Breath Better Spent, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

At the start of this, her second published poetry collection, Hill mentions the lessons we have learned from Audre Lord and others. I like Lord’s poetry, too, but it’s time for Lord to move over and make some space. Hill is a powerhouse. Her recent collection about imprisoned women, A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, is phenomenal, and it’s won her awards and many accolades, but this new book, an ode to Black girlhood, is better still. Her perception, intimacy, vulnerability and fearlessness all come through in what is most likely the best poetry collection we’ll see in 2022. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the invitation to read and review; it becomes available to the public January 25, 2022.

In the preface, Dr. Hill discusses her influences, as well as the way she has divided this collection into sections. She starts by discussing the murder of Breonna Taylor, right there in her home state of Kentucky, and she goes on to point to the increasing incidents of disciplinary measures against Black girls in school, along with a disturbing rise in their incarcerations. Society is failing Black girls, and we need to do better.

In reading this collection, I find I process the poems best if I only read one or two each night. As I go, I highlight the titles of my favorites. There’s not a bad one in the bunch, but I am most taken with the first, “Jarena Lee: A Platypus in A Petticoat;” “How the Tongue Holds,” which is completely horrifying, and and so well done; “What You Talking ‘Bout;” “Hotter Than July;” and one dedicated to a family member that served in the military, “Those Sunless Summer Mornings.” At the end is a series themed around missing Black girls, here and in Africa. Again, I am drawn to a segment dedicated “to my niece and her bullies.” And breaking up the intensity are occasional moments of surprising humor that make me laugh out loud.

The thing that comes through, strong and long, is Hill’s affinity for, and understanding of Black girls. I have written scathing reviews several times, one quite recently, when authors include children prominently in their books without having taken the time to learn the developmental stages of their characters. Here, it’s the opposite. Hill knows girls, and she knows them well and deeply. She mentions that some parts of this collection are “semi-autobiographical,” but her knowledge runs much, much deeper than one gets simply by having been a girl. And so, though this collection will be useful to those teaching or studying courses in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and of course, poetry, the people that absolutely need to read this collection are teachers in training. This should be mandatory reading for anyone planning to go into education. For that matter, it would also be excellent material for teacher in-services.

Several of Hill’s poems are contextual, dealing with the current political climate, and it’s now, with voting rights in question, cop violence rampant, and racism becoming increasingly overt, that we need books like this to counter the reactionary elements. It’s brave and powerful writing, and if you don’t order a copy, you risk missing out. Highly recommended.

Hypnosis is for Hacks, by Tamara Berry****

Eleanor Wilde is a sham medium, a fraud who’s used her dramatic talents and the trust of her clients to bilk them. But lately things have changed; she has received intelligence from the great beyond, specifically from her deceased sister. As a businesswoman that now resides in a small town in the UK and doesn’t want her neighbors to hate her, she’s shifted most of her business to herbal cures and such. As it happens, this doesn’t keep all hell from busting loose.

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

Eleanor–you may call her Ellie—is the protagonist in a satirical cozy mystery series, and this is the fourth. I read and reviewed the first two, but somehow missed out on the third. The first two took place in a tiny village where the ruling family lives in an honest-to-goodness castle. She went there, in the first in the series, to conduct a bogus séance, but instead fell in love with Nicholas, heir to the estate. Now the castle is in need of serious repairs. It’s summer, and the castle is hot enough to be uninhabitable, and so Ellie accompanies the elderly Vivian, matriarch of the castle, to the seaside. Her brother Liam, who is visiting, joins them. And once there, all sorts of things go wrong. We have a menacing, possessed doll that reappears in or near Ellie’s room, no matter what she does to destroy it, and a sinister figure from Ellie’s checkered past shows up as well. And of course, of course, of course, Ellie witnesses a murder shortly after arriving, but nobody will believe her.

I came away of two minds about this particular installment. The thing I’ve appreciated most about this series is that Berry’s writing is hilarious, and whenever an obvious plot device is utilized, it’s done in such an over-the-top manner that we can imagine the author winking and guffawing. Nothing here is to be taken seriously. In the past there’s been very little character development, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t looking for great literature; I was looking for a laugh.

Here I find some changes. There’s less humor, although two particular bits, one involving lobsters and another involving, per the title, hypnosis, made me snicker. But I also find more character development. Realistically speaking, a series can’t last long if there’s no character development, and so I’m pleased to see Berry adding a bit of depth, but at the same time, what I really want is to laugh out loud. We live in tense times, and there’s a growing body of evidence that we live longer if we laugh. A silly, escapist novel that lets us forget current events entirely for a brief while, forget our own troubles, whatever they may be, and sit back and howl at what our clever author has cooked up, is worth more than many can imagine.

Nonetheless, this story is better by far than most of what’s out there within the humor genre, and I recommend it to you. Now…where’s that cat?

