The Things We Do To Our Friends, by Heather Darwent**-***

2.5 stars rounded upwards.

The Things We Do To Our Friends is a debut thriller by newbie Heather Darwent. Our protagonist is Clare, a young woman who’s studying art history at a university in Edinboro. She’s new and knows no one, but is soon swept up in a small, elite group of students she meets in one of her classes. Before she knows it, they are her main curriculum, and her classes become secondary.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to review. This book is for sale now.

At the outset it’s easy to relate to Clare, who tells us her story using the first person limited. She has never lived here before, and she doesn’t have a lot of resources. She gets a job at a nearby bar, and the everyman proprietor, Finn, punctuates the story now and then with an objective take on Clare’s life and her new friends. She is soon invited to join a clique of students that are flashier, louder, and more confident than most of her classmates, and she wants desperately to become one of them. Tabitha is the ringleader, and it is she that Clare most wants to please.

The opening chapters here make me wonder if we are about to rehash Ruth Ware’s most recent mystery, The It Girl. The elements are certainly there. But there’s an undertone that builds here, teasingly referencing Clare’s unfortunate past. We don’t know much except that she’s estranged from her parents, who don’t want to hear from her.

That can’t be good.

The clique goes to Tabitha’s family home in France over the winter break, and Clare is thrilled to be included. But while they are there, she is pressured to join with them on a moneymaking venture that isn’t entirely legal. They let her know they are aware of her past, so she’d better cooperate.

Here is where the book starts to lose me. Clare is essentially being extorted, and yet her emotional attachment to the group only intensifies. At one point, she tells us that she sometimes forgets whose skin is whose, so tightly bonded are they, and in particular, she and Tabitha. But this makes no sense. Tabitha has threatened to harm her, as have the others. Why does she love them all the more for it?

More and more tidbits from Clare’s past are revealed, and yet Clare herself isn’t developed much. Neither is anybody else. We are told a lot, but shown only a little. I love books that are about character, and if there’s not much plot, I’m fine with that, but these characters are all static. At the 50 percent mark, I become impatient and skip to 62 percent; from there, I read to 72 percent, which is where things should begin to feel urgent, but they don’t. I skip again to 90 percent and read the ending. I seldom skip anything when reading, and on the occasions when I have done so, I sometimes find things when I skim the last half that convince me to go back and read it completely. That didn’t happen here. There are loose threads dangling, and plot elements that appear to have no purpose. Worst of all—and to be fair, this is probably not the author’s doing, but it rankles, nevertheless—is that this weak tale of warped humanity is billed as a “feminist page-turner,” which is what drew my interest initially, and as a lifelong, card-carrying feminist, I can assure you that this is absolutely not that.

I cannot recommend this book to you.

Mad Honey, by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan*****

Mad Honey is the joint endeavor of bestselling author Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review.  This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to you.

The hallmarks of Picoult’s work are immediately evident. She frames her story around a particular area of interest, and so when one of our main characters, Olivia, is a bee keeper, I figure I am in for an education with regard to bees and honey; I am not wrong. Of late, Picoult has also used some of her fiction to promote social justice causes, and that’s here, too; I did a quick search on Boylan, her co-author, and learned that Boylan is one of the first transgendered Americans to write a bestseller, and this is the other focal part of Mad Honey, which features a trans character.

We have Olivia, then, the bee keeper, and her son, Asher, who is the light of her life. She took Asher and fled an abusive marriage, and enjoys her new life. She is close to Asher, and they talk openly and often; yet, there are things that Asher isn’t telling his mother, and she doesn’t see that.

Then there’s a new girl in town, Lily Campanello, a cellist, and Asher falls for her. Later, Lily is found dead, and suspicion falls on Asher. Olivia stands behind her son, and yet a corner of her mind has doubts. What if, when push comes to shove, Asher is his father’s son after all?

It’s tricky to write fiction that focuses on a controversial topic, and the critical ingredient is characterization. If the characters feel real to us, the story flows and the message becomes an integral part of their lives. We can’t reject the theme without rejecting the character. But it would take a true Grinch to step away from Olivia, Asher, and Lily. I want what’s best for the characters, and so I’m not focused on the authors and what they have chosen to discuss within this framework, but on the story. The writing flows like melted butter, smooth and inviting, and later, the suspense ratchets up almost unbearably, and I have to know what becomes of Olivia and Asher.

