What Rose Forgot, by Nevada Barr****-******

Nevada Barr’s newest stand-alone mystery is a humdinger. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now, and you should read it.

Rose Dennis wakes up ragged and half naked in the bushes. Sturdy staff members close in on her and drag her back to the secure wing of the Alzheimer’s unit.  She overhears an administrator in the hallway opine that she’s unlikely to last a week, and she knows she has to get out of there. But proving she’s not suffering from dementia is a tall order, and saving herself calls for desperate measures.

Barr’s wit and sass are at their best here, and the pacing picks up at ten percent and never flags. Rose and her thirteen year old granddaughter Mel are well crafted characters. Although I appreciate Rose’s moxie and self reliance, Mel is the character that impresses me most. I spent decades teaching children of about this age, and so I am overjoyed to find a writer that can craft a believable seventh grader. For Mel to do the things she does, she has to be gifted—as Barr depicts her—and again, this character is right on the money, clever without losing the developmental hallmarks of adolescence. The dialogue is resonant and I love the moment when Rose borrows Mel’s cell phone for most of a day. The suffering Mel tolerates for her beloved grandmother is priceless.

But now let’s go back to Rose, and to her situation. A lot of Barr’s readers are Boomers; I am perched on the margin, retired but not yet drawing Social Security.  Looking through Rose’s eyes at the way senior citizens are treated gives me the heebie-jeebies.  As a younger woman I had regarded assisted living facilities as a sensible approach to aging; my mother lived the last few years of her life in one, and I have often joked to my children, whenever I have done them a favor, to “remember this moment when you choose my nursing home.” But after reading this novel, I am not going into one. Not ever.

Now of course most places aren’t complicit in murder for profit schemes, but there is so much here that is completely believable.  Nursing assistants talk to the patients as if they are toddlers. “Diapers are our friend.” Rose is planted in a day room in front of a picture of Sponge Bob and a handful of crayons.  Do we really believe such patronizing behaviors aren’t present in real-life nursing homes? It makes my skin crawl. And the pills that render senior citizens passive and helpless: “Her brain floats in a chemical soup concocted by evil toddlers in a devil’s pharmacy.” And this place has a two year waiting list!

Rose isn’t going gently, and before we know it, she’s on the loose. Now and then the things that she does in her own self-defense make me arch an eyebrow, but the fact is that people age very differently from one another. Some are still kicking butt and taking names when they’re eighty; others pick up the knitting needles and head for the rocker at sixty. And more to the point, what Rose does makes me want to cheer, and so I choose to believe.

My only quibble here is with the way Barr depicts large women. She’s done it for decades; I wrote to her about it once, and her response was that these negative notions weren’t her own thoughts but those of Anna Pigeon. Well folks, here we are with Rose Dennis, and the Nurse Ratchet character here is—oh of course—huge. I would love to see Barr feature a plus size character, oh just once, that is a good person. Please let’s lose the stereotype; other authors have managed it, and Barr should too.

Should that hold you back from buying and reading this book? It should not. I laughed out loud more than once, and the subtext is powerful.  I recommend it for Barr’s many readers, and for all feminists at or near Boomer-age.

The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood*****

People talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I had a pair of imaginary bill collectors, so no matter which way I turned, there was somebody to remind me I needed money. That’s how I ended up on a train at four o’clock in the morning with my nephew and a hundred pounds of weed.

Bryn Greenwood met acclaim with All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which I also read and reviewed, and I liked it a lot, but The Reckless Oath We Made is special, possibly the best novel we’ll see in 2019. The charm of the narrative voice is just as strong as the last if not more so, but there’s greater character development. It’s quirky and groundbreaking, and I will love this story until the day I die. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. You can buy it now.

Zhorzha—you can call her Zee—is in a state of perpetual crisis. Her father is in prison for robbery, and her mother has fallen apart, become a hoarder, massively obese, and agoraphobic to boot. At age 12, Zee was forced to leave home, and has been sofa cruising ever since. Recently she’s been staying with her sister LaReigne, but now LaReigne has been kidnapped. Zee and her nephew Marcus are stranded with nobody left to call for a ride; then her stalker steps forward and offers them a lift, and she takes it.

