The By the Book mystery series began earlier this year with Buried in a Good Book, and I knew right away the series was going to be a winner Author Tamara Berry is on a roll, with On Spine of Death, the second in the series, already on the shelves. Tess Harrow is our protagonist, and her teenaged daughter, Gertrude, helps more than she hinders, while also keeping us entertained.
The premise here is that while renovating and remodeling her late grandfather’s hardware store, multiple sets of human remains are unearthed. It’s hard enough to be accepted into a small town, but now half of its denizens are convinced that her granddad was a serial killer! Now Tess is on a mission to find out whose bones those are, and how they got there.
There are tropes here that usually make me cranky. We’ve got the hot-for-sheriff trope, and the must-clear-my-name (or that of a loved one) trope, but it’s testament to Berry’s authorial chops that I don’t think about either of them much until the book is over. Her droll humor and nicely turned out characters keep the pages turning. This is a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s just what I need sometimes.
I recommend this clever little cozy mystery to anyone needing a break from the world around us, along with a good chuckle, and I look forward to the next in the series.
The Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh, is hilarious and oddly touching. It’s the best debut novel of 2022, and it isn’t as if there was no competition. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy; this book is for sale now.
Mrs. Mai Nguyen was born in Vietnam, but has lived most of her life as a Californian. When we meet her, however, she has flown to Kauai, the home of a renowned Vietnamese psychic. The psychic tells her that the year ahead will be a pivotal one, the one in which she must repair her relationships with her sisters and her daughters. There will be one wedding; one funeral; and one pregnancy.
Nobody likes to be estranged from a family member, and yet it happens. But all of them? Both sisters, and her daughters, too? (No brothers, and no sons, either.) But surely, it isn’t her fault; after all, there’s the curse.
Chapter four is when everything kicks up a gear, and I have seldom laughed so hard. Mrs. Minh Pham is the first to arrive, and she has my attention from the get-go when she slips the waitstaff some money and explains there could potentially be a “small, tiny, little shouting match, with a propensity for small, tiny, little objects to be thrown through the air.” Mrs. Pham is the middle daughter, and is accustomed to being the mediator in any dispute. She takes all the precautions she feels are wise; she parks near the door for a fast getaway if necessary. She removes the sharp utensils as well as the chopsticks from the table, and requests paper plates and plastic cutlery. “Mai had a reputation for throwing things.”
As the women arrive at the dim sum restaurant, they flash their fake Louis Vuitton handbags and immediately set about trying to one-up one another with regard to social status and affluence, and especially—oh yes, especially—that of their respective daughters. Within three minutes, a donnybrook ensues, and the other diners, who are also Vietnamese and well acquainted with the curse of the Duong sisters, begin placing wagers on the winner. The sixty-something sisters commence throwing things at each other and are gently escorted out of the restaurant. They head for a bakery, and they get kicked out of there, too. Finally, the three of them end up on a park bench, their hair and clothing in dishabille, and yet none of them makes any move to leap up and go home.
These are not spoilers; this all takes place within the first 17 percent.
The chapters change points of view, moving between the sisters, their elderly mother, and their daughters, all in the third person omniscient. The fascinating thing is, these crazy behaviors, and the ways that they mold and shape their daughters and their relationships, all fit perfectly.
Although the setting changes, from Orange County, California to Hawaii to Vietnam to Seattle and beyond, this story is character based, and that’s my favorite type of novel. The skeezy men they date—mostly white boyfriends with Asian fetishes—make it even funnier.
The ending is perfect.
This is one of those rare galleys that I may actually read a second time for pleasure. One thing I know for sure is that Huynh is on my radar now. I can’t wait to see what her next book looks like!
Oliva made her debut in 2016 with The Last One, a genre-defying story in which technology fails with disastrous consequences for reality show contestants. I was delighted when I received the invitation to check out her current novel; big thanks go to Ballantine Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Linda Russell lives alone. She has had a traumatic past, and she is naïve in some ways about the world around her, having been kept apart from it for so many years. Money isn’t a problem, though; she has inherited a pile of it. Yet we cannot envy her, because the unspeakable horrors she has seen outweigh the benefit of her wealth.
