Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Amish Guys Don’t Call, by Debby Dodds****

AmishGuysDon't Amish Guys Don’t Call is funny, absorbing, and ultimately lifting. Dodds has a great heart for teenagers, and this title is one that should grace every high school and middle school library, and will also attract parents and teachers of adolescents. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blue Moon Publishers. This book will be available to everyone June 13, 2017.

Samantha is still smarting from her parents’ divorce and her father’s inattention when her mother moves them to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Amish country. Samantha has been in trouble for shoplifting, and the urge increases when she is in stressful situations. To her surprise and delight, she strikes up a friendship with Madison, who in turn pulls her into the most popular circle at school.  The one thing that gets in Sam’s way is her wholesomeness. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or use street drugs; not only is she still a virgin, but she’s never had a boyfriend. Madison tells Sam that all of this can end, with some careful time and grooming. Thus is “Project P” launched.

Despite the name of the boyfriend project, this book is free of explicit sexual situations. We see drug use, and sexual situations arise, so those considering whether this title is right for your teen or group of teens should bear this in mind. If in doubt, buy a copy for yourself and read it first.

At a big party held at night in a cornfield by Amish boys during their Rumspringa, a period in which some Amish groups permit their adolescents a taste of what the outside world is like and tolerate sometimes-extreme behaviors as a rite of passage, Samantha meets a young man named Zach. He’s handsome, and he’s drawn to her. We can tell from his behaviors (as well as the book’s title) that he is Amish, but it takes quite awhile for Sam to catch on. She is obsessed with his failure to provide her with his cell number. Is there another girl in the picture?

This story was a fun read, but I don’t recommend it to general audiences apart from those that really enjoy a wide variety of YA novels. Every nuance is explained thoroughly, and so whereas the text is accessible to students—with vocabulary at about the 9th grade level—most adults will want something more nuanced.  That said, if I were still in the classroom, I would purchase this title. Because the subject matter might provoke conservative parents, I would not use it as assigned reading or use it as a classroom read-aloud, but I know that a lot of students will want to read it.

Recommended for teens that are not from highly conservative backgrounds.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.

Before the Rain Falls, by Camille Di Maio***

beforetherainfallsThose looking for a sweet, light romance will find it here and come away happy. It was just published, and you can get it now. Thanks go to Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The story is divided between three protagonists, and the narrative alternates to include each of their points of view. Two of the characters are Della Lee, a very elderly woman recently paroled from a life term in prison for the murder of her sister, and Paloma Vega, a young doctor that’s returned to her hometown on the Texas border to take care of family business.

One thing that drew me to the title is that the most important characters are both women, and it is they that prove to be the most dynamic. Our third character, Mick Anders, is a journalist seeking Della’s story. He is changed by it, and yet really his character exists as a foil for the two women. So far, so good.

Because the premise starts with the woman who’s spent her entire adult life in prison, I was expecting something grittier. Women in prison haven’t really made it into a lot of fiction, and so my interest was piqued. I was also hoping for a social justice angle, and to be fair, the teaser promises no such thing, and so to an extent, this disappointment is one I brought on myself. Though Della’s reminiscences as she unspools her memories for Anders recount some of what she went through, it really isn’t a prison story, but the story of Della’s own life and the sacrifice she has made.
The parallels between Della’s life and Paloma’s intrigued me and I was hoping the novel would veer in the direction of literary fiction, some allegory perhaps; something subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This isn’t that either. Soon the parallels feed into a tidy package, and the coincidences are just too many. I had reconciled myself to the likelihood that this really would, in fact, be a straight up historical romance, and if the end had been crafted in a more nuanced way I could have given it four stars, but instead it is predictable, and when that happens there can’t be magic, because the Great-And-Powerful-Wizard’s curtain has been pulled away by the unlikeliness of the story. Toto has the curtain in his mouth, and instead of looking at Della, at Paloma, and Nick I am looking Di Maio and saying, Oh come on. Seriously?

Some of the better moments in the story are the side elements, the interaction between Paloma and her sister Mercedes, an adolescent smarting from Paloma’s abandonment when she moved away. Paloma is wooing her back into a sisterly relationship, and her clumsy missteps and the ways in which she corrects herself are resonant and absolutely believable.

Although Della’s back story feels over-the-top to me, her present, the return to her home after seven decades away, the changes in the home and the strangeness of being back in the world and at liberty are also well done. The author does a nice job in crafting Della’s present-day setting and wedding it to her story.

Those looking for a traditional romance, something to pack for a vacation that will leave a warm, fuzzy afterglow will enjoy this novel, and to them I recommend it.

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell****

ifoundyouAlice has found a good looking man on the beach, and she’s brought him home. See what I’ve found! With just this much information, I am immediately engaged, wanting to have a conversation with this woman about risks, about dangers. For heaven’s sake, what about your kids? Friends, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Lisa Jewell’s hot new novel goes on sale April 25, 2017. I read mine free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.

The level of suspense is heightened by shifting points of view. We have the man himself, who has amnesia and doesn’t know his name. Alice has her children name him, and they decide to call him Frank. Her teenage daughter Jasmine rolls her eyes, and I want to grab Alice and say, “Oh no you didn’t!” But since I can’t do that, I read on instead.