It’s the beginning of something beautiful.

Gentry has been following Zee for years; he saw her at physical therapy when she was recovering from a serious accident, and the voices in his head told him that he must be her champion. He doesn’t harass her, but he is always there. When all hell breaks loose, Gentry transports her to her mother’s house, but it’s even worse there. She is humiliated to have him—or anyone—see what kind of squalor her mother has chosen, but Gentry  sees her mother entirely differently, and since his narrative is peppered alternately with Zee’s and occasional glimpses of side characters’ perspectives, he tells us:

There, in the inner chamber, reclined upon a throne of red leather that scarce contained her serpentine hugeness, was the dragon Lady Zhorzha called Mother. My lady was blessed with a great mane of fire that ne comb ne blade might tame. Mayhap in the dragon’s youth, she had worn such a mantle, but in her age, her hairs weren grayed.

Fearless, Marcus approached the throne and flung himself upon the lady dragon. For a time, there was kissing and lamenting, for they weren greatly distressed with the fate of my lady’s sister…I would go upon my knee, but the dragon’s hoard was too close upon her.

At one point someone asks Zee whether she talks like Gentry too, and she replies, “Honestly, I don’t always understand what he says. I got a C in English in high school, and we never got to Shakespeare. I wasn’t in the advanced class.”

In fact, the juxtaposition of Gentry’s old world speech and Zee’s contemporary, frank responses that keep the story hopping. I laughed out loud several times when we moved from his speech to hers, for example:

Lady Zhorzha! Art’ou well?

Oh, thank fuck, Gentry. Yes. We’re okay.

But as much as I love Gentry, I love Zee harder. Zee is utterly believable, and she is unlike any other character I have read anywhere. She explains, when she’s asked whether she goes hunting with Gentry, that she wouldn’t know how; she comes from generations of “citified white trash whose main food-related struggle has to do with “opening dented cans of off-brand Spam from the food bank.”  

Zee is a large woman, and I am so heartily tired of tiny-firecracker female protagonists that I am cheered tremendously.  She’s nearly six feet tall, and her uncle says she is “Built like she could hunt bear with a stick.” When she is leaving the emergency room after a scare involving her mother, a staff member advises Zee to lose weight herself. One of Gentry’s friends notes that “Honestly, if she dropped fifty or sixty pounds, she would be pretty hot.”

And the thing I appreciate the most about this is that her weight not our central problem. It isn’t a problem at all. Zee is a romantic heroine who is fat, but this is an incidental part of her character. The problem is the kidnapping, and it’s complicated by all of the other challenges faced by poor people, challenges that Zee has to face without much of a tool kit; but between the kidnapping and the point when LaReigne is found, other life-changing events take place, and the Zhorzha we see at the story’s end is both wiser and happier than she is at the outset.

Greenwood doesn’t just avoid stereotypes in recounting Zee’s plight; she knocks the knees from beneath them and gives us breathing human beings and real world plot points instead, and she does it without being obvious about it. This is no manifesto; it’s more like a magnificent modern-day fairytale.

Take Gentry again, for example. Gentry is autistic, but he is not friendless, and he has some mad skills that take bullies unawares. Also?  Gentry is adopted. He is white; his adoptive mother is Black. Again, this is incidental to the story, but readers cannot miss it; there’s a very brief spot that brings it front and center, and I cheer when I see it.

Those that read my reviews know that I seldom gush, but this story is perfect in so many ways that I cannot help myself. By this time next year, I will have read roughly 140 more books, but I will still remember Zee, and I will still remember Gentry. This is among the sweetest stories of  2019, a new favorite.

I highly recommend this book to everyone that has the literacy skills and stamina to brave Gentry’s prose. Get it at full price or discounted, from the library or stolen. You won’t be sorry.

