Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts*****

“Don’t let anybody steal your marbles.”

Maud Gage Baum is one of a kind. The godchild of Susan B. Anthony, child of first-wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and an indulgent, progressively inclined father, she is unhampered by many of the traditional expectations that shackled women born during the American Civil War. But though her parents encourage her to develop her mind and talents, they have little prepared her for the wider world that greets her, and when she arrives at the women’s dormitory at Cornell University, she is considered peculiar by her classmates. She is a lonely young woman, until her roommate sets her up with Frank, an eccentric, clever man whose whimsy equals her own. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 12, just in time to be wrapped in red paper and given to the bookworm you adore.

Maud’s story comes to us from two different time periods, one of which starts in 1871 during her childhood and moves forward in linear fashion, and the other in 1939, when she comes to the set where The Wizard of Oz is being filmed to fulfill her beloved Frank’s dying wish; he has asked her to look after Dorothy.  And though it initially means gaining access to the studio through duplicitous means, Maude befriends the unhappy but massively talented Judy Garland, and advocates for the intention behind her character, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

I love this book hard. It has an unusual appeal, not a thriller nor a grab-you-by-the-hair page turner, but rather a strangely comforting novel, one that offers us the chance to follow Maud to another time and another place. I read several books at a time, and this one became my bribe to myself, the reward I could look forward to after completing increments of other books that I wouldn’t abandon, yet didn’t love as I did this one.

How many times have I reviewed a book favorably yet with the caveat that it isn’t bedtime reading, and maybe not good for mealtime either? Listen up. This one is good for both. It will make you appreciate your meal as you move through the hungry years of the Depression, and as you read about poor Judy being starved with lettuce and cottage cheese, her penalty for reaching puberty when the studio wanted her to look like a scrawny waif. And at bedtime, even the sorrowful passages are wonderfully hypnotic.

The love story between Maud and Frank is one for the ages, and without Letts, who would have guessed? Midway through the story I felt the need to know how closely the author kept to the truth, and I skipped to the notes at the end. I am delighted to say that this writer did a great deal of research, and she tells the reader specifically where and when she departs from historical fact for the sake of the story.  The way that the character of Dorothy is invented, based on a string of actual events from the Baums’ lives, is riveting, and in fact had the author not told us otherwise, I would have assumed that much of it was made up, because it’s almost too cool to be true.

Letts develops her characters subtly, with never a caricature or stereotype. Though her settings are well drawn, this is a character based book if ever I read one, and it must truly have been a labor of love. I’ve read a dozen books between this one and the present, yet this is the title that makes me smile.

This beautifully crafted story is bound to rank high among the year’s best historical novels. Sweet, soothing, and highly recommended.

The Plotters, by Un-su Kim*****

The author of this surreal, expertly crafted tale has been called “the Korean Henning Mankell,” but I say he is the Korean Kurt Vonnegut. Enter a world in which the most ignorant and uncurious survive, one in which “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame.” My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the advance review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This novel will be available in the U.S. February 12, 2019.

Our protagonist is Reseng. Orphaned at a young age, he grew up in Old Raccoon’s library. He is an assassin. Killing others for hire has grown into a huge industry, and the story begins with Reseng watching an old man through a scope. He has a job to do.

Readers are forewarned that this story is not for the squeamish, and I almost abandoned it, because although I like dark humor, this is triple-dark. I set it aside fairly early, unsure whether I was coming back or not, but despite its brutality, it drew me back, and I am glad I returned to it.

Bear is Reseng’s friend, and he runs the pet crematorium.  That’s what it’s called, because the murder industry is still officially illegal; it wouldn’t do to announce his business as the place to dispose of a freshly assassinated human victim. Not yet anyway; the way things are going, this may change. Reseng is there on business, though, because the old man he just killed has to be processed. And as he and Bear converse on the state of the profession—so many immigrants are coming to South Korea and taking these jobs; Chinese, North Koreans that sneak over, Vietnamese. They’ll work cheap, and it makes it harder for guys like Reseng to get what the jobs are worth. And then there’s outsourcing. Assassins are hired by plotters, but Reseng reflects that “Plotters are just pawns like us. A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them that tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter…You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

 Reseng’s greatest concern is Old Raccoon, Reseng’s aging mentor who is being edged out by unseen forces. Old Raccoon isn’t an assassin, but he has kept himself out of the crosshairs by permitting his library to be used as a meeting point between shady individuals looking to make deals. That’s worked for him pretty well, until recently. Old Raccoon is all the family Reseng has, and so out of concern, he begins asking questions. It’s a reckless thing to do, and he knows it.

