The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams***

The Liar’s Dictionary sounded like a fun read, and my thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. In the end, though there are some lovely moments, the execution doesn’t live up to its promise.

This book has been in my collection of review copies for a year now, and every now and then, I’ve told myself to get with it, set aside other galleys and take care of this one. But so help me, the beginning is dry and interminable, and I found that rather than read this novel, I’d rather not read at all. Finally, I ferreted out a copy of the audio book, and when I was able to do other things with my hands, I was able to get through it, although there were still a couple of times that my mind wandered, and I had to either run it back, or dive back into the digital review copy in order to acclimate myself.

The story alternates between two protagonists in two different settings, one the present, the other the past. In Victorian London, Peter Winceworth, an alienated, abused employee, deliberately invents words to add to the dictionary to which he has been assigned. He has no personal life to speak of, and although he manufactured a lisp purely for his own amusement, his boss is so nasty to him that he can’t shake the lisp in his presence. He falls for the boss’s fiancée, but it doesn’t go well, and hence he must wreck revenge.

In the present time, Mallory is tasked with finding and eliminating the invented words. Mallory is an easier character to bond with, but neither Mallory or Peter sees a great deal of development. There are a handful of very funny moments in the mid-section of the novel, and there’s one brilliant death match between Winceworth and a homicidal pelican. Beyond that, I didn’t find much joy.

This book is for sale now if you want it, but my advice is to get it free or cheap unless your pockets are deep and you’ve got no other way to empty them.

The Family, by Naomi Krupitsky****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded upward.

The cover grabbed me first, two women in vintage sweaters—no faces even—and the title written in Godfather font. Oh, heck yes. I need to read this thing. The author is a newbie about whom I know nothing, so I know it may be a recipe for disappointment. I’ve taken review copies this way in the past, and have regretted it, because of course, the cover doesn’t speak to the author’s ability. But old school mobster books are fun, and they’re thin on the ground these days, so I hold my breath as I take a chance…and hit the jackpot!

This is one of the year’s best works of historical fiction, and you should get it and read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Antonia and Sofia grow up together; their fathers are both mobsters, and their houses share a wall. Not only are they thrown together for Family events from early childhood forward, but their peers ostracize them in elementary school, their family’s reputations having preceded them, so for several years, they are each other’s only option. But it’s enough.

Our story starts in 1928, and it ends in 1948. We follow the girls through childhood, adolescence, and into their early adult years. At the outset, their fathers are best friends, until Carlos, Antonia’s daddy, starts skimming, covertly building a nest egg in the hope of making a new start far away with his little family, doing an honest job, and leaving the Family behind.  His theft is, of course, detected, and he disappears; Joey, Sofia’s father, is promoted, and told to take care of Carlos’s widow and daughter. Thus, we have a clear, concrete reminder, right up front, that this is an ugly, violent business. The author’s note says she wants to demonstrate the strange way that violence and love can coexist, and she does that and more.

Those readers seeking a mob story full of chasing and shooting and scheming will do well to look elsewhere. We do find these things, of course, primarily in the second half, but the story’s focus is entirely on Sofia and Antonia. Whereas setting is important—and done nicely—the narrative’s fortune rises or sinks on character development, and Krupitsky does it right. These women become so real to me that toward the end, when some ominous foreshadowing suggests that devastating events are around the corner, I put the book down, stop reading it or anything else for half a day, and brood. I complain to my spouse. I complain to my daughter. And then, knowing that it’s publication day and I have an obligation, I return to face the music and finish the book. (And no. I’m not telling.)

My only concern, in the end, is a smallish smattering of revisionism that occurs during the last twenty percent of the novel. Knowing what gender roles and expectations are like in that time and place, I have to say that, while I can see one intrepid, independent female character stepping out of the mold, having multiple women do it to the degree I see it here is a reach.

Nevertheless, this is a badass book by a badass new talent, and Naomi Krupitsky proves that she is a force to be reckoned with. Get this book! Read it now.

Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

The Ride of Her Life, by Elizabeth Letts*****

Elizabeth Letts has become one of my drop-everything authors. Instead of writing about the same historical figures that everybody else writes about, she finds noteworthy women that have fallen through the cracks of history. The Ride of Her Life chronicles the latter years of Annie Wilkins, a senior citizen that given not long to live, and not much to lose, decides to embark on a cross-country journey on horseback so that she can see the Pacific Ocean before she dies. I was invited to read and review this remarkable novel by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It’s for sale now.

