow will enjoy this novel, and to them I recommend it.

The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Myers*****

thewidowofwallI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. What, Wall Street? What does that have to do with the real lives most of us lead? But when I noted that the story involves an enormous tumble off that golden pedestal, I was intrigued. I am really glad I accepted the offer to read, because it contains a feminist subtext that I had no idea would be here. This story will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

I had to read the reviews of others to learn that this is a fictionalized version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but if you approach it as straight fiction it’s just as good. The premise is that Phoebe marries Jake when she is very young, and she’s grateful to him, because she’s in the early stages of pregnancy with a little gift planted in her by a college professor who groomed her, screwed her in the upstairs lounge at school, and then dumped her so he could move on to the next nubile young lady in her class. It’s a time in history when becoming a single mother was an absolute taboo for any Caucasian woman of the middle class. Perhaps you had to be there, but I am telling you it was simply unthinkable. Not only would she have lost friends; her entire family would have lost friends, and maybe relatives also. The social stain was one that did not wash out.

And while we are talking about the time period—starting in 1960—I need to point out that Myers has nailed, with brilliant yet discreetly woven detail, the settings of the time periods between then and now in a way that’s undeniable and that draws me further into the story. Some authors try to use shortcuts in writing historical fiction, and when they do it you can tell they don’t have a grasp of the period: they toss in the names of popular celebrities, clothing styles, and other prominent bits of pop culture that they could glean from a ten-minute web crawl. Myers does the opposite. She focuses on the story and character, character, character, but the time period comes out in the background, as it should, with every aspect from the slang of the period, to its social mores, to every aspect of daily living. This reviewer grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the story progresses, I find myself thinking, “I remember that!” I highlighted a hundred references that won’t fit into this review just out of sheer admiration.

Those that just want a beach read can get this book and use it as such, but for those that want to peel off the layers and look for what’s underneath, the feminist message is one we can relate to today easily. The assumptions that are made about her as a wife, that she is an appendage, and the way her family treats her speak to me. In some ways, I find myself thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman simply becomes part of the home environment; at one point Phoebe notes that her family doesn’t want to hear her talk, and they don’t even really want to share their own stories with her, but she’s like a lamp that should be present when desired for whatever purpose suits the moment.

In the end, when her husband goes to jail for having stolen every penny from his investors, Phoebe has a choice to make. She can stand by her man, trying to eke out a little stash for his prison account so that he can buy candy bars and stamps, or she can live her life without him. To some it might seem to be an obvious decision, but by the time he is jailed, she is past sixty; she has lived her entire adult life with this man, and the mind of a senior citizen is not as flexible as a younger one. The way she works through it is riveting.

Read it as a feminist folk tale or read it as a beach read; one way or the other, this novel is highly recommended. (less)

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

Happy release day to Andrew Krivak! This one is head and shoulders above the rest. If you are ready to get lost in a book, it’s for sale now.

Seattle Book Mama

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and…

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The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and has been steeped in the tradition of those that came before him. His grandfather, Jozef, served in the trenches during World War I; Jozef’s son, Bo’s father, was imprisoned for desertion during World War II and then died in a hunting accident upon his return home. Bo’s grandparents and mother have raised him and his brother Sam, who is missing in action in Vietnam. When Jozef dies, Bo is the last man left to carry on the family business and the traditions with which he was raised.

The title of the book refers to the sign for which Agamemnon was to watch for news from Troy; the book is begun with the relevant quote from Aeschylus, an old friend in literature that I hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. I tell you this not to intimidate you, because I think this text is accessible to most high school graduates that love good literature. No, I just want you to understand that this is a work of depth and quality…and also unending sorrow.

Hannah, Bo’s mother, has been writing to the Navy twice each month for updates about the status of her missing son. Without a body, she doesn’t feel free to mourn; without a notification of death, she holds on to a tiny filament of hope that Sam may come marching home and surprise them all, any day now. Foremost in everyone’s minds is that Sam must not also be considered a deserter.

Now President Nixon speaks of ending the war with honorable peace, but there can be no real peace for Hannah; the Navy sends the same response every time she writes, “informing her that Sam was still carried in a missing status. Like he’s in a box somewhere, she would say, and the marines just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet.”

