A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling*****

How much would you pay right now to laugh out loud, and laugh hard, about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with current events? Exactly. My thanks go to Net Galley and Perseus Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The author is a journalist who caught wind of a tiny hamlet in New Hampshire that was taken over by libertarians:

“The four libertarians who came to New Hampshire had thinner wallets than…other would-be utopians, but they had a new angle they believed would help them move the Free Town Project out of the realm of marijuana-hazed reveries and into reality. Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town—just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much larger organism and force it work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.” 

By the time the long-term denizens of Grafton realized the extent of the mayhem that these people intended, they discovered that “the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded…At the same time the Free Towners set themselves to shaping the community to their liking, the town’s bears were working to create their own utopia.”

The newcomers’ idea of liberty meant no enforcement of any law, and no taxes, even for basic infrastructure and services. And when the local bear population blossomed, it was every Free Towner for herself.

Hongoltz-Hetling provides a succinct history of the town, then introduces a handful of the key players. There’s a man that buys and lives in a church in order to avoid paying taxes; an Earth Mother type that decides the bears are hungry and should receive free donuts, seeds, and grains daily in her own backyard; several tent dwellers that eschew basic hygiene and food safety; and oh, so many, many bears. Some of the townspeople are identified by name, but those that prefer anonymity are identified by colorful nicknames.

At the outset we see jaw-dropping levels of eccentricity coupled with hilarious anecdotes, and true to his journalistic calling, the author spends a good deal of time in this tiny, lawless burg, and so he reports events not second hand, but from his own experience. My favorite part is the showdown between Hurricane the Guard Llama and an ursine interloper looking for mutton on the hoof. Another is the conflict between “Beretta,” the resident next door to “Doughnut Lady,” who hates all bears primarily because they are fat.

Eventually things take a darker, more tragic turn for some; the most impressive aspect of this story is the seamless manner in which the author segues from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, and then brings us back up for air.

Ultimately, the bears are emblematic of the need human beings have for cooperation and organization.

Though the material used for this story is rich and original, it takes a gifted wordsmith like Hongoltz-Hetling to craft it into a darkly amusing tale of this caliber. If I were to change one thing, I would lose the digression near the middle of the book with regard to typhus, Tunisia, and diseases shared by bears. It slows the pace and could easily be whittled down to a single paragraph. But the rest of this book is so engaging that I cannot reduce my rating by even half a star. My advice is to skim that passage, which eats up about five percent of an otherwise perfectly executed narrative, unless of course you like that aspect of it.

In six years of reviewing, and out of the 666 reviews I have provided to Net Galley—and yes, that’s the actual number, until I turn this review in—I have purchased fewer than one percent of the books I’ve read, either to give as gifts, or to keep. That said, this book is going under my Christmas tree this December. If you read it, you’re bound to agree: the story of Grafton is the best surprise of 2020.

Do it.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

To Have And To Hoax, by Martha Waters**-***

Oh well.

Martha Waters spans three genres here: historical romance, rom-com, and satire. I like satire, and the other two, not so much. I am rounding my rating up to three stars, because I stepped out of my comfort zone with this novel, hoping for light entertainment; those that enjoy rom-com books may be more enthusiastic than I. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lady Violet and Lord James found instant chemistry at a grand ball. Almost as instantly, they were married; then they quarreled and have been estranged ever since. Yet even the stupidest and most imperceptive reader will see that they are still crazy for one another. If one is in doubt, turn the page so the author can hit you over the head with it again. Again. And again.

I enjoy smart satire that leaves something to the imagination. This book tries too hard to be funny. I tried reading the DRC, and when I couldn’t get through it, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This made it, if possible, even worse. Overdone prose is made worse by an over-the-top voice actor.

I had been reading too much that was dark and serious, and then the pandemic broke out and I went looking for relief. I found it, but I didn’t find it here.

But again, I have never liked rom-com. If that’s your wheelhouse, you may appreciate this thing more than I do. I pushed through to the forty percent mark; my usual due diligence requires me, if skipping, to then proceed to the eighty percent mark and see if there are joyful surprises that might change my mind. But no.

Fans of the genre may feel differently, but I have to call them as I see them. Not recommended.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

Becky Mandelbaum is the real deal. In 2016 she published a short story collection, Bad Kansas, which I read and loved. ( You can find my review of it here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2017/09/15/bad-kansas-by-becky-mandelbaum/) And so when I found this debut novel on Net Galley, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Big thanks to Net Galley, and to Simon and Schuster. This book will be available to the public August 4, 2020.

Ariel and her mother, Mona have been estranged for six years. But when she finds a news item about her mother’s sanctuary having been torched, Ariel knows it’s time to go home, to see what has been lost and what can be saved.