Annie Wilkins lives in rural Maine, and is endeavoring to continue to run the family farm. It hasn’t gone well. Between a series of events beyond her control and an aging body, she falls behind, and then more so, until the bank gives notice of foreclosure. At the same time her lungs aren’t doing well; the doctor gives her two or three years to live, but only if she does so restfully. She is offered a place at the county home, which is essentially a charity lodging for the indigent.

Under similar circumstances and with no family to fall back on, most of us would have sold the farm and gone to rest in the county poorhouse, but Annie is not like most people. She sells up, and she plans her next move carefully. She packs up the things she and her dog will need for their trip, and since the purchase and maintenance of a car are beyond her means, she buys a good horse. That’s it. She packs up her maps and gets on the horse. (The dog alternates between walking and riding.)

Part of the joy in reading of her adventures is the window it provides into the United States in 1954, before most of us were born. For those outside of cities, horseback travel is still not unusual; Annie’s greatest challenge, of course, is her lack of awareness about highway safety. Her initial plan is to ride alongside the road when possible, and on the shoulder when it isn’t, but there are a host of dangers out there, and almost everything that can happen to her, does. But people are essentially goodhearted, and in every instance, someone kind and decent comes along and does right by her and her critters.

In the polarized time in which we live, this is exactly the story we need. I suspect that if Annie were to do the same thing today, there would still be people that would come along, and without inquiring who she voted for in the most recent election or whether she has received a vaccine, would feed her, or offer up their guest room for a night or two, or would drive her to the hospital. Those people were there then; their descendants are here still. We have not changed all that much.

Letts has told an engaging story, but part of my mad respect for her has to do with her attention to detail. The very best historical fiction is essentially true, with dialogue added for interest, and Letts writes the best, no doubt about it. Her endnotes are impressive, and she tells us that she drove more than 10,000 miles while researching her book.

Because I had fallen behind with my reviews, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and alternated it with my digital galley. Both are outstanding; you can’t go wrong either way. Highly recommended!

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead*****

Ray Carney has a foot in both worlds, and he isn’t given to thinking too deeply about that. As the son of a badass criminal, he considers that he has turned out quite respectably; yet, when Cousin Freddie occasionally brings a consignment piece of jewelry to his store, he doesn’t ask many questions about its history. Thus begins a slow, steady slide, from being a mostly-straight retailer, to a mostly-crooked fence. But oh, what a glorious story it makes!

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

The first time I read Colson Whitehead was when The Underground Railroad was published five years ago. It was unquestionably a work of genius, but it was also a fair amount of work to read. Then The Nickel Boys came out, and when I finally found a copy, it was well written yet so harsh, and at a difficult time for me personally, that I thanked my lucky stars that it wasn’t a review copy, and I gave myself permission to abandon it. So thus far, my admiration for this author has been tempered by the awareness that I would need to roll up my sleeves, or to brace myself, or both.

Harlem Shuffle contains none of that. It’s told in linear fashion, beginning in the late 1950s and ending in the late 1960s. The writing is first rate, as one might anticipate, but it’s also an unmitigated pleasure to read.

Our protagonist, Carney, has married up. His beautiful wife Elizabeth comes from a family with lighter skin, higher social position, and a good deal more money. Elizabeth loves him, but she has expectations. As his young family grows to include a son and daughter, the pressure increases. But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just about Carney supporting his family:

“If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around. Dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had. The sickness drawing every moment into its service…Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them…His intent was bent but he was mostly straight, deep down.”

Freddie comes to Carney with a plan: he and his confederates intend to rob the Hotel Theresa, which is the pride of Harlem, the place to stay for Negro patrons of breeding and taste. It was almost sacrilege; and yet, it would also be a fantastic take. Would Ray Carney put out some feelers to find out who could move the sorts of valuable baubles that might be found in the hotel safe? Ray tells him of course not. No no no no no. A thousand times no! And then, he commences doing exactly that.

There are several aspects of this tale that make it exceptional. Whitehead resists the amateurish urge to fall back on pop culture of the period, instead imparting the culture and the pressures of the time more subtly. Racism against Negroes (the acceptable term of the time) by Caucasians; racism by light-skinned Negroes against darker ones, such as Carney; cop violence against all of them; the difficulty faced by Harlem merchants that want to carry first-class products but must first persuade snooty Caucasian company representatives; protection rackets endemic to Harlem, run by Negro criminals as well as cops, so that envelopes had to be passed to multiple representatives every month; and a plethora of other obstacles, stewed into the plot seamlessly, never resembling a manifesto. There’s Whitehead’s matchless ability to craft his characters, introducing each with a sketch so resonant that I had to reread them before moving on; highlight them; then go back and read them a third time after I’d finished the book. My favorite secondary character is Pepper, an older thug so terrifying that even the cops wince when they’re near him. And then there are brief shifts in point of view, and again, my favorite of these is Pepper’s.

