The Winter Sister, by Megan Collins****

Sylvie doesn’t want to go home. Sixteen years ago her sister Persephone was murdered, and her mother, a single parent, was undone by it. Sylvie’s built a new life for herself and would prefer not to revisit the old one, but her aunt calls and summons her. Sylvie’s mother is gravely ill and Aunt Jill says it is Sylvie’s turn to take care of her. Reluctantly, Sylvie packs and heads home to face her demons.

I was invited to read and review this compelling debut novel courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 5, 2019.

Persephone went on a date the night she was killed; she wasn’t permitted to date and so she had to sneak out. And right away my antennae twitch, because who doesn’t let their seventeen-year-old daughter date? The heck? She was a senior in high school, yet was reduced to climbing in and out of the bedroom window to avoid her mother’s anger. At fourteen, Sylvie was her confederate, leaving the window just a finger’s width ajar so that Persephone could return home undetected. But Sylvie had become increasingly ambivalent; Persephone came home with bruises with increasing frequency, asking her little sis to paint temporary tattoos to cover them up for her. Should Persephone be seeing Ben, the boy responsible for the bruises?  One night she decides not to leave the window open. That way it will be out in the open. Persephone will have to come in through the front door. She’ll be busted, but then the problem of the abusive boyfriend will be where it belongs, right on their mother’s plate.  Let the adult do the adult job, she figured. But that night, unable to sneak back in, Persephone instead returned to her boyfriend’s car, hopped in, and never came home.

Her body wasn’t found for three days.

The guilt of the thing followed Sylvie everywhere she went. She told no one. Their mother took to drink and locked herself away, refusing to respond to her daughter’s pleas on the other side of the door. Aunt Jill took Sylvie home with her when it became obvious that her mother had ceased to mother.

But now, Sylvie has to go back. And she carries so much anger with her; how is it even possible that Ben, the boyfriend, was never arrested or charged? How is it possible that he is working—of all places—in the clinic where her mother goes to receive her chemo?

Collins’s narrative is deeply absorbing, with a component of the psychological thriller in that at times, I wonder whether she is reliable. Things are certainly not what they seem. The resolution is surprising, yet fair to the reader. It’s a clever plot with layered characters, and I look forward to seeing what Collins writes in the future.

Recommended to those that love the genre.

Spearhead, by Adam Makos*****

I read this historical gem free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it’s among the top ten percent of the military histories I have read, and it’s one of the few that I have recommended to friends and relatives. Makos’s introduction tells us what he has done to lay his groundwork, and it’s impressive:



We traversed the battlefields of the Third Reich—with the men who made history…In 2013. Clarence Smoyer and three other veterans traveled to Germany and allowed us to tag along, to interview them on the grounds where they had once fought. We recorded their stories. We recorded what they remembered saying and hearing others say. Then we verified their accounts with deep research. We drew from four archives in America and one in England. We even traveled to the German Bundesarchiv in the Black Forest in search of answers. And what we found was staggering. Original orders. Rare interviews between our heroes and war reporters, conducted while the battle was raging. Radio logs of our tank commanders’ chatter, allowing us to time their actions to the minute… Is the world ready for a book about tanks? There’s one way to find out. Shut the hatches. Tighten your chin strap. It’s time to roll out.


Spearhead is equal parts memoir and history, and Makos is known for using a “You are there” writing style, though he is new to me. He writes about the most riveting parts of their service there, and though each of these four men starts the war in a different place, at the end they are joined together when they reach Cologne. 

The congenial narrative is enhanced with photographs of the men then and now, along with pictures of other men they served with, some of whom made it out alive as well as many that didn’t, or who survived the war but emerged crippled. There is a great deal of comfort, when reading a tale that must include so much carnage, in knowing from the get-go that Clarence Smoyers, Buck Marsh, Gustav Schaefer, Chuck Miller, and Frank Audifred will survive. There are a lot of names and faces, and here I was grateful to be reading digitally on Kindle, because I could use the “search book” feature to quickly regain the identity of participants I couldn’t recall when they came up again. 

There are some poignant moments; after all, they were really just kids. Sometimes they made it through battle because their commanders made wise decisions; sometimes they lived on in spite of incompetent or negligent commanders; and sometimes they found themselves in command. 