Because I am a bit behind, I check out the audio version of this novel at Seattle Bibliocommons.  There are multiple narrators, but the one that resonates most for me is the reader voicing Lily. I say this, despite the fact that she butchers the pronunciation of place names in the Pacific Northwest. Eugene, Oregon is not hard to say. Siuslaw and Willamette are trickier, but there’s only one pronunciation for each, and the reader should have done due diligence.

And now that I’ve said this, I can urge you to get this book and read it. For those unfamiliar with trans people, there’s some good information, and the story is a compelling one. There’s a twist at the end, and I would probably have left that out, as it doesn’t add much, although I can also see the reason it is included. Nevertheless, this is a story worth your time and money, whether as an audiobook or in print.

Back to the Garden, by Laurie R. King*****

Laurie R. King is best known for her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes historical detective novels, but I have long preferred her contemporary mysteries. Back to the Garden is her latest of these, and it is excellent. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Raquel Liang, a detective based in San Francisco. When a long-dead body is found in the garden of the Gardener Estate—a famous mansion and grounds that sound faintly reminiscent of Hearst Castle—Liang, who is working on a task force to find and identify victims of serial killer Michael Johnston, becomes involved in the case.

Rob Gardener is the heir to the estate, and he had clashed often and bitterly with his grandfather before his demise in the 1970s. Upon learning of his windfall, Gardener turned the manse into a commune, with murals on the walls of what were once imposing, grandiose rooms and vegetable gardens where more formal floral ones previously stood. Now the place is being restored, and as gardeners work to clear a thicket of overgrown hedge, a huge statue topples over, exposing the bones of someone long interred there.

Meanwhile, in a hospital in the big city, convicted serial murderer Michael Johnston lies dying. During the same period that the commune reigned, Johnston was spiriting girls and young women off so that he could murder them. Improved technology has provided a number of leads, but the window in which the cops can extract information from the old bastard is rapidly closing. Liang suspects that the body found on the estate, which dates back to the same time that Johnston was slaying women in the area, may be one of his, and so she makes frequent visits to learn as much about the place and its residents, past and present, as possible.

The intriguing bit about this mystery is that the members of the commune, other than Rob himself, didn’t use their birth names, and it makes them tricky to trace. With names like Meadow, Pig, and Daisy, they could be just about anybody. Is one of them the body beneath the statue?

King does a fine job of segueing from past to present and back again, and of juggling a moderately large number of characters. As I read, I never have to flip back to be reminded of who someone is. The reader should know, however, that this is not a thriller. It isn’t written in a way to grab you by the hair and make your pulse pound. The pace is a bit more laid back, but for some of us, that is a pleasure. I never lost interest, and I could read this thing while eating my lunch without gagging.

There’s a good deal of period nostalgia, and so I suspect that the greatest appeal will be to Boomers.

Highly recommended.

Upgrade, by Blake Crouch***-****

I loved Dark Matter, Crouch’s award-winning science fiction novel based on the notion of parallel universes. When I was invited by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine to read and review Upgrade, I jumped on it.

This is a story that hits the ground running. Logan is a scientist, and he’s also a husband and father. He leaves home one day in the normal fashion, and he never gets to go back home. He’s been kidnapped, more or less, by his own government; they plan to use him in experiments, but then he’s busted out of there by a badass ninja type that turns out to be his sister.

Surprise!

The pacing is swift and at times, the story is electrifying. However, the first half of the book is more interesting than the second half. My main criticism is the unhappy appearance of one of my least favorite tropes, the Bad Mommy. How has any living author missed the fact that this device has been done to death? Without this annoying feature, I would rate this book 4 to 4.5 stars.

As always when I read science fiction, I cannot tell you whether the science aspect of this novel is credible or entirely made up. I am a humanities animal through and through, so with every scientific explanation of a development in the plot, I just nod along. Okay. I believe that. Of course, I’d believe anything when it comes to scientific explanations. I have no idea how much is actual science, and how much is pseudo-, and I am okay with that. After all, it’s also fiction.

Crouch’s fans will likely appreciate this novel, and those without my own aversion to the trope mentioned above may very well like it, too. It’s for sale now.