Before long, Reseng’s life turns into a hall of mirrors, and it’s hard to know who to believe, because he can’t trust anyone. Where does Hanja, who was also mentored by Old Raccoon, fit in? What about the cross-eyed librarian? Is she on the up and up, and if so, where did she go? Is The Barber involved here? His queries take him to visit Hanja, who is now wealthy and influential, a giant among giants in the industry, and his offices take up three whole floors in a high-rise building:

“As if it wasn’t ironic enough that the country’s top assassination provider was brazenly running his business in a building owned by an international insurance company; the same assassination provider was also simultaneously managing a bodyguard firm and a security firm. But just as a vaccine company facing bankruptcy will ultimately survive not by making the world’s greatest vaccine but, rather, the world’s worst virus, so, too, did bodyguard and security firms need the world’s most evil terrorists to prosper, not the greatest security experts. That was capitalism. Hanja understood how the world could curl around and bite its own tail like the uroboros serpent…There was no better business model than owning both the virus and vaccine…A business like that would never go under.”

The struggle unfolds in ways that are impossible to predict, and what kind of fool would even attempt to make sense of it? When challenged, Hanja tries to warn Reseng that when an anaconda tries to swallow an alligator, it instead dies of a ruptured stomach, but Reseng will not be stopped. His journey builds to a riotous crescendo, and there’s a point past which it’s impossible not to read till the thing is done.

It’s a scathing tale of alienation told by a master storyteller, and the ending is brilliant as well. There’s nobody else writing anything like this today. Highly recommended.

Old Newgate Road, by Keith Scribner*****

I fucking love this book. I received an advance reader’s copy free courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday, and I am late with my review, but it’s not too late for you. This dark, brooding tale of family secrets that intertwine with the present is both a literary gem and a deeply absorbing read. It’s for sale now.

Cole owns a construction business in the Pacific Northwest, but he returns to his childhood home on a mission to purchase some wood, a hard-to-find variety of chestnut. He hasn’t been back in thirty years, but now he is mature and ready to face the old house, or so he thinks. It’s the first time he’s been to his family’s Connecticut home since it happened. The family’s historical colonial home is located on Old Newgate Road, which leads to Old Newgate Prison; the way that he recalls that his parents posed and made much of this place and then the way that they treated each other and their children are juxtaposed in a way that I find absolutely believable.

There is a host of ominous foreshadowing, and the events of the past are revealed a layer at a time, like an onion, and the way Scribner uses them in developing his protagonist is brilliant. Each time that I think I see something in Cole’s behavior that doesn’t make sense, it comes up later and turns out to be an intentionally included inconsistency related to the character’s inner struggle.  And right now I feel as if I am making this thing sound so dull—struggle, development, blah blah blah—but I am not providing specific information the way I ordinarily would because it would be a disservice to even reveal what we are told at the ten percent mark, or the twenty.

I read a few negative early reviews, and I suspect these are due to the unfortunate tendency to overuse specialized terms used mostly by architects and builders. Perhaps the aim was to make us believe that Cole knows his field, or maybe it’s a part of the setting. One way or the other, the author has gotten carried away with it, but the reader that soldiers through that junk at the outset can expect to see much less of it during the great majority of the book. I read it digitally and occasionally ran a search as I was reading, but if any of these terms is useful in understanding the book, then I am too shallow to see it. You can safely skip over them if you want to do so, and you will be none the poorer for it.

The best lines of the story go to Cole’s adolescent son, Daniel, a social justice warrior who gets into trouble at school when he pushes boundaries; Cole brings him to Connecticut to work the fields as he himself did in his teens, and this is when the story starts to hop. I spent my career teaching adolescents, and over the years I had five of them at home. If there were a weak point in Scribner’s construction of Daniel, I would see it (as several other unfortunate authors can attest.) Daniel is bright, insightful, and rebellious, and everything he says and everything he does builds a credible character. By the halfway mark, my notes are written to the protagonist rather than to myself, the publisher or the author; I’m watching this kid and telling Cole to listen to him. Daniel is almost a prophet, and he’s almost a one person Greek chorus, but he is still always, always a kid, impulsive, full of passion, and unafraid to say what he sees, what he thinks, and what he knows. If I were to make a short list of my favorite fictional teenagers, Daniel would be on it.

That being said, this story calls for at least a high school literacy level, even if you skip the architectural and woodworking terms. Because of the many memories that flood in when Cole returns home, I suspect that those of us that came of age in the 1970s (give or take) may enjoy it most;  however, for younger readers it may have a bit of a noir flavor.

Highly recommended.