When we meet Linda, she is in her nest chair surfing the internet. Her sheath provides her with information, but we have to figure out what a sheath and nest chair actually are by examining context, which takes a little while. And this is a key part of the suspense, giving us some information about the time period, the place, the technology and the characters, but also withholding quite a lot, doling it out to us in small portions so that we can follow along, without ever getting a firm grip on the situation till we are far into the story. And for me, there were moments when I became confused enough that I wanted a little more information in order to follow events as they unfolded, but most of the time the narrative was paced effectively. I began to have a solid enough grip on the basic facts to follow the story well at about the 36% mark.
Linda is a clone, and her story went big several years ago, when she was found emaciated and filthy, having been more or less feral inside a walled property where her mother abandoned her. The part of her past that weighs on her mind most heavily is the fate of her twin. Lorelei, whom she must not call “Mother,” loved Emmer, but not Linda. Both of them were created in an effort to duplicate Lorelei’s deceased daughter, Madeleine, and Emmer resembled Madeleine more. Of course, everyone knows that eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable, and so it is with Linda’s memories, but she knows this for certain: after a particular point in time, Linda never saw either Emmer or Lorelei again.
Meanwhile, a cult of sorts has sprung up around Linda, whom social media has dubbed “clone girl.” Rumors are spread; even the tiniest hint as to her possible whereabouts is greedily devoured by those following her story. And so, Linda hides, and she talks to no one; that is, until her new neighbor, Anvi, pushes her way into Linda’s life. Anvi is new in these parts, and she wants a friend.
To say that this story is a thriller or a mystery is unfair, and will lead the reader to a dissatisfying end. The focus of the book is not on unraveling a crime, and the hair-on-fire pacing that marks a thriller isn’t present here. I keep turning the pages, not because my heart is slamming in my chest, but because I am curious. The story really is about our character. Likewise, although the story is technically science fiction, my interest isn’t captured and held by complicated new technology, but by Linda herself, wanting to see her unharmed and able to lead something resembling a normal life. So I urge interested parties to come to this novel with an eye for character, because that’s the anchor here.
At the climax—and I’m being fairly vague here so as not to spoil the ending—there’s a moment when Linda behaves fairly stupidly when she is faced with an urgent problem, and I feel let down, but then she rallies and pulls herself together, and I let my breath out and smile. Go, girl, go.
When I learn what is really in back of the personal mysteries Linda faces, I’m inclined at first to regard it as far-fetched, but then the sci fi aspect kicks in, and let’s face it: science fiction and fantasy both permit and even require far-fetched material. What needs to be credible and consistent is Linda, and Oliva does a fine job developing her protagonist. I believe Linda at the outset, and as she changes over the course of the story, I believe her every step of the way.
I enjoyed this story a great deal, and I look forward to seeing what Oliva comes up with next. I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys good fiction that is character driven.
“This is the most famous thing to happen in Milwaukee since Laverne and Shirley got cancelled.”
Chance McQueen is a musician and restauranteur, an honest man doing his level best to tiptoe around the morass of organized crime that exists around him without getting his toes wet. It isn’t easy. His ancient Uncle Vinny is the local don, and he’s dying. Chance has told him many times that he would prefer to avoid this part of the family business, but he’s been dreaming. Uncle Vinny has stage four lung cancer, and he summons his nephew to share some hard truths: “It’s simple. Either you take over the family before I’m dead, or Frank will have you killed before my body’s cold…Charles, when did you ever get what you want?”
This oddly charming debut came to me free and early, and my thanks for the review copy go to Net Galley and M.D.R. Publishing. This book is for sale now.
Wheeler’s debut reads as if scribed by a seasoned novelist, and he introduces a lively collection of memorable characters. He serves as mentor and father figure to Winnie, a dapper young man that has it bad for a sweet young thing named Alex; Geoff, his best buddy, who is Black and gay, and endlessly loyal; a homeless veteran living behind the restaurant, who is never a caricature; and Chance’s nemesis, Frank Bartallatas: “Frank Bartallatas was pure evil in a massive frame. More than one little fish had disappeared after swimming too close to Mr. Bartallatas.”
The story is set in 1990, and each of the agreeably brief chapters is headed with the title of a rock song from the 1970s and 80s, which is a portent of what the chapter brings. I like this guy’s playlist, and I stopped reading more than once to add his songs to my own collection.
Here are the things I like most, apart from the playlist: I like the strong, resonant characters, which are well enough developed that they are easy to keep straight; the setting, which hasn’t been overused by other writers, and is a credible choice; the selective use of violence, which cannot be left out of a story like this, but never feels excessive, sickening, or prurient; and the pacing, which never flags. In addition, I like the mobster aspect of this story, an angle that we aren’t seeing much in new fiction.