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle, by Jennifer Ryan***

Jennifer Ryan has created a niche for herself as a novelist that writes stories for and about women during World War II, set in England. In this one, a group of villagers form a club for the purpose of recycling and reusing wedding gowns, which are otherwise impossible to procure due to war rationing. We have three main characters and a manageable number of side characters. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

I experienced an odd mix of reactions to this novel, at various points. At the outset, it’s an information dump tied together by story components. That’s okay; I’ve seen it before. We get it over with so that we can go forward knowing the relevant facts.

Our main characters are Cressida Wescott, a London fashion designer driven back to the manse of her birth when both her home and business are struck by Nazi bombs; Grace Carlisle, an underconfident vicar’s daughter who’s about to enter a marriage of convenience to a much older man of the cloth; and Violet Wescott, niece of Cressida, who is desperately in search of an appropriate Royal peer to marry, because she deserves nothing less. Through circumstances, the three become close friends. Using Cressida’s professional experience and the generous donations of women in the village, and eventually beyond it, they are able to create lovely dresses for themselves and others, with the understanding that each dress must be passed on to another bride once the first user’s nuptials are over.

By the 40% mark, my notes say that although this story is becoming a bit predictable, I am so in love with these three women that I don’t mind at all. There are some bumps along the way, to be sure. For example, Violet is aghast when she is called up by the British government to serve her time doing war work. On the one hand, I had never known that (many) British women were drafted during this conflict to serve in noncombatant roles, so this is interesting; on the other hand, it takes about ten pages for Violet to transition from the world’s most obnoxious snob, to a positively egalitarian one-of-the-girls. There’s no process, no development; it’s as if Houdini has appeared suddenly, drawn his cape over her, whisked it away, and presto, she’s a different person. At this stage, however, I make a note to myself and then resolve to enjoy the rest of the story.

At the same time, I am becoming uncomfortably aware, having read three of Ryan’s four novels, that these books follow the same formula: different women are thrown together during the war in order to solve a problem of some sort; we have a character from the lower income bracket; another character is a wealthy woman; and there’s a complete brat that will nevertheless be transformed and redeemed by the story’s end. Group hug.

There’s another concern here, too; Violet is assigned to drive a brash American officer around London. Every time she does so, the guy hits on her, and not subtly, either. He stalks her, he harasses her, and so she falls for him. Better make her a dress.

Have we not progressed beyond this hazardous trope?

The story has a hurried quality to it. At first, as I note that every time someone is happy, they grin—never smiling, smirking, chuckling, guffawing, or giggling, they grin, grin, and grin some more—I chastise myself for picking at a perfectly lovely story and I move on. But it gets worse, and by the end, I run a quick search, thanks to my digital galley and my reading app’s features—and discover the word has been used 51 times.

Editor?

By the time we reach the conclusion, everything seems so obvious that I wonder if someone’s AI did most of the work here. And yes, of course that is hyperbole, but it’s also a disappointment.

Those that haven’t read anything by this author and that love historical romances may enjoy this book, but by the merciful end, I confess that I no longer did.

When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McClain***-****

I have never read Paula McClain’s work before, but a number of Goodreads friends expressed enthusiasm about her novels, so I decided to see what the excitement was about. I came away a little underwhelmed, but nevertheless, thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Anna Hart, and she’s a missing persons detective in San Francisco. A tragedy has sent her running off to lick her wounds, and the bulk of the story is dark and brooding in tone. Then a missing persons case appears that bears striking similarity to one she was confronted with many years ago, and she becomes a dog on the hunt. There’s a bit of magical realism sprinkled in, things she “just knows” that help her solve the case.

Here is a note I wrote during the first half of the book, and it effectively sums up how I felt for most of the story:

“This is one of those stories where the first person narrator bobs and weaves, trying to tell us a few things while withholding all sorts of important, motivating events in her past. It’s getting tiresome, and I want her to just fucking spit it out so that we can move on.”

I suspect that if McClain had used a lighter hand with the veiled references, mentioning them less frequently and then returning to them later, I might have had a more charitable viewpoint.

As it stands, I wouldn’t call this a bad novel, just not a great one. If you are a fan of her earlier work, you may love this book just as much. But if you haven’t read McClain before and are about to lay down your money for just one book within this genre, I advise you to choose something else.

Cold Fear, by Webb and Mann*****

“Christmas is special here. In Reykjavik, nothing bad ever happens at Christmas.”