The story is told from the third person omniscient, and we hear from three characters mostly. We start with Mona, whose stress levels have become nearly unbearable. She’s getting too old to do so much work, and she never has enough money. She has just one employee, working on site primarily for room and board. Perhaps this is part of what possesses her when she leaps in her truck in the dead of night to steal the neighbor’s Make America Great Again sign. She wrestles the great big thing into the bed of her pickup, and by now we can see that she is a tightly wound person whose impulse control is just a tiny fraction of what it should be.

Meanwhile, Ariel is concerned, not only about the fire, the sanctuary, and her mother, but also about her relationship. Her boyfriend, Dex—the third of the characters we hear from most– proposes just as she has begun to fantasize about ending the relationship. As the story progresses, we can see that Ariel is the sort of person that runs from her problems, sometimes literally. She accepts the ring and then says she has to go home for the weekend, and no, he shouldn’t come with her. After all, she’ll be right back. Probably.

Mandelbaum does a brilliant job of building believable, nuanced characters and complicated relationships. Five percent of the way into my galley, my notes say, “This one is going to be a thinker.” And it is, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t a pretentious piece of writing by a long shot, and it isn’t full of florid descriptions or challenging vocabulary. Instead, we have characters that are dealing with thorny personal issues that have no obvious solutions. And my favorite aspect of it is the way the mother-daughter relationship, which is the heart of the novel, is framed. Mona has made a lot of mistakes in parenting Ariel, but she loves her daughter and is a good person. Ariel is still learning how to solve problems herself. There’s a trend in fiction writing right now to draw villainous mothers as the sources of protagonists’ problems. It’s close to becoming a cliché. Mandelbaum has steered clear of this canard and created something much deeper and more interesting. In fact, there are at least half a dozen stereotypes that she has dodged expertly. The fact that she has done this in her debut novel suggests that a great career is ahead of her.

I love the way she ends this story.

Don’t deprive yourself of this glorious novel. Highly recommended.

Musical Chairs, by Amy Poeppel*****

We need more writers like Amy Poeppel. Her previous novels, Admissions and Limelight, are whip-smart and hilarious; both involve well-developed characters stuck in odd but credible situations. Her new novel, Musical Chairs, shares these attributes, but it’s even funnier, and even more insightful. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Atria Books and Net Galley. It’s available to the public August 1, 2020.

Our protagonists are Bridget and Will; they are family to one another in the modern sense, the sense that sometimes we adopt our most important friends and declare them to be kin. They’ve been together as performers in the Forsyth Trio since college. Bridget has never married; Will is divorced. They have seen one another through thick and thin, and well meaning outsiders think they must surely harbor romantic feelings for one another. Will has no children, but has served as a father figure to Bridget’s twins, both grown.

Summer is here, and Bridget is preparing to spend it in her summer house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend, Sterling, will be joining her; she thinks that he may be the one. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Sterling dumps her on her ass without a moment’s hesitation, and both of her children descend on her unannounced. Her octogenarian father lands in the hospital. Nothing that happens is the way she had planned it.

At the same time, Will has been looking forward to some time on his own in the city, but Bridget is in distress and so he drops his other plans for her. Not one thing goes as planned.

I don’t usually enjoy books about rich people, and Bridget’s family is wealthy indeed. This one works for me because the disparity in wealth between Bridget and Will, who is an ordinary starving artist, is addressed in a natural, organic way throughout the narrative; but beyond that, I feel I know Bridget, and so she is not the rich woman, not the heiress, but instead she is Bridget, and she feels like a friend. We always forgive our dearest friends for things that are generally deal breakers with others. Finally, Poeppel has no tolerance for pretension, and more than anything, her honesty turns a good story into a terrific one.

The pacing here never slackens; one crisis is nearing resolution when another one pops loose. At one point I am convinced that Poeppel is driving home a message about the destructive nature of secrecy, but by the ending I can see she’s done no such thing. Sometimes secrets are great. Sometimes they work out well. And sometimes they are only secrets for a while as their owner waits for an appropriate time to reveal them.

The side characters here are brilliant as their perspective contrasts with that of the protagonists. The internal monologue involving Bridget and Will is personal, even intimate, and so we see everything as they do; but then Jackie, the ambitious young assistant that Edward has hired for the summer, looks these folks over and weighs in, and her observations make me laugh out loud. In fact, this book marks the first time since the pandemic began (at the beginning of March, here in Seattle) that anything I’ve read has made me laugh. It felt great! Then later, another side character’s pet parrot Ronaldo pipes up and it happens again. (My laughter woke my husband, and I was a little bit sorry, but also not.)