Carney isn’t a brilliant decision maker, but he is an underdog, and he’s a survivor as well, and both of these things make me cheer him on. I haven’t had so much fun in a long damn time. When events escalate, Carney finds himself rolling a corpse into a fine carpet, and I can only hope that he chose a relatively cheap rug, because otherwise, what a waste! Those that love the genre mustn’t miss this book, filled with everything anyone could ever want in a noir-style crime novel. Do it, do it, do it!

Another Kind of Eden, by James Lee Burke****

James Lee Burke is a living legend, a novelist who’s won just about every prize there is, and whose published work has spanned more than fifty years.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Another Kind of Eden is a prequel to Burke’s Holland family trilogy. The time is the 1960s, and protagonist Aaron Holland Broussard is in Colorado working a summer job. He falls in love with a waitress named JoAnne, but there are obstacles to their happiness everywhere he looks. There’s a charismatic professor that won’t leave her alone, a bus full of drugged-out young people that have fallen under his influence, and of course, there’s corruption among the local wealthy residents, which is a signature feature in Burke’s work. Aaron is a Vietnam veteran, and he has residual guilt and grief that get in his way as well. He’s got some sort of an associative disorder, though I am not sure that’s the term used; at any rate, he blacks out parts of his life and cannot remember them. He also has anger issues, and he melts down from time to time; there’s an incident involving a gun that he forces a man to point at him that I will never get entirely out of my head, and kind of wish I hadn’t read.

I had a hard time rating this novel. If I stack it up against the author’s other titles, it is a disappointment; a lot of the plot elements and other devices feel recycled from his other work, dressed up a bit differently. But if I pretend that this is written by some unknown author, then I have to admit it’s not badly written at all. By the standards of Burke’s other work, it’s a three star book; compared to most other writers, it’s somewhere on the continuum between four and five. Since I have to come up with something, I decided to call it four stars.

All that being said, if you have never read anything by this luminary, I advise you to start with one of his earlier books–almost any of them, actually.

All the Little Hopes, by Leah Weiss*****

Recently, I read and reviewed Weiss’s debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, which was delightful. This year’s novel, All the Little Hopes, is better still. My thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy.

Weiss’s story is of two girls born in different parts of North Carolina, both geographically and culturally, and of how they come together and ultimately, become each other’s family. The novels I love best provide a resonant setting, an original plot, and compelling character development; these three elements don’t compete for the reader’s attention, but rather, each of them serves to develop and reinforce the others. That’s what I find here.

Our story takes place in the 1940s, during World War II. The narrative comes to us in the first person, with the point of view alternating between the girls; we begin with Lucy. Her father is a farmer, and by far his biggest crop is honey. As the story opens, government men come to visit, and they want to buy all of his honey for the war effort. Lucy’s eldest sibling and brother-in-law have both gone to serve in the military, and there’s an emotional scene after the government men leave, because they’ve given permission for both sons to return home to help with the honey. Lucy’s mother pleads with her father to write to them and order them home at once; he stands firm, saying that the choice must be their own. Now we begin seeing how conflict plays out in this family, and how the various relationships work. But all of it is done through the plot, so that we aren’t slowed down by a bunch of emo for its own sake.

Bert, whose given name is Allie Bert, lives in the mountains, and her family has far fewer resources than Lucy’s. Her story unfolds with the death of her mother in childbirth, along with the baby. Her father sends her to live with his sister, Violet, who is expecting a baby of her own. He suggests that Violet will need household help, and Bert can provide it; he doesn’t know that Violet has gone stark, raving mad. When Bert arrives, Violet is behaving irrationally and at times, violently. She locks Bert out of the house in a storm, and the nearest house is that of the Brown family. And so it begins.

One of the most critical aspects of this book’s success is Weiss’s facility in drawing the girls, who are just beginning adolescence. At the outset, we learn that Lucy takes pride in her advanced vocabulary. I groan, because this is often a device that amateurs use to try to gloss over their lack of knowledge relating to adolescents’ development. Make the girl smart, they figure, and then they will have license to write her as if she were an adult. Not so here! These girls are girls. Though it’s not an essential part of the plot, one of my favorite moments is when the girls are locked in a bitter, long-lasting quarrel over whether Nancy Drew is a real person. Bert says she is not; Lucy is sure she is. This isn’t silly to them. It’s a bitter thing. Further into the book, Lucy realizes that it’s more important to be understood, than to use the most advanced word she can come up with. And so my estimation of Weiss rises even higher.