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.

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott*****

It really is.

This book is a standout in more ways than one. First the obvious: look at that cover! Then again, how many novels have a nameless protagonist all the way through the book? Get into it deeper, and the distinctions become more complex. The buzz around it is wholly justified. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our author is on an odyssey that takes the form of a book tour, and it lands him, in the end, back where he grew up. He doesn’t tour alone; apart from the various organizers he meets in various locations, he is accompanied by a small Black child he refers to as “The Kid.” Alternately, we also see the story of a young Black boy, a very Black boy, nicknamed “Soot,” who grows up in the American South.

As I read, I am always on the back foot, understanding most of what it being said, yet developing questions as I go. Our author says (often) that he has a condition, and that this is probably why he can see The Kid when others cannot. My notes ask whether his condition is dissociative, and is The Kid just part of himself? Or is The Kid Soot? Are Soot and The Kid both part of the author? Every time I come up with a plausible theory, something else happens to undercut it. Yet one other thing becomes clearer all the way through: to be born an African-American boy in the United States is to be perpetually on the back foot; perpetually having to guess how best to proceed; to perpetually guess at one’s welcome or lack of same, at the quality of one’s relationships with Caucasians, to perpetually guard one’s own safety. And to be very Black—“Nigga, I bet when you get out of the car your daddy’s oil light come on”—is to invite not only the suspicion and hostility of Caucasians, but to draw the enmity of lighter Black people, too.

The synopsis of this story that initially drew me billed it as humor, and in places, it is not only funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. But the further we get in, the darker it becomes.

There are a number of sardonic references to the publishing world; editors, agents, and other promoters have told the author that while it’s fine to write about Black characters, He must not write about being Black:

“The last thing people really want to hear about is being Black. Being Black’s a curse—no offense—and nobody wants to feel cursed when they read something they just finished paying $24.95 for…The future of this country is all about patriotic, unity-inducing language. Post-Racial. Trans-Jim Crow. Epi-Traumatic. Alt-Reparational. Omni-Restitutional. Jingoistic Body-Positive. Sociocultural-Transcendental. Indigenous-Ripostic. Treat of Fort Laramie-Perpendicular. Meta-Exculpatory. Pan-Political. Uber-Intermutual. MOK-Adjacent. Demi-Arcadian Bucolic. Write about love. Love and Disney endings…”

Later, an interviewer asks if the past doesn’t still matter, and the author says, “It does. Not just three-fifths of it, but all of it.”

So, my friend, you can see why this book should be called a love story. Race? Oh, no no no. Fear? Injustice? Police brutality? Of course not. After all, this is a hell of a book!

Highly recommended; one of the year’s finest.

Game On! by Janet Evanovich****-*****

Stephanie Plum has been my constant companion for decades, but she never seems to get any older. We should all be so lucky!

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

Stephanie is a bounty hunter, working for her cousin Vinnie’s bail bond service. She tracks down no-shows, takes them to have their hearings rescheduled, and collects a commission. Her mother wishes fervently that she would get a normal job such as a bank teller, or just go ahead and marry long-time boyfriend Officer Joe Morelli, and keep house and raise kiddies. But Stephanie is long on independence, and she’s short on marketable skills, and so this is what she does. And we readers are well aware that she wouldn’t be half this hilarious as a housewife, so we cheer her on.

In an interview, author Evanovich said she had lit on the idea of a bounty hunter protagonist because the writer doesn’t need a background in legal matters the way that she would if she used a cop, detective, or lawyer. The primary skill required of a bail bonds enforcer is lying, and she felt she had a good grasp of that one.

You gotta love it.

There have been a few wobbles in the series, and a moment (long ago) when I thought perhaps it was played out. But like her intrepid protagonist, the author rallied and came back stronger than ever.

Can you read this book if you haven’t read any of the others in the series? Yes. Yes, you surely can; but you are most likely going to want to go back for the rest once you do so.

There are a few things that strike me as I read this one. I suddenly find myself wondering why Stephanie doesn’t seem to have women friends. She’s lived in Trenton—in the Burg—her entire life, so shouldn’t she have a few lifelong pals? But by the end of the story, I realized that her work buds are her go-to girls. Lula gets into a scrape and leaves what little she has to Stephanie (but of course, Lula pulls through. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler; since when would a riotously funny writer like Evanovich off a main character?) Connie is a distant relative, but she’s also a friend.

I also find myself, like other reviewers, wondering about the sanitized language and decreasing vocabulary levels. We’ve been drifting in this direction for awhile. At the start of the series, profanity was used by the people and in the situations where you’d expect to find it. The overall language level was accessible to anybody that finished eighth grade. Over the last several episodes, however, it’s been drifting downward. Now, apart from one “damn”, I found nothing, although the euphemisms are stellar (“What the fork,” “What the Hellman’s Mayonnaise,” “Son of a bagel.”)  And the overall vocabulary level is now down to about fifth grade. If it goes any lower (see the author’s other series,) I may not be interested anymore, but as it stands, it’s fast, it’s snappy, and I’m in.