The dialogue between Edward and Will near the end makes me shake my head in awe.

At the outset, I am puzzling over the title. Musical Chairs turns out to be a website for job-searching musicians, but later I see a broader reason that this title was chosen. Throughout the chaos that unfolds for Bridget and Will this summer, the characters are constantly changing places, rotating, and assuming new positions, and it’s fine, because—and here’s our real message—change is not failure.

The references to the musical “My Fair Lady” are icing on the cake.

Highly recommended, and likely to be one of this year’s best books.  

The Talented Mr. Varg, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of mystery writers whose work falls within the cozy subgenre, but none of them hits exactly the right note the way Alexander McCall Smith does. His feel-good vibe is engaging, but it’s never smarmy or cloying; the reader feels respected. Add to that a spot here and there that is straight-up hilarious; I can think of no better time to read his work. This is the second in the Detective Ulf Varg series, and it is every bit as delightful as the first. Can you read this book alone even if you missed the first? Yes and yes.

My thanks go to Edelweiss and Pantheon Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Detective Ulf Varg leads a quiet sort of life; after all, he’s a cop, and this is Malmo, Sweden, hardly a hotbed of crime. He is the lead detective for a special bureau, one that was introduced to us in the first in the series, The Department of Sensitive Crimes. Often the matters under investigation involve misunderstandings, deceptions carried out to avoid embarrassment, and cultural miscues. Ulf spends his down time teaching his deaf dog, Martin, to read lips and taking him to therapy for his depression.

There’s a lot of that in Sweden, you know. Northern latitudes.

And so, it is from his dog’s psychiatrist that Ulf receives a tip of a possible counterfeit dog breeder. Someone out there is breeding husky/wolf mixed dogs, which are then sold to handlers that furnish trained wolves to appear in movies and television shows. Fraud! This could be Varg’s biggest case yet. But then, that wouldn’t be saying much.

Meanwhile, Varg longs for intimacy with his partner, Anna, but he mustn’t act on his feelings. There are departmental policies to be observed, and she is married. Oh, how he pines for her, quietly and in private. He dreams of a woman that will hold his hand as he falls asleep at night, a woman that will touch her toes to his under the covers and wiggle them. There are other women of course, but none like Anna. So when Anna needs a matter of her own investigated on the down-low, Ulf is ready and willing.

The most amusing thread here, as far as I’m concerned, involves Varg’s struggle with bureaucracy. You’ll have to find out the particulars for yourself.

Smith’s novels are my favorite bedtime material, subtle humor that unknots my twisted muscles and helps me gain perspective on whatever worries of the day have climbed in with me. I daresay he could do the same for you, too.

Highly recommended.

Zed, by Joanna Kavenna***

Kavenna is an established writer, but she is new to me. I saw the description and—okay, yes, the cover—and I knew I had to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

At the outset this story is electrifying. It’s set in future Earth in what was once London. Beetle is an all-powerful company that governs both business and government; it resembles Future Amazon more than a little. Its employees have Real Life selves, and they have virtual selves that make it possible for them to attend meetings without physically being there. They have BeetleBands that measure their respiration, pulse, perspiration and other physical functions, and those bands are supposed to stay on:

The Custodians Program tracked people from the moment they woke (having registered the quality of their sleep, the duration), through their breakfast (registering what they ate, the quality of their food), through the moment they dressed, and if they showered and cleaned their teeth properly, if they took their DNA toothbrush test, what time they left the house, whether they were cordial to their door, whether they told it to fucking open up and stop talking to them, whether they arrived at work on time, how many cups of coffee they drank during the course of an average day, how many times they became agitated, how many times they did their breathing relaxation exercises, if they went to the pub after work and what they hell they did if they didn’t go to the pub, how late they went home, if they became agitated, angry, ill, drunk, idle at any point during any day, ever.

Of course, it is possible to avoid the entire Beetle system, but there’s almost nothing that someone that is off the grid can do for a living; these people scuttle about in abandoned buildings, living miserably impoverished, private lives.

Those in high positions of responsibility have Veeps, which are virtual assistants that run on artificial intelligence. There are few human cops out there because those jobs are done by ANTS—Anti-Terrorism Droids—and these in turn follow the protocol, which says they should shoot at their own discretion. And all of these things lead up to the murder of Lionel Bigman, who bears an unfortunate resemblance in both body and name to George Mann, who has just cut the throats of everyone in his family. The ANTS find Bigman and kill him.

The aftermath features the sort of government whitewash and cover-up that every reader must recognize. The error was caused, say the higher-ups, by two factors: one was Mary Bigman, wife of Lionel, the uncooperative widow of Lionel who demands answers and is therefore conveniently scapegoated; and Zed, the term for chaos and error within the system. And Zed, unfortunately, is growing and creating more errors which must also be swept under the virtual carpet.

