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

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

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

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

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

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

I love the way she ends this story.

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

The Familiar Dark, by Amy Engel*****

When it comes down to it, some people just have it coming to them.

Amy Engel is the author of The Roanoke Girls, a shocking thriller that proves she is a force to be reckoned with. The Familiar Dark is even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Dutton for the review copy. It’s for sale now, and you should get a copy to help chase away your cabin fever.

Eve Taggart was raised poorer than poor in a ripped up trailer in Barren Springs, Missouri; it’s “a slippery part of the world. People dart in and out like minnows in a shadowy pool…Folks here are hard to pin down, even harder to catch…It’s a place for people who don’t want to be found.”  Her mother is an addict with a mercurial temper, and so when Eve gives birth to Junie, she resolves to parent differently from her mama, and to never take Junie to visit her. The more space there is between her present and her past, the better off Junie will be.

But when Junie and her best friend, Izzy are found in a public park with their 12-year-old throats slit, everything changes. Without Junie to provide for, all of the social conventions that Eve has so carefully nurtured, all of the tentative connections she has made with mainstream members of the community are gone in an instant. Eve’s older brother Cal, a cop, tries to provide a buffer between Eve and the town, between Eve and their mother, and between Eve and the disastrous errors she makes as a result of her grief; none of it does any good. And Cal is sitting on a secret of his own.

I am generally a reader that has between six and twelve books going at any given time, but once I was about a third of the way into this one, I read nothing else. Instead of asking myself which book I’d like to read right now, I knew exactly. The suspense is built numerous ways, by foreshadowing, by the little hints given by others in her tiny town, but there’s more to it than that. Part of it is Engel’s unusually vivid word smithery and the frank, unsentimental dialogue that moves it forward. But the meatiest part of this story is in the pathological family triangle that—resist it though she has—forms most of Eve’s world. The further we get into the story, the more layers are peeled away and the more we learn about Eve and mama, mama and Cal, and Eve and Cal. We learn some secrets about Junie that poor Eve didn’t know, but these are almost secondary as they reveal more about the three adults. It is mesmerizing.

Eve thinks she has nothing left to live for now that Junie is gone, but Mama, who’s been drawn to the killing like a vulture to roadkill, assures her she is mistaken. What’s left is vengeance. This resonates with Eve. Pulled into a press conference in which she doesn’t want to participate, standing alongside the other bereaved parents, people that are well groomed and whose social skills make them vastly more sympathetic figures to the public than she will ever be, Eve decides to cut to the chase. After the other two plead for possible witnesses to call in tips to the local cops,

“I pointed out at the cameras, stabbing my finger into the air…’I’m going to find you, you sick fuck. And I’m going to tear you apart.’

“I thought about all the press conferences I’d seen over the years, parents trotted out for missing kids, killed kids, abused kids. Everyone feels sorry for those parents, those mothers, until they don’t. Until the mothers don’t cry enough or cry too much. Until the mothers are too put-together or not put-together enough. Until the mother are angry. Because that’s the one thing women are never, ever allowed to be. We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Does this ring as true to you as it does to me? Sooner or later, the mother always gets the blame. And so now I am still riveted and I am nodding. Uh huh. That’s right, Eve. Tell it!

When a novel is as outstanding as this one is, I almost hate to read the last fifteen or twenty percent, because often as not, that’s where it comes undone. Either the solution doesn’t hold water, or a hard cold tale of murder and revenge takes on a sudden sentimentality that doesn’t match the rest of the book; in these I sometimes picture editors and publicists urging the author to provide a feel-good ending, and the author ultimately bending. As I progress, I have figured out what the poignantly sweet ending to this one will likely be, if Engel goes in that direction.

But she doesn’t.

Instead, this story is one of badass female bonding gone dark, dark, and darker. Oh hey. The title.

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.