The usual elements—escorting Grandma Mazur to viewings at the mortuary; exploding cars; men surprising Stephanie when they let themselves into her locked apartment; dinner with Stephanie’s parents; a geeky witness, or victim, or possibly even an offender, that Stephanie takes under her wing; and the red-hot Joe Morelli are all present and accounted for. Stephanie’s mother has been drinking heavily every time Stephanie gets into a dangerous scrape, and Evanovich has been toying with some character development in her direction. I hope she follows through.

The tension of Stephanie trying to decide between Morelli and the mysterious Ranger is over, for now, at least, and it was getting old, so I applaud this development. She knows that Ranger will never marry her, and there’s a lot he’ll never tell her. She knows Morelli. They grew up together, and they understand one another. Marriage, maybe not yet; but Joe is the one. She’s tempted by others in this installment, but for once, she behaves herself. Good.

Whereas this series isn’t the magnificent literary accomplishment attained by some mystery Grand Masters, and it doesn’t try to be, I rate it as five stars in the humor genre. It made me laugh out loud on page two, and though I read quite a lot of books each year, those that have made me howl this year can be counted on one hand. It’s a more valuable characteristic than some might guess, especially during these tense times.

Highly recommended to those that need a good laugh.

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.

The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly*****

Connolly has written the creepiest, spookiest, best written novel you will see this October. The Nameless Ones is #19 in the Charlie Parker series; my thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book goes up for sale October 26, 2021.

The series continues a conflict that began earlier in the series; that said, you can jump in here anyway. However, once you read this one, you’ll want to go back and pick up the others, or at least, say, the last five or six leading up to it. That’s all to the good, since Connolly can’t write as fast as you can read. Perhaps if you collect them you will be entertained until his next one comes out.

Unlike any of his other Charlie Parker stories, Parker plays a relatively peripheral role, with his two massively popular assistants, Angel and Louis, up front, with Louis having the lion’s share of the action. These two, who have served as Parker’s investigators and at times, as his body guards, are interesting characters. They do not love the law, but they do love each other. Angel is recovering from cancer treatment and Louis is in search of vengeance. Someone they had hired as a liaison in Serbia has been murdered, and the man’s last act, when he saw the walls closing in, was to wire a substantial sum into Louis’s account. Louis, in turn, intends to use that money to terminate the men that terminated his colleague. Stranger still, he is supported—in a massively unofficial manner—by the FBI. He doesn’t like it much, but there they are.

There’s a new character named Zorya, who is dead, but hasn’t crossed over. “She was a creature of the cold and dark. Zorya had winter blood.” She is physically small, and in a hoodie she is generally accepted by bystanders as an adolescent. She has attached herself to one of the men Louis is hunting, and has clairvoyant gifts. But what’s particularly interesting is her relationship to Jennifer Parker, the murdered seven-year-old daughter of Charlie. Jennifer has appeared to her father on a number of occasions, sometimes providing him with critical information. Now Connolly has decided to develop Jennifer, who has obtained a fair amount of power and authority on the other side of the veil. When Zorya targets Charlie, Jennifer targets Zorya. This is one of the coolest gambits I have seen in years, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book. But let’s get back to this one, since that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here.

New readers should prepare for a good deal of violence, and the most graphic and horrific shows up right at the beginning, so if you read it and aren’t sure you can stay the course through the end of the book, take heart. Lots more people are going to drop dead, but the most nightmarish details are up front. Nevertheless, it’s not something I read directly before sleeping.

The intensity and horror are nicely broken up with humor; the dialogue featuring Louis, Angel, or both positively crackles. I laughed out loud more than once. A pair of secondary bodyguards, the Fulci Brothers, whom Angel and Louis have deputized to watch out for Charlie at one point, are also welcome additions, and in no way resemble the pair that hired them. Sure enough, they save Parker’s butt. When the police arrive and Parker tells them only the bare minimum, the detective in charge reminds him that his would-be assassins may try again. “The Fulcis won’t always be ready to come to the rescue with a tire iron and a bear head.” (!!!)

As always, Connolly deftly employs a huge number of characters, and yet I am able to keep all of them straight. He keeps the time sequence linear, and this helps the story flow and keeps the players and events from becoming entangled.

If you’ve followed this review to this point, you have all the stamina you need to enjoy this exceptional novel. True, the book is longer than my review, but Connolly writes a lot better, too.

Highly recommended!