Father Rovnavaha is their parish priest, but he is also an old, dear family friend, and as he lays to rest two generations of a local family that are killed in a terrible flood, he seeks to comfort those present, perhaps himself included, by speaking of a kingdom, but Hannah has trouble believing as she once did:

 

“Her faith was once that strong, but she doubted it now, doubted not that there was a promise but that the promise claimed was a gift to hold, a joy that could assuage all sadness. No, she had come to believe that the only thing one could be certain of was loss. The loss of others as one lived on.  Loss as the last thing one left behind.”

 

Bo’s inheritance takes him in directions no one could have foreseen, and so although Krivak’s novel is indeed full of loss, it also shows us that hope can come from a direction never anticipated.

The characters here are beautifully rendered, developed so subtly that we aren’t aware of it occurring until it’s accomplished. There are no heavy-handed devices such as diaries or extensive local gossip; we see who each person is by the things that they do, and just as in life, we know who they are not only by their words, but by their actions. Krivak never lets a stereotype embrace his characters or plot; the result is so genuine that I feel I am following a dear old friend through the narrative.

Highly recommended for those that love historical fiction, as well as for anyone that needs an excuse to sit down and have a good cry.

House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel**

houseofsilenceThe premise of this historical romance had me at the get-go: Isabelle Larkin is engaged to marry wealthy, powerful Gregory Gallagher, but she calls it off after she sees him commit murder. Her family doesn’t believe her, and embarrassed, they have her trucked off to a sanitarium, where she meets Mary Todd Lincoln. I thank Net Galley and Kensington Publishing for the invitation to read and review. This book becomes available for purchase December 27, 2016.

Barthel’s story has some nice moments. I love the bit where our protagonist ruminates about the impropriety of unlacing her boots in a place where they might be seen; let no one think her a loose woman!

However, there are also moments when the narrative hiccups in a way that startles me. Ultimately, this happens so frequently that the spell is broken, and instead of being transported to a different time and place in the way one is with strong literature, I am reminded all too often that this is a galley, and it’s one that needs a hands-on editor before it should see daylight.

Every writer of historical fiction has to make a choice. Are we going to use exactly the same forms of language and speech that were common to the time, or are we going to ease up just a little and use the book’s note to the reader to explain that this has been done intentionally for the purpose of creating a more accessible novel?  This of course doesn’t even include the extremely risky, though occasionally very successful choice to move an historical tale to the present setting; modern Romeo and Juliet stories immediately come to mind.

Barthel has chosen to play it straight and use the speech of the time, but every now and then, a phrase or sentence of twenty-first century casual speech flies in and lands mid-chapter, a bit like a flying saucer. Suddenly I see “As if I cared about sex at a time like this”, and “I hope you are all right with that.” There are a lot of these moments inserted into a page here or there of otherwise-Victorian prose, and they keep me from buying into the premise.

I hope that this story will be re-released somewhere up the road, and if so, I would be happy to reread it and possibly recommend it to the reader. It’s a shame to see such an excellent premise spoiled with what is essentially sloppy editing. But in its present form, I can’t recommend it to you.

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch****

“Julia hated thinking about money. There’d always been enough. Other people provided, but she had to work. She could sweep and wash and light fires, or she could sing and dance and let them look. Singing and dancing won all, hands down.”  orphansofthecarnival

Thank you to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book comes out Tuesday, November 8.

Orphans of the Carnival is a fictionalized account of the life of Julia Pastrana, a Paiute woman born in Latin America in the nineteenth century, a time in history when people born with serious birth defects have no surgical alternatives, and are viewed by many as having been cursed by God; often they find themselves, as Julia does at one point, as traveling circus acts, with their physical difference providing them with a means of making a living, however degrading, during a time when there is no medical alternative and no government safety net.

Her early life is spent as a servant and nurse to an elderly relative after her mother abandons her. Given the chance to perform—and be stared at—for a wage with room, board, and transportation thrown in, she chucks her broom, chamber pot, and scrub brush and hits the road with a circus.

Part of the allure in Julia’s performance is that she begins it completely covered, with a dress, long sleeves, and a veil covering her face; she sings and dances, saving the  big moment when her veil is lifted for the end of the act. In order to make a living largely based on the need of the public to see what she looks like, she cannot go out in public or be seen outside of the show, which makes for a lonely existence. But over the course of time, her circumstances change once she places her career in the hands of a manager named Theo Lent.