Cold Fear is the second in the Finn thriller series. Last year authors Webb and Mann launched the first, Steel Fear, to widespread acclaim, and I loved it, too.  My thanks go to Random House Ballantine and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist, Finn, is a singular fellow. A Navy Seal (like one of our authors,) he is currently on the run, being sought for questioning regarding war crimes that took place in Yemen. He doesn’t think he is guilty, but he isn’t sure; a large chunk of his memory of that time has vanished, leaving him—and us—slightly off balance. But Finn is a survivor, and now, in Iceland, three members of his own team are here too; he thinks they may have the information that he needs to fill in the gaps he can’t access. There’s another more worrisome person, an assassin, looking for him as well.

Meanwhile, a woman has been found dead, face up under the ice. Suicide has been suggested, but that notion quickly falls apart. When her body disappears from the morgue, the police kick into overdrive. Iceland has almost no crime of any kind, let alone murder, and so immediately, they begin eyeing the Americans in their midst, including Finn.

Finn is a memorable character. He’s funny looking, like a cross between a Gecko and E.T., and yet, thanks to his training, he can merge seamlessly into a crowd and be invisible. His traumatic childhood haunts him, but the authors don’t beat us to death with this aspect of his personality. To my delight, he is burdened with none of the overused tropes used by lesser authors such as alcoholism. He is not on a mission to avenge the deaths of people in his personal life, and he doesn’t get kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car or van. Bad guys don’t try to harm his family—of which there is none, in any case—or his pets. He doesn’t get neurotic and bite his lip till he tastes blood, or bunch his fists up so tightly that he cuts his palms with his own fingernails. Feel me? I have quite a list of things I never want to see in a novel again. This happens, once one reads over a thousand novels in this genre, and for awhile I quit the genre entirely, thinking that there was nothing new left to read. Webb and Mann have proven me wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One last word about setting. Though Finn is a resonant protagonist, the setting is more important here than in most thrillers; that was the case in Steel Fear, which was set on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and it’s true here, as well. The descriptions are resonant, but they don’t slow us down. This is a true thriller, with a pace that never flags.

I’m in this series for the duration. I also urge other women to ignore the promotions that boast that this is Alpha Male material. Last time I looked, I was an old lady school teacher, and I am all in. If you love a good thriller, I highly recommend both Finn books to you.

Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett*****

There are indifferent writers; good writers; outstanding writers; and then there are writers like Hartnett, that leave me with my jaw dropped down to my knees, thinking that I like to write, and you probably do, too, but friend, neither one of us will ever write like this. Not ever.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy.

Emma Starling is our protagonist, and she was born with healing powers in her hands. She went away to medical school, but was expelled for reasons that we don’t understand until later, and her healing touch is gone. She has quietly left school without telling a soul back home. She hasn’t even returned for a visit, but now she has been summoned unequivocally; her father is dying, and her mama wants her to come home. NOW.

There are enough points of view in this story to make your head spin. We have the graveyard crowd, for example, and since Everton, New Hampshire is such a tiny town, everybody knows everybody, dead or alive. When I first see that the dead are discussing the affairs of the living, I am dismayed, because the legendary Fannie Farmer has already done this in The Whole Town’s Talking. But soon it becomes obvious that this story isn’t derivative in the least; Hartnett takes this device and uses it in a different way, and it doesn’t dominate the story as Flagg’s does; these characters are there to provide a slightly more objective perspective than those that still live.

There are several points of view from among the living, too. And there are references throughout to the writings of Harold Baines, a naturalist instrumental in shaping the town and in particular, the iconic yet bizarre Corbin Park, which is open only to a chosen few. There are points of view offered from the critters as well; not all of the critters are real, however. And at the EXACT moment when I begin to think that the author should have pared this thing down, for heaven’s sake, because the organization appears to be all over the place, the narrative explains that “A good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent…It might seem unrelated, but sometimes a minor character doesn’t become important until later…The lives of the living often get tangled up in unexpected ways, especially in a town as small as ours, even when a ten-foot electrified fence splits it up.”

I howled, because it felt as if the author had read my mind!