The Confidence Men, by Margalit Fox****

This stranger-than-fiction story of two World War I captives, one an English officer, the other Australian, that trick their way out of a Turkish prison camp via a long, elaborate con centered on a Ouija board is compelling and at times, funny as hell. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The beginning is grim; grim enough that I abandon this story twice before ordering the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons to help me get over the hump. There’s torture, deprivation, and every ugly thing that the notion of an enemy prison brings to mind. I am especially horrified because I thought this book was going to be funny! Reader, it is, but you have to get past the grim and at times, dull beginning to get to the amusing bits. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth percentiles, the shift occurs, and that’s when you can expect to enjoy yourself. You may want to skim a bit through this part; I do, and it works out well.

Harry Jones was an attorney before the Great War commenced; Cedric Hill was an Aussie auto mechanic. Once captured, the two have no chance at all making a conventional escape; the camp is too isolated for either of them to get anywhere, even if they were able to leave. Instead, what they have is nothing but time, and ultimately, that and their excellent imaginations and problem-solving skills, aided by some genuinely stupid captors, is what saves them.

The most impressive aspect of their scheme is that it takes place over a very long period of time. Not many con artists would be able to keep their story straight for so long. Jones and Hill have a great deal of self-discipline and organizational skill. Also, they’re afraid, and fear can improve one’s consistency and attention to detail. Once the meat of the story begins, it is absolutely riveting!

I flipped back and forth between my digital galley and the audio version. Both are equally good, but I would give a slight edge to the audio version, assuming the reader is primarily seeking entertainment. For a researcher, the print version is better for keeping details and sources straight.

Recommended to those that enjoy history and intelligent humor.

The Guncle, by Steven Rowley*****

How do you spell instant parenthood? It’s the last thing GUP—the appellation bestowed on Gay Uncle Patrick—expected, and the transition is hilariously rocky. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Patrick’s whole life appears to be on hold. He was on television for a good long while, and so both fame and fortune are his. He doesn’t actually have to do anything, and since the demise of his beloved partner, he hasn’t wanted to. Then one of his closest friends, Sarah, who had been his college roommate, dies, and everything changes.

Grant and Maisie, Sarah’s children, are six and nine years old respectively. When the memorial service concludes, Patrick is blindsided by Joe, Sarah’s husband. While she was on her deathbed, she made Joe promise that when she was gone, he’d go into rehab—but of course, someone has to take the children. Joe wants that someone to be Patrick.

The humor is ribald at times, but never over-the-top. Patrick knows nothing about children. Nothing! In a daze, he returns home with his charges in tow, and he has to learn on the job. Maisie is at a somewhat bossy age and is only too happy to tell him what to do and how to do it, and oh is it fun to watch. As the fog lifts, Patrick begins making small changes to create a more child-friendly space, but mostly, he embraces his unconventional situation. There’s a Christmas celebration in the middle of summer; there’s a party. And as he steps up to his new role, he realizes that he should return to work; he has heirs now, after all.

Aunt Clara arrives, and she demands the children return with her. She knows how to do this. She frowns on nearly every aspect of Patrick’s life. But Patrick is amazed to realize he is willing to fight to hang onto them.

Some may be surprised to find a book like this earning a five star rating; it’s not serious literature. It’s fun; it’s fluffy. But this reviewer rates each book on its excellence compared to others of its genre. As a humorous novel, it shines. As a feel-good book, it’s terrific. As beach reads go, what can be better?

Perhaps it’s indicative of Rowley’s skill that I have found myself writing review notes in his voice. This doesn’t happen often. But as for you? You should get this book and read it, because all of us need a mood elevator, and in that respect, it’s a bargain. Highly recommended!

Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour****

Darren leads a moderately successful life, in charge of a local Starbucks, and happy at home with his longtime girlfriend and his mama. But all of them know that he can do more with his talents, and so when a recruiter from Sumwun comes for Darren, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. But you know what they say; be careful what you wish for.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

When Darren changes jobs, he moves out of his familiar surroundings, comfortably populated with people of color, many of whom he has known all his life, to a corporation where he is the only Black man. He is demeaned and subjected to almost every possible stereotype and racist trope, but he perseveres, because this is a sales job, and the timid and weak stand no chance at all. He knows that the longer he stays there, the stronger he’ll get, and as far as that goes, it’s true. When a disaster befalls the company, it’s Darren that pulls it out of the water. And then again. And again. And yet, the crap thrown by others keeps hitting him.

The magic of good satire is the recognition it draws, the moans and the nods and the headshakes. The author tells us in his introduction that the book is written for Black people, and it doesn’t take long to see why Caucasian people may not relate as well. Even those of us living in mixed families can only glimpse the edges of what Black people put up with; even so, I do find myself groaning and chuckling as the story progresses.

This is a strong work of fiction and an impressive debut, and I recommend it to everyone that knows that Black Lives Matter, and especially to those that only suspect it’s true. I look forward to seeing what  Askaripour writes next.