White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.

She Regrets Nothing, by Andrea Dunlop****

“Love,” she thought, “is for the rich and foolish.”

SheregretsLaila is just twenty-three when her mother dies, and she is astonished when her cousins appear at the funeral. Cousins? What cousins? In fact, they are from her father’s side of the family, long estranged—and they are very wealthy. Cousin Liberty wants to make amends, and nobody has to tell Laila twice. She ditches her home in Michigan, leaves her spouse, a dull dentist who’s blindsided by her sudden departure, and heads for New York City, to live in the style to which she would like to become accustomed.

Lucky me, I read this darkly funny story free courtesy of Atria Books and Net Galley. It was released Tuesday, so you can get a copy of your own now.

As Laila arrives in New York, the reader cannot help but worry for her. She’s never been to New York before, and she has very little money. She’s brought a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry, the only things of any value her mom had owned, but she doesn’t want to sell them. As she meets her newly found kinfolk and settles into a guest bedroom, it’s instinctual to wish we could grab her by the wrist and yank her back out of there. Careful Sweetie, you’re playing with fire. They’re being nice to you now because you’re new. When the novelty wears off, they’ll spit you back out again. New Yorkers are tough, and nobody uses people and discards them as quickly as the very rich—right?

There are at least a dozen places where I make predictions that prove incorrect. For example, given Laila’s trump card that makes her a possible heir, I find myself waiting for the DNA test that will prove she actually isn’t related to them at all…but that doesn’t happen. I can tell things won’t work out the way she anticipates because the author drops so much wry foreshadowing. But what she does with it at the end is both completely consistent with the protagonist as we know her, and a complete surprise as well.

Part of the joy this novel sparks is its understated quality. Some writers will drop something amusing into the storyline, but then they have to go back to it, explain it, make sure the reader got it and at that point it’s cold and lifeless. None of that for Dunlop. Stay on your toes; if you’re paying attention you’ll get it, but if you are distracted, oh well. Think of it like trying to catch a cab right after the theater lets out; watch out or you’ll be left behind.

I confess that I have read neither of the novels to which this one is compared in the promotional blurb, but to me, the humor is similar in some ways to that in The Nanny Diaries.

If you need a giggle—and frankly who doesn’t—you should order this snappy, cleverly turned novel. It’s a fast read and it made me laugh out loud.

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.

Straying, by Molly McCloskey*****

StrayingThis title is the first fictional work McCloskey has published in the US, but surely it cannot be the last. This addictive novel came to me free and early, courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It becomes available to the public February 20, 2018.

Alice has returned to Ireland. As a young woman of 24, she had gone there intending to visit, gain some perspective about what to do with her life, and then return to Portland, Oregon, but instead she met Eddie and married. “I was not sure how grown-up love was supposed to feel.” Now she is more mature and single again; she returns to Ireland and in a deeply intimate, gently philosophical narrative, tells us about what happened, and about the affair with Cauley that was instrumental in ending her marriage.

Here I must confess that I have old-fashioned ideas about cheating on a spouse. If your marriage is solid, you should respect it and be faithful. If your marriage is dying, get out before you start something new; don’t sneak around and tell lies. If your marriage is troubled and you aren’t sure what you want, address that first, but don’t poison the well with a fling. It’s unethical and unfair. Have some integrity, for goodness sake.

And so, why am I reading this novel, and more to the point, why am I loving it? It goes to show that a strong writer can make me want to read almost anything, whereas an indifferent one may start with a promising scenario that fizzles. McCloskey pulls me in and doesn’t let me go.

The cover art tells the reader right away that despite the title, this is not erotica. Those looking for a novel that will make them breathe hard will have to find something else. Straying gives us something far better, in my view. I feel as if Alice is my dear friend. I usually read several titles at once, drifting from one to another over the course of a day or evening. But Alice interrupts my literary smorgasbord because in a way, I feel disloyal for reading anything else. The narrative here, told in the first person, is so deeply personal that it’s as if she is sitting across from me at a coffee shop (or since we’re in Ireland, in a pub perhaps), and she’s spilling the beans, confessing everything that she did, and the consequences that followed. She isn’t beating herself up Anna Karenina-style, nor is she proud of her mistakes; rather, she is explaining what happened, what she’s learned from it, and what she still wonders about. It’s not prose you can walk away from until it’s over.

Those that love excellent fiction should buy this book and read it. If you can get it cheap, do that; if you have to pay full jacket price, do it anyway. You don’t want to miss this one.