I never knew much about how tanks are operated. I believed that the guy whose head sometimes pokes up out of the hatch was the driver; that’s not so. And I had never given any thought to where the tankers sleep at night, or where they go to the bathroom. And the scandalous lack of safety for the men in Sherman tanks wasn’t clear to me till I read that the British called the Sherman as the “Tommy cooker,” the free Poles named it a “burning grave,” and Americans called it a “crematorium on wheels.” Ultimately this made it into the press when journalist Ann Stringer reprinted the comment that “Our tanks are not worth a drop of water on a hot stove.” The Pershing tank would be a tremendous improvement, and would be largely responsible for keeping our veterans alive to tell about it. 

There are some amazing high-tech photographs and diagrams that were unavailable during this conflict; I went back to them several times as I became more acquainted with the lives of the men inside them. The maps could be better, but then you can’t have everything. 

For those interested in World War II military history, or for those that read war memoirs, Spearhead is hard to beat. You can also visit the author’s website at AdamMakos.com. This book will be available to the public February 12, 2019. Highly recommended.

Alumni Association, by Michael Rudolph**

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Alibi. It’s a short book, but the time I took to read it felt like forever. The teaser says it is for fans of John Grisham, but this story is nowhere even close to the caliber of Grisham’s legal thrillers. It isn’t much of a thriller at all. 

Our protagonist is Beth Swahn. An old school has come up for sale, and there is all sorts of subterfuge involving nepotism, drug smugglers, and international intrigue surrounding the deal to purchase it; Beth’s stepfather is part of it. The premise is a decent one, but by the time the author is done with it, it’s dead on arrival. The book will be available to the public February 5, 2019. 

There are overlong passages of deadly dull dialogue, and then there are overlong passages of tedious narrative. The transitions are ragged, and all told it is surprising to me that Random House would go anywhere near this thing. It’s possible that the hand of a high profile editor might be helpful, but were anyone to weed out the extraneous crud, what would be left would be either a lengthy short story or a short novella. I would love to point to some positives, but beyond the premise, I simply cannot find any. 

Not recommended. 

Forget You Know Me, by Jessica Strawser***

I was invited to read and review this book; my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

The story unfolds with a Skype date between besties Liza, who lives in Chicago, and Molly, who remains in Cincinnati where both of them grew up. Molly excuses herself for a moment and leaves the laptop with the camera on; through the camera, Liza sees a masked man come into the house. The connection is cut, and Molly doesn’t respond to Liza’s frantic cell calls to see if she has been harmed. Yet when Liza and a friend drive all through the night to race to the rescue, Molly gives Liza the cold shoulder, not even inviting her in. It is almost as if Molly has told Liza to forget she even knows her.

The premise is a good one, but the title is a problem. It sets up an expectation of a thriller, which this book isn’t. Even lamer, it is based on a quote that nobody actually even says. Moving on.

As we move deeper into character, we see what each of them is dealing with. Liza is lonely and dissatisfied. A tragedy closer to her own home plays out while she is still in the car returning from Cincinnati, and she is shaken by it. Meanwhile, Molly has an autoimmune condition that creates chronic pain, and we learn that because she uses experimental pain treatments, she is deep in debt to a predatory lender. She doesn’t want to tell her husband Daniel what she has done; meanwhile, she is developing a close bond with the male neighbor whose daughter plays with hers. He is a widower, and easy to talk to. At some point, she has to choose whether to remain in her marriage or step away and try again with this other guy.

I enjoy Liza’s character. She’s sassy, smart, and hopeful; I enjoy seeing her interact with her family once she is near them again. I also like Daniel, the spouse in Molly’s troubled marriage. Molly, on the other hand, is a pill, but I am not sure the author intends her to be. We see a lot of the challenges that chronic pain presents, but do we want to? Some that experience chronic pain in their own lives may find some validation here; some of us with chronic pain issues read fiction to escape it, and we don’t necessarily need this reminder.

Ultimately, this is more of a relationship story, and what little mystery it contains—the guy in the mask—is hardly even part of it, and his identity proves to be more fizzle than pop. I suspect this story might receive more accolades of it were titled and marketed as a romance or even just straight fiction. However, Strawser has made a name for herself with psychological mysteries—which I enjoyed a good deal also—and by sticking to her brand, she may see some good sales. The question is whether her readers will still be receptive once they read it.

