Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Amish Guys Don’t Call, by Debby Dodds****

AmishGuysDon't Amish Guys Don’t Call is funny, absorbing, and ultimately lifting. Dodds has a great heart for teenagers, and this title is one that should grace every high school and middle school library, and will also attract parents and teachers of adolescents. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blue Moon Publishers. This book will be available to everyone June 13, 2017.

Samantha is still smarting from her parents’ divorce and her father’s inattention when her mother moves them to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Amish country. Samantha has been in trouble for shoplifting, and the urge increases when she is in stressful situations. To her surprise and delight, she strikes up a friendship with Madison, who in turn pulls her into the most popular circle at school.  The one thing that gets in Sam’s way is her wholesomeness. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or use street drugs; not only is she still a virgin, but she’s never had a boyfriend. Madison tells Sam that all of this can end, with some careful time and grooming. Thus is “Project P” launched.

Despite the name of the boyfriend project, this book is free of explicit sexual situations. We see drug use, and sexual situations arise, so those considering whether this title is right for your teen or group of teens should bear this in mind. If in doubt, buy a copy for yourself and read it first.

At a big party held at night in a cornfield by Amish boys during their Rumspringa, a period in which some Amish groups permit their adolescents a taste of what the outside world is like and tolerate sometimes-extreme behaviors as a rite of passage, Samantha meets a young man named Zach. He’s handsome, and he’s drawn to her. We can tell from his behaviors (as well as the book’s title) that he is Amish, but it takes quite awhile for Sam to catch on. She is obsessed with his failure to provide her with his cell number. Is there another girl in the picture?

This story was a fun read, but I don’t recommend it to general audiences apart from those that really enjoy a wide variety of YA novels. Every nuance is explained thoroughly, and so whereas the text is accessible to students—with vocabulary at about the 9th grade level—most adults will want something more nuanced.  That said, if I were still in the classroom, I would purchase this title. Because the subject matter might provoke conservative parents, I would not use it as assigned reading or use it as a classroom read-aloud, but I know that a lot of students will want to read it.

Recommended for teens that are not from highly conservative backgrounds.

Forever is the Worst Long Time, by Camille Pagan****

Happy release day! This title is available to the public today.

Seattle Book Mama

 “Each story is different. Every story ends with loss.”

foreveristheworstCamille Pagan is the author Life and Other Near Death Experiences. Thank you Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title is for sale February 7, 2017.

The story starts in the second person, with the narrator speaking to us intimately; he is James Hernandez, and soon we realize that he is speaking to a child about her mother and his memories of her. The narrative is therefore intimate in tone, but also carefully measured and paced, beginning in 1998 when James meets Lou and unspooling toward the present.  I have read oh so many novels in which alternating viewpoints are used to keep the reader’s attention from wandering, and this fresh approach had me at hello.

James is Rob’s best friend; James’s own childhood home was dysfunctional…

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Always, by Sarah Jio****

alwayssarahjioAlways, Sarah Jio’s much anticipated new release, takes on the homelessness epidemic using the powerful medium of fiction. I received my copy in advance in exchange for an honest review; thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC. This title is available to the public today, and if you have enjoyed Jio’s other novels, I am confident you’ll like this one too.

Kailey Crane is a journalist living in Seattle during the 1990s, and she has the whole package: a great job, a wonderful city, and a wealthy, handsome fiancée. It’s the life other little girls dreamed of but didn’t get.  Then one night as she and Ryan are leaving a restaurant, she literally bumps into a long lost love. Cade McAllister is the man Kailey had been going to marry until he disappeared. He practically vaporized. Stunned and humiliated, she picked herself up and rebuilt her life, and now here he is, a half-crazed homeless man living downtown on the streets.

What the heck happened?

Kailey wants to marry Ryan, but she also wants to help Cade find housing, medical care, and food. Ryan makes it easier by agreeing that she should do the right thing. Quickly she learns that it isn’t as simple as it seems. There’s a whole safety net in place for people like Cade, except that it doesn’t work. In fact, without her own ready access to Ryan’s money, she can do virtually nothing for Cade. But it’s all right, because Ryan is on the side of the angels; he sees that this cause is a just one, and he’s a generous guy. He’s in love, and he’s feeling expansive.