There are few remaining records existing of Pastrana, and so when Birch tells this story, most of it is invented. On the one hand, she has little information to work with, but on the other hand, she is also not constricted in her storytelling by a long list of historical details to be attended to. I love the wry way in which she wraps the whole thing up, particularly with regard to Theo, who even the scant available data demonstrates was a real piece of work. I won’t give you any more than that, because there are twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

There’s also an alternate narrative that takes place in the present, involving a woman named Rose, a hoarder with a mysterious background. I think the story would work just as well and perhaps better without Rose, but this is a minor aspect of the overall story, and it also doesn’t detract much if at all from the main plot.

About halfway through the book I run a Google search for an image of Pastrana, and of course, Wikipedia doesn’t let me down. I am shocked, not by how horrible she looks, but by how normal she appears. She does have more body hair than most women, but there’s skin showing through; the appellate of “bear woman” is a tremendous exaggeration. She is born with an overly extended jaw line and a second row of teeth, two separate disorders; in addition, there’s another disorder that causes the excess body hair. But the response of the crowds seems overwrought, though it is undoubtedly what happened at the time; if the public, or a part of it, didn’t see Pastrana as truly unusual, she wouldn’t have made this her livelihood, because the crowds would not have come.

Why read this book? I was initially drawn by the cover, and then again by the unusual topic. In this troubled election period, I am more than ready to escape to a completely different time and place, and to be sure, Julia’s problems make others seem miniscule.

What keeps me interested once I commence is Birch’s writing. She knows how to drive a plot forward, and when to step back from the midway craziness and insert something wry and understated to make us smile slyly. I find myself wondering where she plans to take this or that aspect of the tale, and she never disappoints.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.

“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”

I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.

The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.

But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass.  And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.

About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.

As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.

Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:

“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”

But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”

She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.

The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.

And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers.  Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.

Highly recommended to everyone.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith*****

thegirlfromvMartin Cruz Smith is the best-selling author of Gorky Park and the Arkady Renko series. His new stand alone novel, The Girl from Venice, shows he hasn’t lost his magic, and it quickly became my favorite DRC once I began reading it. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley, from whom I received an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. You can get this book today.

Cenzo Vianello is a fisherman from the tiny village of Pellestrina, an ancient place steeped in tradition. He once had two brothers, but now has only one; Hugo died in Mussolini’s Africa campaign, and his remaining brother Giorgio is a movie star as well as an influential member of the Fascist government. Cenzo detests him for his politics, but even more for having stolen his wife Gina, who died when a bomb fell on the movie set to which Giorgio had escorted her.

All of this is background, complex and deliciously ambiguous in many aspects. It is within this context that Cenzo finds the girl, Giulia, floating like a corpse in the lagoon. To his surprise, he finds she is alive. She is Jewish, from a wealthy family and on the run. She figures that if the poet Byron could cross that lagoon, then so can she. Cenzo hates to spoil her dream, but he tells her this is a dangerous plan, and for many reasons. He develops a plan for her rescue, but later finds he is ambivalent about having turned her over to someone else. Is she safe? Does she remember him? Who can he trust, and who not?

One must, after all, be careful who one embraces.

“The trouble was the war. It should be over. Instead, the Americans were taking forever while Mussolini ruled a puppet state and the Germans, like decapitated ants, went on fighting.”

 When one fears defeat, one may become desperate; in some ways, the Fascists now have little to lose, and so their behavior becomes more extreme. There are partisans that oppose the Fascists, but it’s difficult to be sure who is sincere, and who is a double agent.

Part of the suspense inherent in successful spy novels is the feeling of looking over your shoulder, wary of everyone all the time. The relationship between Cenzo and Giorgio is particularly well developed and is intertwined with this aspect of the story; we never know whether one of them is going to kill the other, and when Giorgio says he will help Cenzo, we wonder whether he is helping lead him into a trap.

Although Giulia provides us with a premise and a scaffold for the story, not to mention a really beautiful book jacket, hers is not the character we see developed. The characters that are meaty and interesting are the brothers.

That being said, Smith should get credit for including an interesting female side character in Maria, the wife of the consul of Argentina, a woman with shadowy business and motive. Maria isn’t there to seduce anyone, not really; she’s also not a victim. In a field riddled with endemic sexism, I was happy to see this progressive element, and was fascinated by the brief, spectral appearance of her husband from his sickbed.

This story is a page-turner, an unmissable tale that will keep your light burning late and distract you from your daily pursuits until it’s over.  Don’t miss this one.