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker*****

Our story is set in the imaginary town of Santa Lora, California, a college town in the hills of Southern California. It’s sunny, green, and beautiful; parents feel safe bringing their children here…until one by one, they fall sick. No one can identify the illness; it’s “a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.” 

I read this book free and early in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Random House; this title will be available to the public tomorrow, January 15, 2019. 

Kara is the first, and roommate Mei, who is shy and hasn’t made friends yet with Kara or anyone else, is shuffled from her original dorm room to another. Then other students fall sick, and those in charge can’t decide what to do, so they do what administrators do best: they craft rules that change often and invent multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape. There’s a quarantine imposed. Parents aren’t allowed in; students aren’t allowed to leave. But they do it anyway. These are college kids. You can’t really tell them what to do, and even under guard, some are ingenious enough to escape.

Under guard! Now the parents are going nuts. Lawyers are called; who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile the illness spreads into the town anyway, because the college employs instructors, cleaning staff, and other adults that don’t live in dormitories. At first it’s kept quiet, since the trustees don’t want negative press getting out about their fine institution of learning, but of course eventually word gets out anyway. The kids have phones, after all. 

It doesn’t take much time for all hell to break loose. 

Walker is a gifted writer, and the story sucked me in and didn’t let me go till it was over. Conceptually it isn’t all that remarkable, but there are two standout features here that elevate it and make it a standout. The first is the prose style, lyrical and accessible, that makes it read like a truly creepy bedtime story for grownups. Some of it is created by short sentences that use repetition expertly, and the rest is probably just plain magic. 

But the main thing that makes me love this book is the dead accurate character development. Those that read my reviews know that nothing makes me crankier than a novelist that uses child characters that don’t act like children, or that don’t act the age they’re assigned. Here, the reverse is true. Every single character, from pre-teenage Sara and younger, mid-elementary age Libby; to the late teen and young adult college students; to the young professors with the newborn; to the older resident with a partner in assisted living are written in age appropriate thought and deed. I confess I was surprised to see how young this author is, because I could swear she had personally experienced each of these age groups. 

All eight characters that we follow are so well developed that I feel I’d know them on the street, and I care about what becomes of them. The impulsive, judgmental, occasionally reckless yet heroic Matthew, who steals Mei’s heart and then crushes it is the sort of kid I have taught in years gone by, and for that matter, so is Mei. And oh how my heart aches for Sara and Libby, whose father’s conspiracy-oriented paranoia is difficult to separate from his genius. I’ve known this guy too; when he speaks, you never know how to tease apart the brilliant parts from the crazy. With their mother dead, Sara and Libby have been sworn to silence about any number of things and told never to trust outsiders. Their home is in disrepair, and he tells them that if others can see inside, social workers will cart them away and they will never see him or each other again. And so when he falls asleep and they cannot wake him, they have a real dilemma. I want to dive into the book and carry those girls away—together—myself. 

And then I remember—oh yeah, they’re fictional. 

Other compelling characters are Catherine, the psychologist called in as a consultant and then not permitted to go home to her toddler when the quarantine is imposed; Ben and Annie, who try to protect their newborn; and Nathaniel, whose partner, Henry, is in assisted living. And though I ache for all of these characters, there are moments when humor is salted in, and so it remains a fun read. I thought the ending was perfect. 

There’s a lot more I can say, but I can’t say it like Walker does. This is a fast read and the ultimate in escapist fiction. I highly recommend it. 

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


Best Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.

 

Going to the Mountain, by Ndaba Mandela*****

GoingtotheMountainNelson Mandela’s hundredth birthday approaches. His grandson Ndaba, whom Mandela raised following his release from prison, talks about growing up with the titan that led the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. He reflects on Xhosa culture and the role that it played in the struggle and in his own development, and it is within this framework that he talks about his grandfather, and about the future of his people.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early.

Ndaba spent his early years moving between his parents’ households. His mother struggled with alcoholism and other disorders; his father was ill, and would later die from AIDS. He tells of the surreal juxtaposition of the slum that had been his entire experience with his grandfather’s house, where he had his own room, food that was healthy and prepared for him, clothing, and even a video game system; it was just about everything a child could ask for, but it came at the price of separation from his mother, and he rebelled and acted out in response. As a man with a wider view of the past, he recognizes that this was by far the best outcome, but for many years he resisted, yet was safe because of his grandfather’s stable influence and wisdom.