A Keeper, by Graham Nash*****

Graham Norton is best known for his work on television, but I knew nothing about him until 2016, when I read his first novel, Holding, which pulled me in through its originality, warmth, and humor. When I learned that he had another book to be released this summer, I didn’t have to think twice. Thank you, Net Galley and Atria for the review copy. A Keeper will be available to the public August 13, 2019.  

Elizabeth is her mother’s only child, so like it or not, she must return to Ireland to deal with her estate.  Her childhood wasn’t a happy one; her mother was never a warm fuzzy sort. But as she sifts through the many piles of crud left behind, she finds a pile of letters. Perhaps she can finally learn something about the father her mom would never discuss!  But soon she learns that she is also heir to a second home near the sea. Since she never knew her father and her mother was hardly in a position to purchase a vacation home, Elizabeth is mystified.  

Told alternately with Elizabeth’s story is that of her mother, Patricia, forty years earlier. Lonely and dateless, she lets the singles advertisements in the local paper decide her destiny, although nothing goes the way she anticipates.  Some of us are swept away by love; others by something else entirely.

The level of suspense Norton creates is undeniable. I ignore errands and invitations while I am reading it, carrying out household tasks in an absentminded way that nearly finds me dropping dog food into the washing machine. It’s a quick read, and perfect for a long vacation weekend or just curled up in front of the fan with a cold drink. In fact…you definitely want to read this while the weather is warm.  Trust me.

Highly recommended.

Heavy on the Dead, by G.M. Ford*****

Leo Waterman is one of my favorite detectives, but the opening of this twelfth entry finds him trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. In Soul Survivor, which precedes this one, Leo and his bodyguard, Gabe more or less destroyed a white supremacists’ compound in Idaho, and now they are both wanted men. They’ve traveled as far south as they can from their mossy, misty Seattle homeland without leaving the country, but even in Southern California, trouble follows them.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, and of course to author G.M. Ford, whose annual entries in this entertaining series have become one of the best parts of summer.

It’s a tricky thing, braiding dark social issues with humor, and Ford does it expertly. At the outset, Leo and Gabe find the body of a dead child on the beach. They are trying not to be noticed, but they can’t just leave him there. As the story progresses, cop Carolyn Saunders quietly encourages Leo to dig further into the incident, because the official story smells fishy; she can’t do it without risking her job, but Leo is retired, and as long as he can stay out of view of his would-be assassins, he can pretty much do as he likes. When the story concludes, the role of Saunders is left open. She may be back, or she may not. Her role here is to advocate that Leo stand on the side of justice but within sane limits; this is a role previously occupied by Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca. The real fun is had when Leo and Gabe team up, since neither one of them gives a single shit about their social standing or, when it comes down to it, their own personal safety.

As far as I know, the character of Gabe, a sidekick with loyalty, heart, and the tenacity of a pit bull, is the first gender-fluid character to show up regularly (okay, twice so far) in a long-running series. I love this character.

A longstanding hallmark of the Waterman series is the large yet sometimes invisible homeless population. This was true in 1995 when Ford published Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca, and that was before homelessness burgeoned and became a national issue. As far as I know, Ford is the first to feature homeless people in every book of the series; although his characters are often quirky and sometimes bizarre, they are ultimately human beings possessed of worth and dignity. I’ve believed every one of them, and so it’s no surprise that I believe the man with the barcode tattooed on his forehead, the one that bites Leo when he collides with him while running from cops. I like how this thread of the story resolves, too.

As the plot moves forward, we have assassins chasing the assassin that is chasing Leo, and it is simultaneously suspenseful and hilarious. This is important, because the crimes that are uncovered in pursuit of the truth about the dead child on the beach are dark indeed. In less skilled hands, the issue of human trafficking could well trip my ick-switch, that boundary line each of us possesses where the sordid but compelling central focus of a detective story suddenly becomes too sickening to be fun anymore; but the author’s less-is-more instinct is on point, and so once we touch that hot stovetop, we withdraw and move on to other things, circling back—briefly again—at its conclusion.

