The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin***

I received this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It will be available to the public February 26, 2019.

The cover grabbed my attention right away since I like sassy working class fiction. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but this one doesn’t rely on back story, so that is no problem.

The promotional blurb says this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it did make me laugh out loud right away. The protagonist Mona is a housecleaner, and as she is wiping down the various surfaces in the bathroom, she comes across a human turd on a soap dish. The hell? But she resolves not to say anything about it, because she tells us once you mention it, they win. I howled with laughter. This is great stuff. Every now and then she tosses in a cleaning tip, and for some reason it works with the narrative. Maybe it’s because she already uses such an eccentric style that it seems consistent with the rest of the story.

As the first of the book’s four sections moves forward, she recollects the oddball things that she’s found while cleaning other people’s homes, and then we see the reward she gives herself at the end, after several hours of cleaning a large, expensive home: she paws through the residents’ clothing, selects some, and tries it on. She photographs herself in their clothes, and she also photographs herself mostly nude with their more remarkable possessions.

But one day she is interrupted in this ritual by the homeowner, and a truly bizarre relationship develops which includes his wife as well, and just like that we moved out of my comfort zone, but I promised to read and review this thing, so I forged onward.

I knew this would be edgy humor when I requested the galley, and perhaps I should have read between the lines a little more thoroughly. The narrative contains a goodly amount of explicit sexual content—much of it twisted–not to mention a rape that Mona recounts, a scarring episode from her past. But in all of it, I don’t see any character development to speak of.  The plot seems like more of a framework that’s been constructed in order to contain the various bits of humor that the author wants to include. And here, I also have to wonder why, why, why would anyone include the horrific suicide of a family member in an otherwise raunchily funny book? It was unexpected and made my gut flip over, the snide things she thinks about how the couple has dealt with the death of their daughter, the disposition of the ashes. Once you have read something you can’t unread it, and in all honesty I won’t read anything by this writer again.

At the same time, there are readers that loved her first book and I’ll bet you a dollar that they will love this one too. It bears the hallmark of a cult classic. I have no doubt that many readers will love it, but I do not.

Recommended to readers that read and enjoyed the author’s first book.

The Girls in the Garden, by Lisa Jewell****

thegirlsinthegardenLisa Jewell is an experienced author, but she is new to me. The Girls in the Garden, published in the UK last summer and soon to be in bookstores in the USA, is good strong fiction, and you should read it. I was fortunate and obtained an advance copy thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books for the purpose of a review. One night I stayed up late, unable to put it down until it was done.

Clare and Adele both have daughters, and both live in mixed-use residences that enclose a very large private garden. It’s been a great place to raise children for generations; in fact, some of the adults raising families here were also here as children. And there are so many children, introduced so quickly! I can usually juggle a hefty cast of characters just fine while also reading other books on the side, but in this case, the combination of all these characters and a surprising amount of culture shock—I am not as well informed with regard to British culture as I thought I was—left me staggering during the first ten percent of the book. My e-reader has notes that say, “Wait! Who?” and “Whose kid is this now?” and twice, “The fuck??” “What is a onesie, other than baby clothing?” Context wasn’t helping, so I did a web crawl. Okay, now I know. And isn’t tea usually mid-afternoon, with cookies or cake, and isn’t high tea formal and later? Do they have tea instead of lunch, instead of dinner, or are there four meals here?

And when I ran across spaghetti and peas for tea at 5 PM, again I wrote, “THE FUCK?”  Who eats peas in their spaghetti?

If a reader has to be confused, it’s better to have it be at the beginning and then catch up, than at the end, where one may walk away feeling stung and bewildered. Although I never did fully feel I had placed all of the characters, by the twenty percent mark I had a good feel for the primary ones and most of the others, and that was enough to make this an enjoyable read once I was oriented.

The story builds up to, and then centers around a party at the end of which adolescent Grace is found bloody and half-dressed, lying in the bushes. What has been done to her, and who has done it?

Ordinarily I would consider this a spoiler, but it’s provided on the book’s blurb and jacket, so readers are told right away this is our central problem. But there are layers that delve deeper, and these are what make this such an interesting read.

When is a parent over-protective, and when are they not careful enough? What makes someone a good parent? How much do we hold tight to keep our children safe, and when is it right to let things go; not only to trust our kids, but also to trust the world with our children?

There are no easy answers, but I found myself making small clucking noises when one parent or another makes what appears to me to be an error in judgment. Likely you’ll do the same, though perhaps not in the same places. The ambiguity makes it delicious.

The narrative point of view shifts from that of Pip, who is twelve, to that of Adele, one of the mothers. This is effective. Pip writes letters to her father, and they assume a portion of her narrative, adding a first person perspective, and at first I thought this device was too cutesy, but I changed my mind by the halfway point. It adds something that would be hard to inject as effectively any other way.

As to what has happened to Grace, there are so many possible villains, so many motivations and opportunities, but when the solution is finally reached, I feel as though the author has played us fairly. Sometimes a mystery writer will reach clear into left field for a solution. Perhaps they may discover a secret twin during the last ten percent of the story, or perhaps the villain is someone everyone had believed long dead. And that doesn’t happen here.

Ultimately I don’t think the story is really about Grace. The story is about trust within adult relationships. Misplaced trust can be dangerous; too much suspicion is toxic. And so the dance women do—and perhaps everyone does—is in trying to find the balance. It isn’t easy, especially when we are young parents, still learning the ropes ourselves.

Despite the tumble of characters at the beginning that I suspect will challenge many readers as it did me, I recommend that you read this book. It offers us something I haven’t seen anywhere lately.

The Girls in the Garden becomes available to readers in the USA Tuesday June 7, 2016.