The problems begin when Kailey starts missing key wedding events because she’s off helping Cade, or trying to. She becomes so involved with one thing and another that before she knows it, she’s over an hour late. There are out of town relatives that are present, but where’s the bride? And before we know it, she’s telling lies, and sometimes they don’t even seem necessary. I want to reach through the pages of the book, yank Kailey into the kitchen and talk to her.

What  are you doing, girl?

Fissures in her relationship with Ryan turn into fractures as he senses the level of her obsession, and he doesn’t see things as she does anymore. His material interest is involved, since a project his development corporation is about to undertake conflicts with an already established homeless shelter in Pioneer Square, a historic part of Seattle’s downtown. He questions why so many resources are required for the homeless; aren’t these mostly drug addicts and crazy people? There ought to be a simple way to dispatch the problem.

A strong story overall is somewhat tarnished by what feels like a glib ending. I recall a favorite episode of the Muppets when Miss Piggy is working a jigsaw puzzle, and she hates to be wrong, so she slams a piece into a hole where it doesn’t belong and howls, “I’ll make it fit!” The ending of this story brought the episode back to me, because Jio seems to be doing more or less the same thing.

Recommended to fans of this successful romance writer.

Forever is the Worst Long Time, by Camille Pagan****

 “Each story is different. Every story ends with loss.”

foreveristheworstCamille Pagan is the author Life and Other Near Death Experiences. Thank you Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title is for sale February 7, 2017.

The story starts in the second person, with the narrator speaking to us intimately; he is James Hernandez, and soon we realize that he is speaking to a child about her mother and his memories of her. The narrative is therefore intimate in tone, but also carefully measured and paced, beginning in 1998 when James meets Lou and unspooling toward the present.  I have read oh so many novels in which alternating viewpoints are used to keep the reader’s attention from wandering, and this fresh approach had me at hello.

James is Rob’s best friend; James’s own childhood home was dysfunctional and bleak, and so Rob’s family included him on family vacations and other family-only events. They weren’t just close friends growing up; they were almost brothers. And so when James falls head over heels in love and decides to marry, the first thing he does is send for his BFF. They are introduced and James is asked to be best man at the wedding.  But in one of those blind random moments of fate, James himself falls madly in love with Lou the minute he sees her.

What would you do in a similar circumstance? Get over it and do it fast, of course. It’s just not possible. But years later, when the marriage founders and Lou walks, James can’t help himself.

There is foreshadowing in plenitude here, and the voice at the outset and at the end are what keeps those pages turning. Of course, there’s also mystery, because the speaker is telling us some things, but clearly withholding others.

If you have to like a protagonist in order to enjoy a novel, then this may not be your book. James isn’t merely flawed; in the book’s middle, he’s whiny.  I check my notes and find that in one place I wonder if Woody Allen will option the rights, and in another, I curse and request a violin. Seriously, I want to smack James upside the head and say sure, you shouldn’t have, but you did and it’s done, so man up and get over it already. But around the three-quarters mark, the whole thing takes another turn, one entirely consistent with what has gone before, and once again, it is a book I don’t want to put down till the last page is turned.

Those that enjoy fresh new fiction should consider this book even if romance is not generally a favorite genre. Pagan is an interesting writer, and now that I’ve read this, I want to go back and read the other things she’s written.  She’s already gained a lot of buzz—and a movie deal—with her first title, and I suspect she will be someone to watch in the future.

Don’t get left out.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith*****

thegirlfromvMartin Cruz Smith is the best-selling author of Gorky Park and the Arkady Renko series. His new stand alone novel, The Girl from Venice, shows he hasn’t lost his magic, and it quickly became my favorite DRC once I began reading it. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley, from whom I received an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. You can get this book today.

Cenzo Vianello is a fisherman from the tiny village of Pellestrina, an ancient place steeped in tradition. He once had two brothers, but now has only one; Hugo died in Mussolini’s Africa campaign, and his remaining brother Giorgio is a movie star as well as an influential member of the Fascist government. Cenzo detests him for his politics, but even more for having stolen his wife Gina, who died when a bomb fell on the movie set to which Giorgio had escorted her.