He speaks of having come to Disney World as a youngster, where he was engaged in conversation with a friendly American, who asked him, as they stood in line for a ride, how big the lions are in Africa. Ndaba, of course, grew up in an urban environment and had no more seen a lion wandering around than the questioner had. He came to realize that these are the stereotypes that the Western world has for Africa: lions in rural areas, and crime in the cities. Dangerous animals; dangerous people.  He suggests that the U.S.A.  improve its own police forces before presuming to talk to South Africans about theirs.

He has a point.

The entire memoir is told using Xhosa folk tales as allegory, and the result is glorious and deeply moving. Although I seldom become teary while reading, a good hard lump formed in my throat when he spoke of taking his grandfather on his final journey to Capetown.

Highly recommended to everyone, whether you know the history of the South African Revolution or are new to it.

Smoke City, by Keith Rosson*****

SmokeCityNerds, geeks, and bibliophiles be ready. Marvin Dietz, who in an earlier life was the executioner of Joan of Arc, is leaving Portland, and he’s collected some unlikely traveling companions. Why not join him?  I read this story free and early thanks to Meerkat Press, but it’s worth your nickel to seek it out, because there is nothing else like it. This book is available to the public Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Mike Vale was once a great painter, and now he has been forced out of his record store by a shifty, corrupt landlord, so he heads south to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his ex-wife. En route he picks up Dietz, who is hitchhiking, and further along the way Casper stows away in the back. The voice with which their story is told is resonant and the word-smithery makes me shake my head in some places—who writes like this?—and in others I laugh out loud. Here’s a sample from the passage where we meet Casper:

 

‘I want my money,’ Casper said. “My money or my gear. You pick.’
‘Jesus wept,’ the last counterman said before wheeling around on his stool. Then Gary, our mechanic, walked past me and threaded his way through the tables. He laid his hand on the end of the bat… Casper turned and looked at him. What little fight there was deflated out of him like a balloon. Almost lovingly, Gary put him in a headlock.

‘Casper, Duncan sold your meter for a bag of crank days ago. Give it a break. Getting money from him is like getting Thousand Island from a basset hound’s tits, man. You can squeeze all you want, but it ain’t happening.’

 

As the journey continues, somewhere in California, the Smokes appear. They’re the undead, and they appear as if they are made of smoke. They can’t hear live people or see them, but their personal dramas and torments play out for people in the here and now, and they don’t observe the laws and conventions regarding private safety and property, either.  They show up at random times and in random places, causing traffic accidents and other complications. And so we have to wonder if there’s a connection between Marvin, whose many incarnations are recounted to us in his confidential narrative, and these apparitions. The government and the military are at a total loss; the press is enjoying itself, but even the most ambitious journalist recognizes that things have spun out of control.

The plot is complex, and readers must bring their literary skills along for the ride or there’s no point in coming.  It’s a story that takes awhile to develop, but it’s more than worth the slow build. The playful use of language and quixotic spirit of the prose are reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his finest hour.

Highly recommended; get it in hardcover.

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is drawn to a cottage said to be haunted by a boy that died in a hurricane many years before.

The story begins with a lengthy internal monologue that made me fear I’d regret requesting the review copy. There’s a saying that only those that know the rules of written convention well are entitled to break them upon occasion, and Godwin is one that does, and she does it for a reason. I can promise the reader that if you push through the first twenty percent of the story, complete with very frequently used parenthesis, you’ll be in it for keeps.

Marcus is one of the most resonant characters I’ve read in a long time. He is orphaned, unmoored, and friendless; his one good friend insulted Marcus’s mother, and the friendship was broken. Now his great fear is that Great-Aunt Charlotte, a reclusive painter that values her privacy and has a very small home, may grow weary of the inconvenience of having him with her and send him away. The reader can clearly see this brusque but thoughtful woman grow attached to her young relative, but Marcus is too overwhelmed and depressed to catch a clue. He tries to make himself scarce to reduce his impact on her, and in doing so spends an inordinate amount of time nurturing and watching the nests of leatherback turtle eggs laid on Charlotte’s beach, and walking or biking back and forth to the far end of the island, where the legendary Grief Cottage, Charlotte’s most lucrative painting subject, sits desolate and friendless, not unlike Marcus himself.

A measure of a well written a novel is the way our affection for it lingers after we have finished reading it and look back after we’ve read other things. Because I received a very early galley for this one, I have read and reviewed 24 other books since this one, and yet when I see the cover for this title, I heave a deeply satisfied sigh. Oh yes. Grief Cottage. That one was wonderful!

Those that only enjoy action-packed thrillers will have no joy here; rather, Godwin’s prose is the sort one sinks into, like a deep feather bed or a favorite chair by the fire. For those that love strong literature, I cannot think of a better way to spend quiet spring evenings.

Highly recommended.