Pretty Things, by Janelle Brown*****

Nina is a second generation grifter, a talented thief that uses social media to spot and follow the conspicuously wealthy, then set up an opportunity to rip them off. But now Nina has gone straight; her college education has made it possible to earn an honest living. However, her mother’s chemo bills are stacking up, her mom too weak to find and execute her own ten-finger specials, and so Nina finds herself back in the game.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

Vanessa Fucking Liebling is an heiress, a spoiled daddy’s girl that has found an avocation as a social media influencer. She thinks nothing at all of dropping tens of thousands of dollars for a single dress that she will wear once; she is courted by upscale manufacturers of women’s clothing, accessories, and you-name-it, and she flies free of charge to famous cities around the world with a small coterie of women like herself, the chosen ones that have the Instagram followers that make their endorsements so valuable. But when her father dies, Vanessa soon learns that the money problems he’s tried to tell her about are indeed real. With her party budget in the crapper and a schizophrenic brother to look after, Vanessa ditches the New York fashionistas and heads to the family’s vacation home, Stonehaven, located in Lake Tahoe, California. She is about to come nose-to-nose with destiny.

Our two protagonists, Nina and Vanessa, are featured alternately in the first and third person respectively; in addition, we catch snippets of their earlier lives and the critical events that have molded them.

Though Nina is a crook, I find her easier to like and bond with than Vanessa. Nina, despite her dishonesty, cynicism, and the immense chip on her shoulder, is an underdog, a scrappy fighter determined to better herself and to take care of her mama. She isn’t a violent offender, and the marks she steals from are so filthy stinking rich they hardly notice the loss of a wristwatch here, an antique vase there. It’s hard not to feel that if the world were a fairer place, the dilettante wouldn’t have that much stuff to start with, and Nina wouldn’t have to scramble to get by and take care of her sick mother.

Vanessa, by contrast, is a much harder sell. Brown develops the hell out of this character, showing her gradual awakening as she realizes how shallow her entire existence is, and how devoid she is of any true friends. At first I am having none of it. Poor little rich girl indeed; cry me a river! But Brown keeps chipping away at my resistance, and eventually I see Vanessa as a flawed human being with problems, rather than a rich person that deserves whatever karma comes her way.

My first book by this author was Watch Me Disappear, a glorious work of suspense that kept me enraptured till the last twenty percent, at which point I was consumed by dismay. Therefore I read this book with avidity, and yet at the same time I am on the alert, wondering if this story will also be resolved with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me ending. My fears prove groundless. The main storyline as well as the smaller bits all come together in a way I find deeply satisfying. The ending is a complete surprise.

My one small criticism at the outset was the schtick about Nina’s mother’s chemo. It’s been done, and done again, and done again. I’m thinking I’d like the story better if she would just let the grifter be a grifter, rather than carrying on about poor, dying mom. However, there’s an additional twist at the end that I did. Not. See. Coming.

In the end, this book is the total package. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

Highly recommended. Get this book now!

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T. Kira Madden***-****

3.5 rounded up. I received this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury in exchange for this honest review, and I am sorry to be late providing it. The truth is, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of buzz in advance, and indeed, Madden is a talented word smith. This is also one of the strangest books I have ever read.

In a series of essays, Madden discusses her childhood and adolescence, growing up as an heir to the Madden shoe empire, provided with every material advantage, but also strangely unwelcome in her own home. It’s the ultimate story of alienation, one in which her father’s primary goal as a parent seems to be to pretend she isn’t there—until he goes to jail, anyway. 

Kids that are ignored by their parents act out to get their attention. This is true across all social classes, though the form of the acting out varies. Kira isn’t invited to accompany her father anywhere, and he doesn’t talk to her when he’s home. He and her mother have frightening drug and alcohol addictions that increase the lack of contact and the dearth of affection their daughter receives. She can’t make friends and bring them home. So here’s this rich girl with money, unlimited time to burn, a house full of drugs and booze, internet access, and a head full of resentment. What could possibly go wrong? 

In many ways, Kira’s writing breaks up stereotypes right and left, and her prose is crystalline and heartbreakingly, brutally frank. There’s so much that is good here. At the same time, I have to say that being neglected while rich is nowhere near as bad as being neglected while poor. It sounds cold, but there it is. 

T. Kira Madden has lit up the literary world with her debut, and it will be interesting to see what comes next. 

The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton*****

socialcreature“Chop chop, Cinderella.”

Here it is, a story of our time.  Lavinia is spoiled and wealthy; Louise is newly arrived in New York City, and apart from her rent-stabilized apartment and a handful of part time jobs, she has nothing. Wealth and want collide and as Louise is swept up into Lavinia’s world—not to mention her Facebook and Instagram pages—the tension mounts. We know that Lavinia is going to die soon, but we don’t know how or why, and of course we wonder what will become of Louise once that happens. Burton’s story unfolds with sass and swagger, and you want to read this book, which is for sale today.  Get it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

More than anything, Louise wants to become a writer. She has tremendous talent, but between three part time jobs and Lavinia’s endless and unreasonable demands, she has no time for it. Lavinia wants to party, and she’s generous at times, furnishing Louise with expensive dresses, high-end trips to the beauty salon, and eventually, housing. In exchange, she more or less owns Louise.

Louise moves in with Lavinia, but Lavinia has the only key.

Perhaps even more alluring to Louise are Lavinia’s seemingly endless connections to the literary movers and shakers in New York.  Lavinia, you see, has had time to write a book, and she’s done it. It’s terrible, but Louise cannot say as much. She has too damn much to lose.

Burton’s voice is like no one I have ever read, and in some ways the comparisons that have been made to well known writers are unfortunate, because her work is wholly original. The thing I love best about this story is that nothing is overstated. The narrative takes off hell-bent-for-leather, and the reader has to follow closely to find out the basic ground-level information about both both women. It’s as if we have landed as invisible companions in the middle of a party, and we have to hit the ground running, exactly as Louise has had to do.

This is risky writing. The first half has very little plot and little action; its success hinges entirely upon its characters. Burton carries it off brilliantly, with genius pacing and the disciplined use of repetition as a literary device.  This is a novel that should take all of us by storm, but failing that, it has all the makings of an amazing cult classic.

This is cutting edge fiction, written by the most unlikely of theologians. I highly recommend it, even if you have to pay full jacket price.