I have no serious complaints, but if I could change anything here, there are two things I’d tweak: First, Geoff practically can’t have a conversation with Chance without making awkward race jokes, and Caucasians that spend time with African-American people will tell you that never happens, no matter how close you are; and second, the alcoholic protagonist is becoming trite, so I’d either let Chance kick his habit without a protracted, detail-laden struggle, or I’d just let the guy drink. Chance’s dead fiancée is enough hubris all by herself. But clearly these are minor concerns, or this wouldn’t be a five star review.
This rock solid debut signifies great things to come from this author, and a little birdie tells me that there may be future novels featuring Chance McQueen. My advice to you is to get in on the ground floor of this series-to-be, because it’s going to be unmissable. Highly recommended.
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.
Best-selling author J.A. Jance is something of a legend here
in Seattle, and I came to her work as a huge fan of the J.P. Beaumont series. It
took me awhile to bond to the Ali Reynolds series—which is set in Not-Seattle–
but I am all in it now. Big thanks go to
Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy.
Our story commences inside a prison where a killer is
spending what’s left of his life and plotting vengeance. On his arm are
tattooed 5 initials which comprise his “A list” for the five people he wants
dead. He understands he’ll have to hire out the “wet work,” but that’s okay.
The voice Jance gives this character sends chills up and down my neck, and I
don’t get that way easily. We learn that Ali, our protagonist, is on that list.
Once the reader’s attention is secure, we go through a
complex but clear and necessary recap, which gets us through the essential
information that’s developed during the first 13 books of the series, which is
set in Arizona. So here, I have to tell you that I don’t recommend starting the
series with this book. I have read all or most of the series, but with a year
or so passing between each of these, I very much needed this recap to refresh
my memory. Young readers with sterling memories might be able to keep up with
it, but the audience that will love this story best are middle class Caucasian
women over 40. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to go all the way back to
the first book to begin reading, but I would urge you to go back to an earlier
book somewhere else in the series and work your way forward. The books fly by
quickly, and it’s definitely worth it. While some authors lose the urgency in
their prose when they get older, Jance just gets leaner and sharper, and this
story is among the very best I’ve seen her write, which says a lot.
The premise is centered around The Progeny Project, a
nonprofit organization that helps children born through artificial insemination
find their biological relatives for the purpose of learning about their own
medical background. It begins when one such young man, in desperate need of a
new kidney, makes a public plea for information on Ali’s television news
program. Results come in quickly and reveal that Dr. Eddie Gilchrist’s
fertility clinic did not use the donors he advertised, instead inseminating his
many female patients with his own sperm. Events unfold, and the doctor is
convicted of murder, and is sent away for life in prison. From there, he seeks
The plot is among the most original I have seen in many
years, and its execution requires tight organization, which Jance carries off
brilliantly. She could have written this mystery successfully without lending a
lot of attention to the characters, but she doesn’t do that. It’s the
combination of an intricate but clear plot and resonant characters that makes
this story exceptional.
In an earlier book we were introduced to Frigg, an AI entity
created by an IT guy that works for an internet security company owned by B.
Simpson, Ali’s husband. Frigg disregards what she considers to be unreasonable
laws against hacking, and attempts to take Frigg down completely have been
foiled by the AI herself. This scenario creates all sorts of vastly amusing
problems when Ali herself needs personal security; Frigg learns she is on the A
List, and her vigilance is both essential and illegal, at times.
The second and most fascinating character is Hannah
Gilchrist, the elderly, very wealthy mother of Dr. Eddie. When she learns that
her only son has decided to have everyone responsible for his ruin killed, she
decides she’s going to help him. She has terminal cancer and no other children,
and a sort of modern, rich Ma Barker personality emerges. Hannah is a dynamic
character and I absolutely love the way Jance develops her, laying waste to a
multitude of sexist stereotypes.
If I could change one thing, I would have Jance lose the
word “gangbanger,” a stereotype in itself, and include some positive Latino
characters in the Reynolds series.
Make no mistake, this mystery is brainy and complicated. You
don’t want to read it after you have taken your sleeping pill. But the
masterful way Jance braids the plot, the return of Frigg, and the development
of Hannah all make it well worth the reader’s effort. But again—don’t let this
be the first of the series for you. Climb aboard an earlier entry and work your
way into it. In fact, newbie readers will likely have an advantage over long
time readers, because you can read these mysteries in succession without having
to wait a year to come back to the series.
