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.

Easy Crafts for the Insane, by Kelly Williams Brown*****

Kelly Williams Brown is an experienced author, but she is new to me. I ran across this odd little book at exactly the time I needed it, and maybe you do, too. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book will be available to the public July 6, 2021.

Brown points out that mental illness remains one of the few conditions that are cloaked in secrecy and shame. Nobody afflicted with bipolar disorder chooses it, and although it can be successfully treated, there’s no cure, either. The title of the book reflects her choice to simply own it. “This is the water I swim in…I wanted to talk about how I have come to be content in my own skin.”

In sharing her journey, she tells us how nearly impossible it is to find a psychiatrist within a reasonable commute, who takes your insurance; now try doing it while you are in a precarious state of mental illness. At one point things come to a head, and in a fugue of which she has no memory at all, she rises from bed and attempts suicide, nearly succeeding. Had her boyfriend not found her when he did, she would have died. “’Lots of people, they just take a few aspirin and say they want to die, but you meant it!‘  the very kind ER doctor says with something that sounds a tiny bit like begrudging approval.”

The crafting aspect of this book is partly a device, used to share what kind of mindset caused her to resort to it, and also which crafts are soothing at life’s most difficult times; several of the crafts she discusses are just as mysterious to me after reading her instructions as they were before. Her favorite little origami stars, which grace the book’s cover, are among these. And there are some crafts for which she tells us she has no clear instructions, and recommends YouTube tutorials, so that part’s kind of a wash. However, there are a couple of things that do sound interesting and that I might try. I initially rated this book four stars, thinking that if a person puts crafts in the title, the crafts should be clearly taught, but later I decided that this book really, truly isn’t about crafts.

Brown has money, and at times I am a little alienated by her wealth, that is obvious in her narrative. But she recognizes this, and she uses it to drive home the point:

“I had good insurance, and open schedule, and no internal conflict over therapy—and yet it was still fucking impossible. My privileged ass could barely make it happen. Think about the hurdles that Americans who don’t have these advantages face every day when they’re trying to access help!”

I have deliberately left out the humor here, the places that at times make me laugh out loud. You can find them for yourself. They are well placed, preventing the overall tone from becoming too grim.

 I found this book the day after dropping a close family member off at the psych ward of a local hospital, and it seemed almost like an omen that I should read it. If you are contemplating reading it, whether due to mental health issues of your own, or of those close to you, or simply out of curiosity, I highly recommend you do it. This little gem may become a cult favorite, and it would be a shame to be left out of the loop. And if it inspires you to be more vocal in advocating for mental health awareness and treatment, and of dragging this pervasive problem out of the attic and shining some light on it, then the world will be a better place.

Broken, by Jenny Lawson****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded up.

Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess, has a new book out, and I do believe it’s my favorite. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lawson bucks a somewhat disquieting trend, and I am so glad. The trend is to make the first three chapters—most likely what sells the book—sterling, and then fill the rest with mediocre, highly missable prose. In contrast, the earliest part of this memoir is good, but it’s not great. She starts slow and then builds toward most of her best material, leaving me smiling as the book concludes.

But let’s go back to the material at the start, which I find to be random in a way that yearns for the hand of a high profile editor. I’m throwing my hands up, wondering just why a professional writer would blather on like this. Can she write a coherent sentence, and then end it when it’s over? Of course, I continued reading and loved the essays in the middle, and as we draw near the end, she refers to the challenges she encounters in writing, citing her inclination to overwrite, and the resultant paragraphs that contain “a run-on sentence that would make an English teacher cut herself,” and I howled, because that’s it, exactly. Almost exactly, I mean; I was moaning, but I hadn’t reached for anything sharp.

What is it about depression and humor, and the connection between them? It’s hard to tease apart all of the components that make Lawson’s writing so compelling; to a certain extent, it’s alchemy of the human spirit, I suppose, combined with skill at self-expression. But there are other components much easier to spot. One is her disarming frankness; for example, she mentions that people, remarking on her twentieth wedding anniversary, ask about her secrets for a long and happy marriage, and she tells us that actually, not all of those years have been happy. There are good periods, and there are bad periods. And then she adds, not entirely jokingly, that part of the reason she is still married is that there are things in her marriage that she doesn’t write about.

But even more compelling is her level of perception, and her ability to understand the subtext of just about everything.

I’ll mention my favorite parts, but I am not giving up any more humorous quotes, because that’s a crappy thing to do to a humor writer. There’s a funny part having to do with shoes, and the kayaking trip from hell, which she dubs “Divorce Creek.” The chapter about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is a serious bit for the purpose of informing us, is interesting and may be of help to a number of readers. (However, the searing honesty about her suicidal impulses might actually be a trigger for a profoundly depressed reader.) And the infuriating experiences she has had dealing with insurance makes me want to throw things, but it is important that she includes them here.

If you’re a fan of The Bloggess’s writing, you have to get this book. If you are new to her work, you can dive into this memoir without reading her previous ones. Highly recommended.

Memphis Luck, by Gerald Duff**

In 2015, I read and reviewed Gerald Duff’s Memphis Ribs, the opening book in the Ragsdale and Walker series. It was irreverent but hilarious, and although it straddled the line between edgy but funny and straight-up offensive, it didn’t cross over, and I was still laughing out loud when it ended. I figured I was a Gerald Duff fan for life. All of us love the great literary talents, but a writer that can produce a good, hearty belly laugh is worth his weight in gold. With that in mind, I decided I’d keep an eye out for whatever else he might publish.

When Brash Books offered this second book in the series for review, I leapt on it. I’m sorry to say that I don’t love it the way I did the first.  Many of the same components are there—colorful bad guys, snappy banter between the two detectives—but the overall quality is lacking in places, offensive in others.

The mix includes a group of rip-off artists that are stalking an evangelical preacher, and a special needs teenager that the blurb tells us is autistic and also homicidal. I’m glad the blurb clarified these things, because although the character obviously has issues, none of them would suggest autism to me or as far as I can see, to anyone that has worked with autistic teens. So there’s that.

What I do like is the snappy banter between the two cops, which is one of the aspects of the first story that made it work for me. And the bizarro characters—the preacher that uses a cowboy theme to the extreme in his sermons, the odd teenager that appears to idolize him—at the outset seem pretty damn funny too.

But the corrupt Southern preacher schtick has been done quite a lot, and it’s in danger of becoming a trope. I might have locked into the whole cowboy thing, which is unique, but then there are the race jokes. And it’s the way Duff approaches race that tips this book over a deal-breaking boundary. Yes, I get it that the nasty racial remarks are all made by bad guys, but do we need so many of them? It’s as if Duff has studied every racist he’s ever known and catalogued every ugly racial insult for his future use. Less is more, but there are passages where they’re on every page, almost as if the author is looking for a good excuse to dust them off and make ample use of them. At times it’s cringeworthy; then at other times, it’s just sickening. I’m not having a good time anymore at this point, and were it not for my fondness for Brash Books and the previous book in the series, I would have quit reading it midway through. There’s lots of dialogue and it’s a quick read, but then it would be even quicker not to read it at all, and I wouldn’t have this sour feeling in my gut. Sad to say, I think Duff and I are done.

I cannot recommend this book to you.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

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.