All of this is background, complex and deliciously ambiguous in many aspects. It is within this context that Cenzo finds the girl, Giulia, floating like a corpse in the lagoon. To his surprise, he finds she is alive. She is Jewish, from a wealthy family and on the run. She figures that if the poet Byron could cross that lagoon, then so can she. Cenzo hates to spoil her dream, but he tells her this is a dangerous plan, and for many reasons. He develops a plan for her rescue, but later finds he is ambivalent about having turned her over to someone else. Is she safe? Does she remember him? Who can he trust, and who not?

One must, after all, be careful who one embraces.

“The trouble was the war. It should be over. Instead, the Americans were taking forever while Mussolini ruled a puppet state and the Germans, like decapitated ants, went on fighting.”

 When one fears defeat, one may become desperate; in some ways, the Fascists now have little to lose, and so their behavior becomes more extreme. There are partisans that oppose the Fascists, but it’s difficult to be sure who is sincere, and who is a double agent.

Part of the suspense inherent in successful spy novels is the feeling of looking over your shoulder, wary of everyone all the time. The relationship between Cenzo and Giorgio is particularly well developed and is intertwined with this aspect of the story; we never know whether one of them is going to kill the other, and when Giorgio says he will help Cenzo, we wonder whether he is helping lead him into a trap.

Although Giulia provides us with a premise and a scaffold for the story, not to mention a really beautiful book jacket, hers is not the character we see developed. The characters that are meaty and interesting are the brothers.

That being said, Smith should get credit for including an interesting female side character in Maria, the wife of the consul of Argentina, a woman with shadowy business and motive. Maria isn’t there to seduce anyone, not really; she’s also not a victim. In a field riddled with endemic sexism, I was happy to see this progressive element, and was fascinated by the brief, spectral appearance of her husband from his sickbed.

This story is a page-turner, an unmissable tale that will keep your light burning late and distract you from your daily pursuits until it’s over.  Don’t miss this one.

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries****

theteaplanterswifeGwendolyn is 19 years old when she marries Laurence Hooper, the owner of a tea plantation in Ceylon, an island nation south of India now named Sri Lanka. Jeffries provides a compelling, sometimes painful glimpse of the mores and assumptions of the heirs of the UK Empire at the outset of the peasants’ rebellion led by Ghandi. Though a few small glitches occasionally distract, this is a strong piece of fiction that fulfilled the writer’s mission admirably. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received free in return for an honest review. The book is on sale today.

The protagonist is not a sympathetic one, and those that need a main character they can love should stop even considering this book right now. But some of literature’s most interesting characters are flawed ones, and the development of this one within the constraints of what Caucasians in the UK expected their lives to resemble at this time, and within the even greater constraints of material self-interest, is fascinating. I found myself wanting to haul this character out to the cheese room and tell her that all other women are not her enemies. She has almost nothing required of her by the easy life into which she has married, and as a local gossip points out, Gwen has “never had to fight for anything”.

Gwen has a passel of problems, however, some real, some imagined. She sees her sister-in-law as a rival not only for her husband’s affections and loyalty, but also for his fortune. She sees his wealthy former girlfriend and business associate, Christina, trying to pull him back into a relationship. What about MacGregor, the surly foreman of the laborers? What about Savi Ravasinghe? By the time the book was halfway done, I found myself alternately scolding her for making enemies everywhere and then, a heartbeat later, screeching at her to beware.

Ultimately I didn’t think I was impressed by this story until I looked back on my notes. I had highlighted nearly every warning bell and red herring and made little notations like, “Noooo!” Obviously this story engaged me all the way through. At times I was frustrated, but that was the author’s intention. At no time was I bored. And given the level of suspense and a certain amount of mystery, I realized that one genre tag had gone missing. I added this title to my “mystery” shelf, because there is so much unknown information that will keep the reader up late as well as any whodunit.

The author makes a few missteps that break the spell of time and place momentarily. At one point there is an argument between two of the characters about Ravasinghe, and one accuses the other of race prejudice, while the other responds that it “has nothing to do with the color of his skin!” This is either ignorance or revisionism. In the 1920s and 1930s racism was at a fever pitch. Colonialists based their system of rule partially on paternalism, which overtly declared that the “lesser” races needed the great white fathers to look after them, employ them, house and feed them. In the USA, Jim Crow and the Klan were at their all time most powerful; African-Americans were afraid to walk on the same sidewalks in the South, and in the North they nevertheless kept to their own neighborhoods to the greatest degree possible. Biracial marriage was an invitation to ostracism or even death, and less than one percent of the Caucasian population in any English speaking nation would even pretend that such ostracism wasn’t about race.