Frank has nightmares and we are privy to them, as well as the fragments of memory that come home to him in shards and fragments, bit by bit.

We also have two other, separate story lines. One is that of Lily Monrose, whose husband Carl has vanished. She is just twenty-one years old and came with him to UK from Kiev. He showered her with affection and gifts, found them a home, set up housekeeping, and one day, he failed to return from work. What the heck?

And then we have a vacationing family with a narrative set in the past, featuring teenage siblings Kirsty and Gray, who fall into bad company one summer.

Naturally we wonder from the get-go how these disparate elements will come together at the end of the book. Is Frank really Carl? Is Carl really Gray? Is Frank…well, you see what I mean.

The thing that I love about Jewell’s work is that her dynamic characters are always women, and she develops them well. Alice isn’t always a lovable character; her impulse control and judgment are less than stellar. She tells Frank at the outset:

“I’m not the most together person in the world and it doesn’t take much to make all the wheels fall off.”

She promises her friend Derry, who has seen her through some dark times that were partly due to her own terrible instincts, that she is letting Frank stay in the mother-in-law apartment in back of her home. It has a separate entrance; she will lock the door to her home, and it will just be for one night. But then, the dog likes Frank, and so she takes down the safeguards—the locked door, the one night, the keeping him in a separate place from her family—in breathtakingly swift succession, and I am with Derry, who asks Alice to remember what happened before.

Before what? I turn the pages a little faster.

Meanwhile, the police are way too slow in trying to help Lily, who is isolated in her exurban apartment; she is frantic. Her mother wants her to stop looking for Carl and come home, and it sounds like a smart idea to me, but then I have never lived in Kiev, so who knows? The longer Carl is gone, and the more we learn about him, the more I want to take Lily to the airport. Fly away little bird, there’s nothing that is good for you here!

The hardest buy-in for me is at the beginning, because really, people don’t just get amnesia. Not from car accidents, not from shocking experiences, not from anything. It’s almost unheard of, the stuff of bad old movies. But a good author can sell anybody anything, and I want to know what happens next, so I tell myself, fine then. Amnesia it is. And the way the rest of it unfurls is fascinating. Flawed but appealing, believable characters combined with strong pacing make this addictive novel the one you want at the vacation cabin, the beach, or just for a rainy weekend curled up in your favorite chair.

Recommended to those that love good fiction.

Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser****

almostmissedyo“Fate, people liked to call it. But Violet pictured it as dominoes. Somehow, they’d been positioned perfectly. And at the end of the line was Finn.”

Thanks go to Net Galley and St Martin’s Press for the DRC for this intricately crafted novel, which I received free in exchange for an honest review. Unique and tightly woven, it’s sure to arrest your attention until the last page is turned. This book goes up for sale March 28, 2017.

Violet meets Finn while on vacation in Miami, and wild coincidences draw them together. They went to the same obscure, short-lived summer camp, and they’re both from Cincinnati. How crazy is that? And so when they come together again, it feels like something out of a fairy tale. They marry and have an adorable son they call Bear. Later they return to Miami as a little family.

Then Violet returns, warm and fulfilled, to the hotel room…and both Finn and Bear are gone, along with their luggage.

This is a story that speaks to every mother’s worst nightmare, the abduction of her child. Her baby! And Strawser plots it cleverly, so that the obvious answers are no longer feasible. Of course the police are called, but since there was no divorce, no restraining order, there’s only so much they can do. They have other cases as well. Meanwhile, Violet is both frantic and bewildered. She had thought they were so happy together; what on Earth happened here?

Our main characters are these two parents as well as their closest friends, Caitlin and George. George is a ruling class scion, and at the start of the book it seems as if this is overemphasized. At one point I enter it in my digital notes: put the trowel away already, we get it! But here I am mistaken, because the frequent references are here for a reason; that’s all I will say about that lest I ruin the end for you.

An endearing side character is Gram, the woman that raised Violet after her parents died. Older women tend to be stereotyped in novels; they are either background characters that emerge with cookies or chicken soup and then depart again to make way for the real characters, or they are the cause of all that is bad—shrews, harpies, abusers, enablers, nags. Gram has shrewd advice and insights. She’s not just a cardboard cutout.

The inner narratives, which alternate and in doing so build suspense, are where the strongest voices are found. The dialogue is nicely done, but not as effective as the narratives. And more than anything I have read recently, this book is driven by the plot. The ending is a humdinger.

Ordinarily I would call this a strong beach read, but mothers of tiny children might want to read it somewhere else. It’s a fine debut novel, and Strawser will be an author to watch in the future. Recommended to those that like strong fiction.

He Will Be My Ruin, by K.A Tucker***

hewillbemyruinMaggie Sparkes, heir to a fortune, is called to New York City when her closest friend, Celine Gonzalez, is found dead. Did Celine really commit suicide? Maggie doesn’t believe it for a minute, and when she finds Celine’s personal effects hidden away with a note, she believes it even less. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC and invitation to read and review this title. It was released February 2, 2017 and you can get a copy now.