I hate to be the wet blanket here, because Strawser is a capable writer. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.   This book comes out February 5, and I recommend it  to Strawser’s fans, but get it free or cheap unless your pockets are deep.

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.

Texas Sicario, by Harry Hunsicker**

I enjoyed the first book in the Arlo Baines Series, The Devil’s Country, and so when I saw that this, the second in the series was available to read and review, I dove in gladly. Thanks go to Net Galley as well as Thomas and Mercer. This book is for sale today, but it’s disappointing, and you shouldn’t buy it.

The back story is that Baines was once a Texas Ranger, but after the murder of his family, he quit and now is a drifter that works on his own terms. When we join him, he has taken on the care of an orphan named Miguel in a platonic partnership with Javier, a friend whose life Arlo once saved. And right off the bat my antennae are flickering. How does anyone share custody, legal or otherwise, of a child if that person is a drifter? We learn at the outset that Arlo doesn’t want to stay anyplace more than a month or two, so how…? To be fair, later in the book he acknowledges that something must be worked out if he is to continue taking care of Miguel, but right from the get-go it’s obvious that more than one thing is off.

There is more than a faint whiff of the White Knight here, the “gringo”—a tired word I never want to see used in fiction again now that Hunsicker has used it a gazillion times here—who uses his training and superior judgment to help Latino people (referred to in the narrative as ‘Hispanic’) that somehow can never save themselves. We have Latino—uh, Hispanic—criminals, a woman-in-distress, an orphan, a good buddy, a murder victim, gangsters, and a villain—but what we don’t have is a Latino that’s a good person who can express himself or herself articulately in English.

But wait, I am not done. The women! Not that there are many of them here, but once again when they are present, they are here either as victims to be saved, or as a fem fatale. No women here are the competent sort that can save their own butts, let alone anybody else’s. For that, we need a man I guess. A gringo.

The sad thing is that Hunsicker seems to be making a genuine effort at working a social justice, immigrants’ rights angle, and for this reason I continued reading longer than I otherwise might have to see if he could pull it out of the water; this, of course, in addition to having enjoyed his work previously, (and this is my reason for providing the second star in my rating). I suspect he doesn’t realize that this novel comes across as patronizing toward women and people of color, rather than as a work that expresses solidarity and progressive values.

To top it off, toward the end of the novel he hits not one but two of my most-hated, overused devices in mystery and detective fiction.

What the heck happened?

No.

An Anonymous Girl, by Hendricks and Pekkanen*****

Come into my lair, said the spider to the fly.

Jessica Farris is under a lot of stress, and she has a head full of secrets that she is afraid could bury her. It’s a lot to carry around, especially at such a tender age. She’s constantly worried about money, and so when she sees an opportunity to make easy money by taking a psychological survey, she leaps on it. And at first, it seems too good to be true.

I was invited to read and review this hair-on-fire novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

The study involves morally ambiguous questions.  When is it acceptable to lie? When is it acceptable to know something that’s important to someone you care about, yet choose not to share that knowledge? At the outset, the study appears to be scholarly and philosophical. And when Dr. Shields, the study’s author, invites Jessica to participate in field work for additional compensation, she can’t believe her good luck.  But from there, things escalate, and before she knows it, Jessica is perched on the edge of the inferno, and Dr. Shields is inching up behind her with outstretched fingertips.

Just at the moment that I grow impatient with Jessica’s helplessness and naiveté, she clues in and tries to work out a game plan, but it’s an unfair contest, because Dr. Shields has so much more money and knowledge. It’s like watching a heavyweight and a Bantam weight in the ring together; all that the smaller, less powerful contender has on her side is agility.

The story is told using alternating narratives, primarily between Dr. Shields and Jessica with occasional input from Thomas, Dr. Shields’s husband.  The chapters are quick ones, and the pacing is accelerated to where I sometimes forgot to breathe.  Every time I think I see where the authors are headed, it turns out to be a red herring, and yet there are no gimmicks or unfair tricks used to deceive the reader. It’s all right there.

Highly recommended.

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden****

The stirring, much-anticipated conclusion to Arden’s Winternight Trilogy is here. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now. 

The scene opens on a charred palace. The Tatars have attacked the Russians and been driven off; an attempt to dethrone Grand Prince Dmitrii has been averted, but all that is left to defend stands in ruin in the late winter snow. Arden is one of the deftest word smiths to emerge this century, and the tableau laid before us is stark and resonant; at the same time, the suspense is palpable, because readers aren’t that deeply concerned about the Grand Prince. We want to know where Varya is. 