Those dealing with this situation are Guy Matthias, the big boss at Beetle; Eloise Jayne, the security chief who’s being investigated for saving the life of a future criminal that the ANTS had been preparing to shoot; Douglas Varley, a Beetle board member; and David Strachey, a journalist torn between his paramount duty to inform the public, and his self-interest that suggests he shouldn’t rock the boat.

Once the parameters of this book are defined, I am excited. The book could be the bastard antecedent of some combination of Huxley, Rand, Vonnegut and Orwell. The possibilities! But alas, though the premise is outstanding, the execution is lacking. I have gone over it multiple times trying to figure out what went wrong and what could fix it, and I am baffled. All I can say is that by the thirty percent mark, though a major character is running for her very life, the inner monologue drones until I am ready to hurl myself into the path of the ANTS just to end it. All of the fun stuff has been offered up already, leaving us to slog our way out of it. How could a story so darkly hilarious and so well-conceived turn so abstruse and deadly dull?

Nevertheless, I would read Kavenna again in a heartbeat. Someone this smart will surely write more books that work better than this one. But as for you, read this one free or cheap if you read it at all.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg***

Ortberg wrote The Merry Spinster, a work of dark humor that convinced me that he is a genius. This book is a lot different, although at times the same voice peeks through. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Many of the essays in this book are recycled from Ortberg’s blog, but since I never saw the blog, all of it is new to me. The essays describe his experience as a trans man, and though it is funny in places, most of the pieces ooze pain and bitterness. And to be fair, a trans man brought up female in an evangelical Christian home, taught to consider the Rapture in every choice made, every road followed, is bound to have these things in spades. However, there is a good deal of redundancy here. After awhile I found my attention wandering, and by thirty percent of the way in, I was watching the page numbers crawl by. How much longer…?

Some of the chapter titles are full of promise, but then the chapter itself disappoints. What, this again? I did enjoy the passage on parallel parking, and the chapter on Columbo (the only man Ortberg has ever loved) cracked me up.

I have rated this title three stars for general audiences, but I suspect that for those transitioning to manhood, or for those close to someone doing so, the rating will be higher.

Recommended to those transitioning, considering transitioning, and their loved ones.

Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd*****

Nobody writes better than Jess Kidd.

Bridget Devine—you may call her Bridie—is an investigator for hire. She’s small of stature, with green eyes and a mane of auburn hair. She smokes a pipe, keeps a dagger strapped to her ankle and poison darts in her boot heels, and wears “the ugliest bonnet in Christendom.” The year is 1863; the place is Britain. Bridie has been hired to find a kidnapped child. A dead pugilist named Ruby has volunteered his assistance; he had a soft spot for her while he lived, and now that he’s deceased, his affection for her lives on.

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

The subject of her inquiries is an extraordinary girl named Christabel. Christabel has unusual qualities; it is said that she is a merrow, a mermaid-like being that loves snails and salamanders can tell what others are thinking, has teeth like a pike that she uses freely against those that displease her, and can drown humans on dry land. Bridie is having none of it. “Christabel is a child. She is not a merrow because they are legendary beasts that do not exist in real life, only in fables.” So what if hundreds of snails appear everywhere the child has turned up?

The search for Christabel takes Bridie and her assistants all over Victorian London. Kidd is a champ with regard to time and place, taking us deep into the past. In particular, we visit the charlatans that collect and sometimes experiment with people born with disabilities or distinctions, as a form of sordid entertainment for those with prurient interests. There are some passages here that won’t work well for the squeamish.

The side characters are magnificent. We have Cora Butters, the housemaid that accompanies Bridie. Cora is seven feet tall and has muttonchop whiskers. Her huge hands make her a formidable defender when the going gets rough. There are others, but some of the most entertaining are the critters: a sarcastic parrot and a sage python are among them.

Those that have read Kidd’s first novel, Himself and her second, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (in UK it was titled The Hoarder) will be delighted once again to find Kidd’s distinctive voice and brilliant word smithery in full flower once more. There are differences as well; there’s more of a story arc, and along with that we see the best figurative language and the wickedest humor after about the sixty percent mark. At the heart of it all is the same disdain for pretense, and the same deep respect for the working class.

My records show that I’ve reviewed over 1,300 titles over the past few years, and of the review copies I’ve received, I’ve chosen to read fewer than 10 of them a second time. This book will be one of them.

Aren’t we done here? Get a copy of this book and read it soon so that you can buy another copy to wrap up for Valentine’s Day. Because Jess Kidd’s books are peerless, and you should only give the very best.

The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.