In fact, US President William Howard Taft declared that the day would dawn when the United States flag would fly at “equidistant points” that would include North America, South America, and Central America in fact rather than merely economically, and he told the American people that God had willed this due to the moral and racial superiority of Americans—by which he meant Caucasian Americans. In the East, look what the peasantry went through just to get the vote!  No, no white folks in the British Empire or USA were going to defend themselves against charges of racism; racism was assumed to be the will of God.

There’s another “oopsie” moment when the roof of a large building catches fire and the fire is put out with a garden hose and pots of water. No.

But all of this is mitigated by the expert manner in which the author describes the setting, having had a family member that lived on such a plantation, or a similar one. Part of the reason I wanted to read this DRC is the fact that it was set in Ceylon, and here Jeffries does not disappoint.  I was afraid the ending would either be saccharine or unspeakably brutal, but she deftly avoids both extremes and comes up with a surprising and believable alternative.

So in the end, I recommend this book to you. It’s not always easy for some of us to look in the mirror, or at the mirror of one’s ancestors, but everyone comes from somewhere, and the playing field still isn’t level. Nobody can fix what’s wrong today without knowing where the trouble came from. The Tea Planter’s Wife is a historical treasure in this regard; Jeffries is to be congratulated.

Union Soldier, by Gordon Landsborough***

unionsoldierI received this title courtesy of Endeavor Press, who invited me to read and review their material directly; I thank them for the invitation to read and review this Digital Review Copy free in exchange for an honest review.

Our protagonist is McGaughey, a physician with a troubled past who enlists as a Union soldier because he cannot enlist as a doctor. He falls in love with a young woman named Sara, and so this relationship is a key aspect of the book. He moves heaven and Earth to see that she is allowed to stay with his unit, even introducing her as a laundress, a thing I never knew Union troops enjoyed.

Landsborough does a middling job of character development and creates an aura of mystery around McGaughey. I found his depiction of Union soldiers in general alienating. For me, the American Civil War was the last really righteous war the US fought, and so his characterization of most recruits as men that would do anything rather than serve, men that were rough, dishonest and usually of poor character demeaning. I suspect he was striving for realism, or perhaps he truly believes the war should never have occurred at all. Those that take this position may find themselves enjoying the novel more than I did.

Setting was a problem for me. Whereas his descriptions of the immediate area in any given situation were well done, I could never place this story on the map. On the one hand, Flagstaff is mentioned several times and so I was thinking of Arizona. The prominent role given American Indians tells us he has to be in the West. But the Sioux confederation is in the North, primarily in the mid-western USA, and so I was confused.

Landsborough does a creditable job of pointing out that the American Indian was still fighting for justice during this time period. The US government strove to fulfill the integrity of the nation, but didn’t do well by native peoples.

The stereotype that McClellan was an unskilled general whereas Lee and Jackson were brilliant is a tired old saw. A more in-depth look at these generals demonstrates that McClellan was entirely capable but actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Considerable evidence proves that his failure to succeed militarily in most situations was intentional. Lee made a number of errors as did Jackson, who was often unreliable when he was expected to show up, but both were bold, and for a time their energy and boldness paid off. I would have liked to see more knowledge of the war itself in this story, which turns out to be more a Western and also a romance than a Civil War tale. To be fair, it was billed as a western, but I latched onto the title and expected something more.

For those that enjoy Westerns or historical fiction that contains romance, this book may be of interest.

‘Til Death Do Us Part, by Amanda Quick***-****

tildeathdousI was looking for good historical fiction and ran across this novel, which is also a mystery and romance. It’s a little different from much of what I read, and reminds me a bit of Victoria Holt, whose work I read voraciously as a teenager and younger woman. I received the DRC courtesy of Net Galley and Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public April 19, 2016.