An important plot point is the disappearance of Crystal Nash. Crystal was Emma’s best friend, and had lived with the Starling family as sort of an informal foster child. Crystal developed an addiction and disappeared; Emma and Crystal had had a falling out, and Emma tries not to think about her too much now. Clive, Emma’s father, seldom thinks about anybody else. He’s turned over every rock; slapped a poster on every telephone pole.

To say the least, it’s an interesting homecoming for Emma.

As if the many points of view don’t make for a complex enough story, Hartnett takes us back in time—sometimes just a few years, at other times, way back in the past—and I am awestruck at the way she pulls all of it together at the end, with no loose ends hanging. At the outset I had been sure that this story should have been streamlined, but at the end, when I look back to see what, if anything, could be cut without detracting from the story, there is nothing that’s superfluous. Not one thing. All of these odd bits and pieces are essential to the story she is telling; “meandering,” indeed.

Because I had fallen behind in my reading, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it is brilliantly performed. Usually a story this complicated doesn’t work for me as an audiobook, but this one is outstanding and not hard to follow (although I did go back over the DRC for some quotes.)  Mark Bramhall and Kirby Heyborne do an exceptional job as narrators.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest novels we’ll see in 2022. Highly recommended in whatever format makes your heart happy.

Ten Steps to Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby*****

Hannah Gadsby appeared from seemingly out of nowhere—to those of us in the States—with a searing personal story about her own trauma that was built into her standup comedy routine. Nanette singed our eyebrows and made a great many of us absolutely love her. When I saw this memoir, I knew I had to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy; that said, I would have paid an exorbitant price for a personal copy had it been necessary, and I would not have been disappointed in what I bought.

This book is for sale now.

In some ways it seems useless to review this memoir, because those that are interested in reading it are already fans; those that recoiled in horror from her blunt revelations and assessments of the world around us won’t read it, no matter what I say. But for the few that haven’t seen her standup routine, I counsel you first to watch Nanette on Netflix, and then watch Douglas, too. Of course, you can go into this memoir green, but you’ll appreciate it more if you understand her references to the show.

For those that are fans but are wondering whether the memoir is going to be her standup material, recycled—and surely, plenty of other people have done that sort of thing—I can reassure you that it is not. There are references to Nanette, and there are also references to her newer release, Douglas, the show she named after her dog. But there’s a good deal of information here that you won’t get anywhere else, and that’s what makes it worth it.

After discovering that Gadsby made it in the entertainment business despite coming from no money whatsoever, with no connections to anyone in show business in her native Australia or elsewhere, and having a host of disabilities, foremost among them autism, I wondered whether her success was a piece of rare good luck, or the result of hard work and perseverance unseen by most of her viewers. It’s the latter. And not only has she worked long and hard to make it as a comic, she is also one hell of a fine writer. The depth of analysis and critical thinking in this memoir took my breath away.

Since I’ve been reviewing, I have built myself a bit of a reading routine. There are particular times of day when I read, and also times when I put my books down to get other things done. Gadsby destroyed my orderly timetable. It’s been a long time since any book, however enjoyable to read, has caused me to say, Nope. Not stopping. This one did.

I highlighted a lot of passages, but I’ve decided not to use any direct quotes here, because all of them are so much better in context. But I will say that I am truly ashamed at the way that teachers let her down. As a child she was disciplined, bullied, and received everything at school except the help she desperately needed. I am devastated that my profession failed this brilliant woman. I’d love to believe that things have improved significantly since she was a child, but in my heart, I know there are still little Hannahs out there. Some are falling through the cracks, whereas others are pushed. The horror!

Most of her story is not horrifying, however; it is immensely entertaining. Nobody could safely walk through the room while I was reading without having to listen to a passage or two. On the other hand, nobody minded much, either, because Gatsby.

The most engaging aspect of this memoir—and its author—is authenticity. She never pulls punches, whether describing her own poor choices, or those made by others. One or two very popular American performers have taken passive aggressive swipes at her, and she uses this opportunity to swipe back, right at the start of the book, no less! I wanted to stand up and cheer, but instead, I did it sitting down so as not to lose my place.

The only question remaining is whether you should read this brilliant, darkly funny and disarmingly frank memoir in print or audio. I haven’t heard the audio, but since she reads it herself, you know it’s good. On the other hand, there are several passages that are so well written that I went back over them before moving on; you might miss those with an audio book. True fans that can do so should get both versions.

Highly, hugely recommended.

Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.