Anyone that reads the genre unceasingly across decades develops a mental list of overworked character and plot devices that we never care to see again; at the same time, a badass writer can take one of those elements and make it seem brand new and shiny. For me, the place where so many protagonists arrive, the one where they are knocked out, or drugged, or simply overpowered and tossed into the back of a truck (or van, or car) is one that can make me close a book. Nope; done.  But in this instance, the truck abduction is a critical component, and to try to carry off the climax and conclusion in any other way would be artificial and most likely hamper the pace. But to aspiring writers: Ford is an experienced professional; don’t try this in your book.

This book will be for sale July 23, 2019, and earlier entries in the series are selling digitally for a buck each. Get your plastic out now; you can thank me later. Highly recommended.

Clover Blue, by Eldonna Edwards*****

Edwards is the author of This I Know, and here, once again, she creates a powerful story based on a youthful yearning for identity. My thanks go to the author and her publicist for the printed galley, and to Kensington and Net Galley for the digital copy.  It will be available May 28, 2019.

Our setting is a small commune in California in the early 1970s. Our protagonist, Clover Blue, sleeps in a tree house with some of the other commune members. There’s no running water or electricity, but we don’t miss what we don’t have, and California has a mild climate. Though decisions are made collectively, with younger and older residents each having a vote, Goji is the spiritual leader of the group. In place of formal education, young commune members study with him. Blue can read as well as other children his age, and he knows more about nature than most would because it’s part of his everyday experience. He doesn’t remember living anywhere else; his life is happy, and his bonds with his communal family are strong ones.

But everyone wants to know their origins, and Blue is no different. As puberty approaches, he begins to ask questions. He gains the sense that older members know things they won’t tell him, and it heightens his desire to find out. Goji promises him that he will be told when he turns twelve, but his twelfth birthday comes and goes, and still Goji evades his queries.

And so the story darkens just a bit as Blue undertakes research on his own. He has a hunch as to who his biological parents might be, and despite the communal culture that regards every older person as the mother or father of every younger person, he wants the particulars and is determined to get them. The things he learns are unsettling and produce further questions.

A large part of the problem the communal elders face is that the State of California does not recognize the commune, and the living conditions and educational process used there are not legally viable. Because of these things, Goji discourages interaction with the outside world, and sometimes essential services—such as medical care—are given short shrift because of the risks they pose. Instead, naturopathic remedies are used, often to good result.

Edwards builds resonant characters, and I believe Blue, the sometimes-mysterious Goji, and Harmony, the member of the commune that is closest to Blue. There is enough ambiguity within each of them to prevent them from becoming caricatures; everyone holds various qualities within them, none being wholly benign or malevolent. The way that we judge these characters isn’t built upon their ability to do everything well, but in how they deal with their mistakes when they make them. In addition, some writers of historical fiction—which technically this isn’t, but it has that vibe—fall into the trap of establishing time and place through the cheap shortcut of pop cultural references and well known historical events. Edwards doesn’t do that, but she does use the speech of the time period so effectively that at times, I feel transported back to my own adolescence. There are aspects of the period I’d forgotten entirely that surprise and delight me; if there are errors, I don’t see them.

Ultimately, the story takes a turn that harks back (somewhat) to George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in that while everyone at the commune is said to be equal, some are “more equal than others.” Cracks in the foundation of their once-idyllic lives form, and we see who has strength of character, and who is lacking.

If I could change anything, I would make the ending less rushed, and I’d also urge the author to be less afraid of letting the ugly parts play themselves out as they most likely would in real life. In this novel and her last, it seems like the tragic aspects that occur near or at the climax are a hot stove, and we have to move away from them quickly. I’d like to see Edwards let the stove burn a little more.

 I do recommend this book to you. In fact, it may be a five star read, but it’s almost impossible to evaluate it without comparing it to what the author wrote earlier, and this made the five star standard difficult to achieve here. Those that love historical fiction should get it and read it.

Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin***

PaperGhostsGrace is convinced that Carl Feldman killed her sister Rachel. The once celebrated photographer was tried for the murder of a young woman and acquitted; now he is very elderly, and residing in assisted living due to dementia. Grace poses as his daughter, and she wants to take him on a road trip.

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

The outset feels delightfully creepy, as in small bits and pieces Grace tells us what she knows and what she wonders about. We don’t know where she plans to take him, or what she intends to do with him, only that she isn’t who she claims to be and her intentions aren’t what she says they are.

The story is uneven in its quality. The first half is superior to the second half; at first I can buy the premise, which is full of holes—why would they release him to her? How could someone her age have enough money to do this, even with saving every penny she’s earned? How is she so careless with his meds, and how can he suddenly behave as if he is much younger and more vigorous than he has been for years? –but as the story continues, I find myself stopping now and then and rolling my eyes. I put it down, then come back to it, and the same thing happens. By the time I reach the ending, which feels cobbled together and not authentic at all, I am ready to be done.

Fans of Heaberlin’s may enjoy this book, but my advice is to wait till you can get it free or cheaply.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow, by Susan Perabo****

thefalloflisabellowI was fortunate enough to score a DRC of this suspenseful novel from Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s a book that defies the usual genre niches, and for this and many other reasons I enjoyed it immensely. It will be available to the public March 14, 2017.

The premise is that Meredith Oliver, a middle school student, is present when the local deli is robbed. She and her frenemy, Lisa Bellow, are ordered to get down on the floor. When it’s all over, Lisa has been kidnapped, but Meredith is still there, traumatized but otherwise unharmed.

There are two key components that make this story a strong one. The first is characterization. Both Meredith and her mother, Claire, are so carefully rendered that by the end of the book I felt as if I could predict what either of them would say in any given situation. The second is plot, and here Perabo’s expertise in her field—she is a professor of English as well as a novelist—shines through. She gives us just enough information to keep us taut and engaged, skillfully meting out a taste here, an additional nugget there, while leaving us with some of our original questions and posing new ones.

You see, Meredith is here, but she isn’t; at least not all of the time. She suffers from survivor’s remorse, to be certain, but a completely second life, one in which she and Lisa are together, is woven into the narrative, and it leaves us wondering whether Lisa’s abduction has perhaps been arranged by Claire or even by Meredith, or horror of horrors, the two of them as confederates.

Another compelling aspect of this novel is the family. Prior to the accident, Meredith and Claire constitute half of a cozy middle class family. Both parents are dentists, her father the kind of upbeat but slightly clueless guy that operates in the day-to-day, gliding happily along life’s surface. He’s not a deep thinker. Meredith’s older brother Evan, who she adores, is an athlete with a future, a baseball player being courted by any number of colleges, until the accident occurs in which one eye is lost. The doctor that attends him tells the family bluntly, “Imagine stepping on an ice cream cone.”

As Meredith winks in and out of the world around her, the family also is strained almost to the breaking point.

Meredith’s voice is so richly crafted that it will take the reader back to middle school. The wrenching emotions, the jockeying for social position, the depth of devotion and the dark, searing hate are so powerful that as I look back on my years as an eighth grade teacher, I am amazed that any of my students was able to learn anything. The social subtext is impossible to ignore, and it sends little flags out constantly in small ways; shifted body language, the choice as to whether to speak to someone in the halls, choosing who to befriend not only based on the friend’s qualities but on what it will mean about one’s other school relationships—all these things constitute a full time job. Meredith loves algebra, and I thank the author for crushing the stereotype that says girls don’t do that. Yet the rest of Meredith’s classes tend to pass in a fog that is dominated by the social interaction that’s anticipated both in the next class and in the hallway during passing time. The locker room is a nightmare waiting to happen, a Lord of the Flies with meaningful glances and flipped hair taking the place of spears and fire.

I won’t give away the end of this story because it would completely ruin it for you, but at the same time, I found myself both relieved and oddly let down by the denouement.

Recommended to those that love strong fiction.