Varya—Vasilisa Petrovna– is a badass warrior that communes with the chyerti, which are Russian folk spirits; these specialize in particular realms, with some guarding the home, others the forest, the river, and so forth. All of these are presented with historical accuracy, according to the author’s note (as well as my occasional perfunctory Google search.) 

Speaking of which: those that have read the first two volumes, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, know that there are a tremendous number of specialized terms in Arden’s writing. There are words for types of clothing, domiciles, spirits, and all sorts of things. Although there is a serviceable glossary at the back of the book, I found it very useful to read digitally, because definitions, images and so forth could be called up literally at the touch of my fingertips. If you read the first two volumes in paper and found yourself either skipping a lot of words—which you can do, but your mental movie won’t be as rich—or flipping around in the book looking for things, consider shifting to the digital version for the last volume. 

This begs the question: can we read this book as a stand-alone novel? 

No. No you cannot. 

Moving on, characters we know are gradually reintroduced like a slow drum roll, and then finally, here she is! I love this character. Vasya is unforgettable, and she defies every stinking stereotype. So many authors feel the need to compensate for creating a strong female character by making her tiny, or physically beautiful, or both. Vasya is neither. Her nose is long, her mouth is wide, and as if these features weren’t sufficient, she gets burned, beaten and starved in the course of her adventures. When she chooses to masquerade as a male, she can pass. 

I grew so attached to this character during the first two volumes that I held my breath—would it be possible to see her all the way through all three volumes without having her fall in love or have a roll in the hay? And so here, I am a wee bit disappointed, because the answer is no, but almost. Nevertheless, her romantic life is never allowed to define her or alter the course of her plans, which is a considerable consolation. 

Tragically, Vasya’s magnificent horse, Solovey, is killed early in the story, and I had to wonder about this; I decided that it had to happen to show us that Vasya is able to do great things without her horse to swoop in and save her, but that theory is shot to hell in the second half of the book. 

On the other hand, new characters are introduced, and although I love Ded Grib, the mushroom spirit, and I find the Bear vastly amusing, my favorite is Vasya’s great-grandmother. 

Vasya’s mission is to save Rus’ from the Tatars, and to persuade its leaders that Christianity and chyerti can coexist. The book (and the trilogy) ends with the Battle of Kulikovo, which happened in real life. The ending is beautifully rendered, moving, and deeply satisfying. 

A surprising amount of this engaging story has historical basis, and Arden gives a concise but specific explanation at the end. 

Those that have waited for the conclusion to this excellent series need wait no longer; those that haven’t read it yet should get the entire trilogy. It’s a wonderful place to get lost, providing the ultimate in escapist fiction. 

Recommended to feminists, and to all that love excellent historical fiction.

The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken**

Translated by Alice Menzies

Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. I am sorry to be so late here; the truth is that I kept setting it aside because I didn’t like it, and then returning to it, thinking that I was missing something. I’ve given up on finding the magic, though there are some nice moments here; I also have a strong hunch that there may be a cultural barrier in play. Those that spend time in Europe, possibly with some Scandinavian background, may enjoy this in a way that I didn’t. 

The setting is a fine restaurant in Norway, and the protagonist is of course the waiter. The author pokes fun at the pretensions of everyone present. I like satire and dislike pretension, and so I expected to like this book. There are some clever character sketches, and that’s where I am able to engage, but a character sketch is by definition a brief thing, and so I am quickly disengaged again. I feel like the same joke is being made a different way a great many times, and the “neurotic waiter whose wit is sharp as a filleting knife” (to quote the teaser, more or less) seems not just sharp or witty, but downright vicious. And here it isn’t just a lack of connection that gets in my way; I recoil at some of the passages. 

The book is supposed to appeal to everyone that likes food and wine, spends time in restaurants, or has European sensibilities. Food and restaurants are a match; but I don’t keep wine in the house and have no European sensibilities at all, apart from a few Irish habits passed down over generations. So maybe foodies that spend time in Europe will respond better than I have. In order to see print in other languages than the original, the novel must have met with acclaim locally, and this is why it confuses me that my own response is so negative. But a reviewer can only write her own viewpoint, and mine is that this book isn’t funny, and I don’t recommend it.