Maggie and Celine grew up together; Celine’s mother Rosa was the housekeeper and nanny to Celine’s very wealthy family, and so apart from school, the girls were inseparable. Now Maggie is determined to find out what happened to Celine.

The cast of characters here is limited to Maggie, Celine’s neighbor Ruby, who was my favorite character, a cop named Doug, and two hunky men, both of whom were involved at some level with Celine. Jace is an investor; Grady is the property owner of Celine’s building, and both are described as immensely attractive. Who can be trusted? Who is a killer?

The limited number of characters and repetition—how wealthy and philanthropic Maggie is, how creative and hardworking Celine was—makes for an accessible read. The vocabulary is adult level but not out of range of the average reader. For those that are newly venturing into reading English language novels, this is a great place to start, because if something important slides by you the first time, you’ll be told again.

As for me, I prefer more nuance in my literature. When Maggie tells us how things went in high school, she wasn’t merely a debater, she was the captain of the debate team. Likewise, Celine wasn’t just a student actor, but scored the role of Juliet. Having both of them be so perfect within their realms of interest keeps them from seeming real to me. Maggie is rich, and we get told constantly in case we forgot. Maggie has a million charities and wants to save the world, and we’re unlikely to forget that either.

On the other hand, I wasn’t always this old and sometimes cynical. I can recall a younger version of myself that adored the writing of Victoria Holt, and I think that younger self might well have enjoyed this novel. Tucker is a successful, experienced novelist, and I have a hunch this is the pool of readers that find pleasure in her work.

Recommended to those that love Harlequin romances, Victoria Holt mysteries, and readers that enjoy romance but are still relatively new to reading in the English language.

Forever is the Worst Long Time, by Camille Pagan****

Happy release day! This title is available to the public today.

Seattle Book Mama

 “Each story is different. Every story ends with loss.”

foreveristheworstCamille Pagan is the author Life and Other Near Death Experiences. Thank you Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title is for sale February 7, 2017.

The story starts in the second person, with the narrator speaking to us intimately; he is James Hernandez, and soon we realize that he is speaking to a child about her mother and his memories of her. The narrative is therefore intimate in tone, but also carefully measured and paced, beginning in 1998 when James meets Lou and unspooling toward the present.  I have read oh so many novels in which alternating viewpoints are used to keep the reader’s attention from wandering, and this fresh approach had me at hello.

James is Rob’s best friend; James’s own childhood home was dysfunctional…

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Always, by Sarah Jio****

alwayssarahjioAlways, Sarah Jio’s much anticipated new release, takes on the homelessness epidemic using the powerful medium of fiction. I received my copy in advance in exchange for an honest review; thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC. This title is available to the public today, and if you have enjoyed Jio’s other novels, I am confident you’ll like this one too.

Kailey Crane is a journalist living in Seattle during the 1990s, and she has the whole package: a great job, a wonderful city, and a wealthy, handsome fiancée. It’s the life other little girls dreamed of but didn’t get.  Then one night as she and Ryan are leaving a restaurant, she literally bumps into a long lost love. Cade McAllister is the man Kailey had been going to marry until he disappeared. He practically vaporized. Stunned and humiliated, she picked herself up and rebuilt her life, and now here he is, a half-crazed homeless man living downtown on the streets.

What the heck happened?

Kailey wants to marry Ryan, but she also wants to help Cade find housing, medical care, and food. Ryan makes it easier by agreeing that she should do the right thing. Quickly she learns that it isn’t as simple as it seems. There’s a whole safety net in place for people like Cade, except that it doesn’t work. In fact, without her own ready access to Ryan’s money, she can do virtually nothing for Cade. But it’s all right, because Ryan is on the side of the angels; he sees that this cause is a just one, and he’s a generous guy. He’s in love, and he’s feeling expansive.

The problems begin when Kailey starts missing key wedding events because she’s off helping Cade, or trying to. She becomes so involved with one thing and another that before she knows it, she’s over an hour late. There are out of town relatives that are present, but where’s the bride? And before we know it, she’s telling lies, and sometimes they don’t even seem necessary. I want to reach through the pages of the book, yank Kailey into the kitchen and talk to her.

What  are you doing, girl?

Fissures in her relationship with Ryan turn into fractures as he senses the level of her obsession, and he doesn’t see things as she does anymore. His material interest is involved, since a project his development corporation is about to undertake conflicts with an already established homeless shelter in Pioneer Square, a historic part of Seattle’s downtown. He questions why so many resources are required for the homeless; aren’t these mostly drug addicts and crazy people? There ought to be a simple way to dispatch the problem.

A strong story overall is somewhat tarnished by what feels like a glib ending. I recall a favorite episode of the Muppets when Miss Piggy is working a jigsaw puzzle, and she hates to be wrong, so she slams a piece into a hole where it doesn’t belong and howls, “I’ll make it fit!” The ending of this story brought the episode back to me, because Jio seems to be doing more or less the same thing.

Recommended to fans of this successful romance writer.

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

Happy release day to Andrew Krivak! This one is head and shoulders above the rest. If you are ready to get lost in a book, it’s for sale now.

Seattle Book Mama

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and…

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