Calista Langley is a spinster, which is what unmarried women were called a century ago. She runs salons in her home for the purpose of intellectual discussion, a chance for men and women to get to know one another in a socially acceptable setting before they commence the courting ritual. But Langley has a stalker. A man has been using a long-disused dumbwaiter to hoist himself up to her bedroom, where he can watch her in the shadows. He leaves grim mementos mori—associated with death—on her pillow for her to find. Her initials are etched in them, a particularly chilling detail. We know fairly early who it is that is doing this, but Calista herself does not know.

“This is what it had come to—a life lived on the razor edge of fear. The sense of being watched all the time and the ghastly gifts were playing havoc with her nerves…Her intuition was screaming at her, warning her that whoever was sending her the gifts was growing more obsessed and more dangerous with each passing day. But how did one fight a demon that lurked in the shadows?”

At about the same time, Trent Hastings has come to see her, convinced that she is corrupting his sister Eudora, a client and frequent guest at the salons held in Calista’s home.

The overall tone of the story is a trifle melodramatic for my taste right now, but if you had given me this book thirty or thirty-five years ago, I would have worn it out re-reading it and then passed it on to my friends. The romantic scenes are steamy yet tasteful . Quick can raise our interest to a higher level just building up to a kiss than many of the writers of erotica are able to do with everyone’s clothes on the ground and explicit information left, right, and center.

In fact, though I often make a point of letting my readers know when a book will be objectionable to conservative Christian readers, in this case I feel confident in saying you should be fine here. The language never gets hotter than an occasional “damnation!”

One thing that was especially interesting to me was the minute detail given to Victorian funeral customs and the odd accessories that were popular then. It never occurred to me, for example, that anyone would spend good money on a tear-catcher, but some folks did. For the more practical purchasers, the coffin bell is a handy way to let everyone know that you’re not dead after all, and would like out of this box, please!

All told, this was a fun, accessible read. I rate it 4 stars as a YA novel, and 3.5 stars rounded up for general audiences.

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth Mckenzie*****

theportableveblen“There is a terrible alchemy coming.”

Veblen has led an insular life, focusing her energies on genealogy, a love of nature, and oh dear heaven, her mother. The fact is, her mother is both dominant to an extreme degree, and frankly more than a little bit squirrely. But when Veblen meets Paul, her life changes dramatically; but even more so than most young women, she finds that she needs to be flexible to accommodate Paul, whose needs are different from her own.

A huge thank you goes to Net Galley and Penguin Random House Publishers for permitting me a DRC. I nearly let this title pass unread by me, thinking, because of the cover art, that it was going to be a cutesy animal story, its humor no doubt cloying. I could not have been more mistaken, and so thanks are also due to whatever journalist’s review was posted in my hometown newspaper. Realizing my error, I rushed to the computer to see if it would still be possible, at this late date, to read it free.

It was indeed.

Dr. Paul Vreeland, neurologist and researcher, seeks some normalcy and order in his life. He was raised in a communal environment by parents determined to avoid the rat race and its social conventions as well. All of them. Had he been raised in an urban environment, someone would have probably called the authorities and had him removed from the filth, the drugs, and oh yes, the dreadful embarrassment. When he meets Veblen, he senses that she is fresh and unpretentious, but does not fully grasp just how much she wants to be like his parents—well, minus the drugs.

When Veblen is under stress, she starts anthropomorphizing squirrels. She is certain she can talk to them and that they understand what she’s saying. The stranger her mother behaves, the more Veblen is drawn to squirrels.

And now, a personal note. A good friend of mine took a respite from the grinding, long hours of social work, and for awhile she worked as a wedding planner. It didn’t last long. Having had so much experience dealing with disparate personalities in her initial career, she often felt the urge to hurl herself between the prospective bride and groom, upon whose union tens of thousands of dollars was being lavished. She wanted to cry out, “Just get away from each other, both of you! This marriage will be over before the year is over, so just don’t go there!”

And this is what I wanted to do as of the 33 percent mark. I wanted to haul Veblen back to the rundown cottage she occupied by preference, and haul Paul back to his state-of-the-art medical facility, and have them never see one another again.

Then again, their relationship is hysterically funny, and all of us can use a good laugh, followed by another, and yet another.

The reader can approach this hugely original tale on one of two levels. It can be read as literary fiction, with the squirrel as metaphor. Or one can just read it, and sit back and howl with laughter.

One way or the other, this unbelievably clever, hilarious book is available for purchase now, and it is highly recommended to everyone.