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin****

TheImmortalistsFour adolescent siblings growing up in New York City learn that a traveling psychic has hit town, a woman that can tell each person the date that he or she will die. Against the wishes of their parents, they sneak out to find her. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. This book is now available to the public.

The book is divided approximately into fourths, a quarter for each of the Gold children and across five decades. To my own way of thinking the first half of the story is far more resonant than the second half. Simon, the “golden boy”, dies of AIDS before the disease has been named, but before he is gone, the San Francisco of that time period is set out in such meticulous, immediate detail that I feel as if I am back there, back then. The portion of the book devoted to Klara, who becomes a magician, is nearly tangible in different ways, and older women that have worked in unconventional professions—before the year 2000, that meant just about all of them—will recognize themselves when they see how she is dismissed, harassed, and stigmatized.

Then I read a review by someone that felt exactly the opposite, claiming that the story didn’t really wake up until the second half. And so I suspect that the age and background of the reader will inform which part of the book stands out best.

However, once I have seen Simon and Klara die, I have other reasons for reading more slowly. If both of them die during the first and second quarters of the book, I have a pretty good idea what is about to happen to Daniel and Varya in the third and fourth quarters.  These characters, a Naval physician and a primate researcher, don’t reach me the way that Simon and Klara do. With Simon and Klara, I am right there with them, and at times I am peeking out and seeing the world through their eyes. With Daniel and Varya, I am along for the ride, checking to see how many pages are left in this thing so I can go write my review and be done.

Benjamin’s  greatest gift is setting. There are aspects of each place and time that I remember, and others that I have nearly forgotten until she brings them back again. But for those expecting to see a fantasy plot, as this has been billed, or magical realism, it’s going to prove disappointing; really it is literary fiction, and some reviewers will be unhappy because of the genre issue.

Those that love good literary fiction are going to want to read this novel. There’s been a tremendous amount of buzz, and there’s nothing else like it.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

The Bomb Maker, by Thomas Perry****

TheBombMakerThomas Perry writes some of the most terrifyingly suspenseful novels of any writer alive, and he never has a dud. In this story, a retired bomb squad cop is asked to come back to work when half the current squad has been wiped out by someone that wants to kill bomb specialists. I was able to read it free and early thanks to Edelweiss and Mysterious Press. It will be available to the public January 2, 2018, just in time to start the new year with a bang.

Dick Stahl has just returned from carrying out a tricky job in Mexico. Retired from the bomb squad and police work, he owns a consulting firm and is ready for a rest. But someone out there—most likely not a terrorist, since nobody claims credit for the carnage—has taken out half of the bomb squad, and clearly the technicians themselves were targeted.  More attempts are made; there are numerous explosive devices planted in a given location. The guy that plants these things wants them to be found, and so there’s an obvious, textbook-type incendiary left in plain view. The bomber’s intention is for the technicians to relax, believing they have destroyed the threat, and it is then that the real bomb—or chain of bombs—is triggered in order to take out as many bomb techs in one blow as is possible. Stahl has his work cut out for him when he is called back to duty to foil this killer and aid his capture.

In addition to Stahl, we see the bomb maker’s thinking and what he is planning. Perry’s villain is a cold, calculating schemer, and there’s a chilling sense of remove in this part of the narrative. The pacing is tight, with minimal word-smithery to get in the way. Perry doesn’t paint anything; he just tells us what’s about to happen…maybe.

Side character Diane Hines, a member of the squad that becomes romantically involved with Stahl, is an interesting addition, a smart, savvy professional. Whereas I am sorry to see the only important female character used primarily as a sexual entanglement that complicates Stahl’s career, I give Perry retrospective credit for his Jane Whitefield series, which is legendary and features a strong female lead.

That said, the journey here is a lot more interesting than the destination. On the one hand, Perry doesn’t cheat the reader by throwing something out to left field and making the conclusion impossible to predict. Perry’s treatment here is respectful of his readership. On the other hand, I am sorry to have such a fascinating story unspool to such an anticlimactic ending.

It’s worth noting that although this writer has produced a lot of books, he never uses any obvious formula. No matter how many I read, I don’t walk away feeling as if I have read the same book packaged differently.

Recommended for Perry’s fans, but get it cheap or free unless your pockets are deep ones.