When someone comes from truly devastating poverty, the few things that they own take on great importance. Bert arrives with a treasure box, and in it, she keeps things that may seem inconsequential, but that mean the world to her. And Bert is also light-fingered. After meeting Lucy’s mother, who is one of the nicest people she’s met in her life, she pockets a loose button that Mama means to sew back onto a garment. Bert wants this button fiercely, because Mama has touched it. Later—much later—she confesses this to Lucy, and then to Mama, and is flabbergasted when there is no harsh punishment. She explains to a neighbor,

“Mama says sometimes stealing is necessary, but that don’t make a lick of sense. Stealing’s a crime. Back home, there ain’t two ways bout stealing. You get a whipping. You get sent to your room with no supper. No breakfast the next day neither. Stealing is a sin against the Lord Jesus, so salt gets put on the floor, and you get on your knees on that salt and stay there till you cry out and your knees bleed, till you fall over and Pa says that’s enough.”  

One feature of the story is when Nazi prisoners of war are housed nearby, and they become available as labor. At first locals fear them, but then they get to know some of them, and they discover that like themselves, the prisoners play marbles. Gradually, the rules about avoiding the prisoners relaxes to where the girls are allowed to play marbles with them sometimes. “We tread close to the sin of pride when it comes to marbles. I don’t think we can help ourselves.” And now I am veering toward an eyeroll, because (yes, I’ll say it again,) writers are awfully quick to find humanity in Caucasian enemies, whereas we know the story would have been very different had these prisoners been Japanese. BUT, as my eyes narrow and my frown lines deepen, another development occurs that reminds us that these men aren’t really our friends. Again, my admiration increases.

Weiss’s last book was a delight for the first eighty-percent, but it faltered at the end, and so I was eager to see whether this novel stands up all the way through. I love the ending!

You can get this book now, and if you love excellent historical fiction, excellent Southern fiction, or excellent literature in general, you should get it sooner rather than later. If you’re stone cold broke, get on the list at your local library. This is one of the year’s best, hands down.

The Eagle’s Claw, by Jeff Shaara*****

Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.

Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.

Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.

One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.

But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.

Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

The Children’s Blizzard, by Melanie Benjamin****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version when I realized I was running behind. This book is for sale now.

I wanted to read this novel because it is different from everything else in my queue. I have a history degree and have taught American history, but I’d never heard of the Children’s Blizzard, which was real. The story is set mostly in and around “Godforsaken Omaha,” and I seldom see fiction set in Nebraska, so that is also interesting.

But once I had the book, I had second thoughts. Here we were, in the midst of this miserable, frightening pandemic, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t able to host my family for Christmas; I couldn’t see my grown children or tiny grandchildren in person…and I was going to read a book where small children froze to death in the snow? What exactly had I been thinking of, to request such a book? And so I shuffled it onto the back burner.

Then I saw that my online friends had liked it, and so with a deep breath, I pulled out my review copy, turned on the audio copy and began. And my friends were right; this is a good story.

The thing that makes the difference is that the blizzard is done before the story is even halfway over! I had envisioned slow, agonizing deaths that would take up the whole novel, and that isn’t what Benjamin does at all. While the deaths are indeed sad, she doesn’t draw them out gratuitously—and not everybody dies. Instead, the story is primarily about the aftermath, the way that these Scandinavian settlers respond to what has occurred, and the role of the ambitious reporter that covers the tragedy.

Benjamin does a fine job developing the characters, primarily the women involved, and I especially appreciate her unsentimental approach. Friends, if you ever find yourself feeling starry-eyed about the distant past, wishing things were simpler and done as they were long ago, this book will snap you out of it quickly. Believe it.

I recommend The Children’s Blizzard to those that enjoy historical fiction, and I especially recommend the audio book to you. The reader does a nice job of incorporating a Scandinavian accent without overdoing it, and it makes it easier to relate to the characters. I enjoyed it, and would happily read Benjamin’s work in the future.

Celebrate Women’s History Month With This Terrific New Release

I reviewed this excellent novel in January, based on a true story of American women that travel to France to help civilians during World War I. If you haven’t checked it out, have a look by clicking the link below the picture.