With that caveat, this mystery is highly recommended.
I received this review copy free and early, courtesy of Net
Galley and Chronicle Books. This whimsical yet bawdy take on our feathered
frenemies will be for sale on April Fool’s Day, which figures.
Kracht—whose name sounds ever so slightly like something a
crow might say—illustrates each bird he discusses in a style that is not half
bad, with some anger tossed in as seasoning. I have to admit I don’t entirely
understand his indignation, given the state of the environment. I myself tend
to relish the sounds of birds, most of whom the author refers to as “shit
sacks,” “noisy little fucks,” etc; yet clearly his tongue is in his cheek,
since he studies them sufficiently to write about them.
Much of the humor will be appreciated by teenagers, and so
if you are expecting a teenage guest over the spring and summer holidays and
the blue language won’t be considered inappropriate in your family, you might
want this book for your guest room.
If I could change one thing about this book, I’d expand the
section devoted to “Murderers,” meaning birds of prey. This is where the art is
the best and also the funniest, and so I don’t understand why he only includes
four birds here, one of which is the bald eagle, which even Kracht cannot diss.
Most of all I wonder how a Seattle birder can omit the Peregrine Falcon, a
magnificent and adaptive bird that dwells on the ledges of many of our city’s
tallest buildings. Go figure.
If this eccentric little book sounds like something you or
those you gift might like, you can get it April 1, 2019.
I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and
Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another
addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating
nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy
of an obligatory write-up. And then my
own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I
not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.
The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his
unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went
through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen
to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not
only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me,
and most likely will be to all English teachers. We want to believe; we want to be supportive.
And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates
the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.
Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure. He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.
At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no
filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his
volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately. Many years ago I saw a short film that showed
a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla
smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the
author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be
sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential.
Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs
to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself
urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers
to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he
appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)
The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young
man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia,
Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole
journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors
learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left
behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but
things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy
Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is
slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive
commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons
he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a
little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.
The title has sharp edges.
Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the
refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a
Tamara Berry is the queen of snarky humor, and now that I have read the first installment of the Eleanor Wilde series, I am primed and ready for those that follow it. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.
Ellie narrates her own story in the first person. She explains that she makes her living through fraud, scamming those that want to talk to their dead relatives and solve their Earthly problems via séances. A referral brings her a wealthy Brit that wants a fake medium to vanquish the ghost his mother believes is haunting their mansion. Expenses paid, she flies out to join him and is delighted to find that he lives in an actual castle. His mother, however, hates houseguests and discourages them with miserably small, terrible meals and bad accommodations. As preparations are made for the séance, guests exchange furtively obtained and hoarded snacks in order to avoid starvation.
Nicholas is a hunk; he and Ellie are both drawn toward each other and repelled in classic fashion, and there’s a lot of crackling banter that keeps me snickering. Other well drawn characters include Nicholas’s mother, his sister and her teenage daughter, and a couple of other men, one of whom works for the family. When she comments to the reader, “Bless the sturdy and simple folk of this world,” I nearly fall off my chair. The narrative and dialogue are wonderfully paced and hugely amusing. The solution to the mystery is both partially obvious and wildly contrived, but since this is satire, that makes it even better. In fact, there’s more than one tired old saw that works its way into this story, but it’s with a side-eye wink every time, and I love it.
As the narrative unspools, a corpse is found and then lost, threats and warnings heighten the suspense, and we wonder along with Ellie which of these guests and family members are truly as they seem, and which might be a killer.
The scene leading into the séance is so hilarious that I nearly wake the mister with my cackling.
The only aspect I find unappealing here is the somewhat saccharine story having to do with Ellie’s dying sister. Ellie’s dishonest vocation is, she tells us, necessary so that she can pay for her catatonic sister’s nursing care, and while squeamish cozy readers may find it comforting, I am more than ready to dispatch sis to the great beyond and just let Ellie be Ellie anyway. Happily, this doesn’t hold the story back, particularly since most of the sister’s part of this tale is told at the start and is out of the way by the time we are rolling.
I can’t wait to see where life—and the wakeful dead—will take Ellie next. Highly recommended for mystery lovers ready to be entertained.