 

 

The Night Child, by Anna Quinn****

TheNightChildAnna Quinn is a brave writer. This wrenching debut novel occupies a place in literature that has lain dormant for decades; kudos to Quinn for bringing dark business out into the light of day for a good airing. I received my review copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blackstone Publishers. It will be available to the public January 30, 2018.

Nora is a high school teacher and the mother of a small child; her marriage is coming undone. Her mental health is a little on the shaky side, and she’s seeing a therapist to help her understand a terrifying vision that came to her in her classroom. A “wild numinous” face, the disembodied face of a child, floats over her students’ desks one day after school, and Nora panics. This face represents the core of Nora’s story, and once the layers of her outer self are peeled away, it makes for a deeply absorbing read.

Quinn takes some time to lay her groundwork. The first part of the story is unremarkable, and I briefly considered abandoning it. Character development seems limited to marital issues and time spent in therapy, and Nora lacks depth and originality until about the thirty percent mark. I tell you this lest you abandon the story yourself. It’s worth the wait, because once the story takes wing, it is hypnotic.

It’s tempting to say this novel is the twenty-first century’s answer to Sybil, but that doesn’t do it justice. Nora’s struggle to find the self that is held beneath layers and layers of emotional scar tissue, to heal herself so that she can be a good mother to Fiona, is one that we carry with us long after the book is over. Those that face serious mental health issues themselves will see vindication. Those that have family members or other loved ones working to unify a personality fragmented by trauma may see themselves as Paul, who’s juggling his own needs, those of his daughter, his love for Nora, and the crushing burnout that comes of living with a partner facing all-absorbing mental illness over a lengthy period of time.

Recommended to those interested in reading about mental health issues through the approachable medium of literary fiction.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.

The Spy Who Never Was, by Tom Savage*****

TheSpyWhoNeverI love Savage’s work, and this title is his best to date. I got my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Alibi. You can get it January 9, 2018.

Nora Barton is our protagonist, and she is recruited by Edgar Cole as an unofficial CIA agent—she has been helpful to the Agency before—because of her physical resemblance to someone being targeted by the enemy, an enemy known as TSB.

“Edgar Cole was using her as bait: here, kitty, kitty. Now Nora was in Paris with TSB, and the two of them were playing an elaborate game of I-know-you-know-and-you-know-I-know, and Nora wondered what would happen next in their little charade.”

Nora isn’t allowed to tell her husband, who is an intelligence agent himself, but she tells him some of it anyway. I smile, knowing I would do the same. He tells her not to accept this assignment—absolutely not—but Nora doesn’t take orders from him, and she makes the decision to go.

Savage writes true thrillers. Like his other novels, this one grabs you by the hair on the first page and doesn’t let go. I am accustomed to the traditional story arc, rising toward a climax, but that’s not what we get here; instead, there’s a huge surprise around every corner. My pulse raced while I read this thing, and my blood pressure rose. There are several places in my notes throughout the book that say “Holy crap!” or, “My heart!”

Once in Paris, people start getting dead. That agent that was attacked because he was guarding her—wait a minute, was he guarding her? Nora isn’t sure who she can trust, but happily, she has a personal friend, an elderly fellow now retired from intelligence that lives in Paris. Her friend’s message to her is sobering indeed: “Go home, Mademoiselle.”

Every now and then Savage breaks up the tension for a split second with humor, and I love this. Her mentor in Paris prides himself on his English use, and he misuses idioms in ways that are charming and sometimes very funny, and this is done in a way that doesn’t mock the French or anyone else. Savage is a pro, handling this delicate characteristic deftly. The mentor tells Nora that a spy known as “Le Faulcon” is here to kill her; he is a “Russian hitting man”.

Whoa now. Frankly, I would be on the plane back to the States in a jiffy; but then, I would not have gone at all. Nora, on the other hand, is a badass.

This leads me to my very favorite aspect of Savage’s work, which is becoming a literary signature: women generally don’t get saved by men here. Women either save themselves, or they save others. But in this regard, Savage is the ultimate anti-noir author. There are no helpless women. Three cheers for Savage’s powerful feminist fiction.

Last, let’s look at the side characters. There are a host of them, and a number of them are known by multiple names, so this is not a beach read. I quickly learned not to read this story after I took my sleeping pill, because if I did, I would just have to read it again the next day. In addition to our colorful older French mentor, Savage introduces a new character named Fanny that I would love to see again.

Get it digitally or get it on paper, but if you love a well-crafted psychological thriller, you have to read this book.