Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

The Santa Suit, by Mary Kay Andrews***-****

3.75 rounded up.

I love a good Christmas story, but so many of them are cloying or insipid. A friend recommended this one to me, and she wasn’t wrong. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.

Ivy is newly divorced, and she comes away from it with bruised feelings, but also money. Since she works from home, she has the choice to go anywhere, so she buys a farmhouse in a tiny town in North Carolina. She pays for it without ever seeing it in person, and it comes “as is.” At this point, I say, Welp, you’re in for it now, hon. And she is, sort of.

The realtor, Ezra, known locally as “The House Hunk,” has taken a shine to Ivy. He helps her with the heat; when she discovers that the old furniture is still there in the house, he and a friend cart it off for her, and when there’s a problem with her own furniture, he helps bring it all back in. And initially, she regards his attention as a nuisance, maybe even a stalker; but between the fine reputation he enjoys locally, and the number of times he helps her out of difficult situations, she gradually warms to him.

Ivy is a likable protagonist. She’s self-sufficient, but she isn’t cold. She sets about making friends right away. Her new bud, Phoebe, is in a state because she’s fallen in love with someone she met online, and has used a picture of someone else. Now the man Is coming to see her, and she’s panic-stricken. Other new friends include a local business person for whom she does some free, and very good, advertising, and a 96 year old man. Her dog, Punkin, goes everywhere with her, and she talks to him all the time, the way that some of us also do. When she needs assistance it’s because she doesn’t know the area, or because a job requires an extra set of hands, not because she is some helpless airhead. An engaging character indeed.

My rating reflects a couple of sloppy bits that the author and editor should have caught and dealt with immediately. They’re small, but they interrupt the magic, because they cause me to think about the two slackers rather than the story and characters. The first is when she offers Ezra coffee, but warns him that all she has is instant. Two paragraphs later, she is brewing the coffee. Oh, come on! Clean it up. A bit later, after Ezra and a friend have schlepped furniture in from the truck, he asks if she’s been out to play in the snow, and she tells him she doesn’t want to spoil its beauty. “It’s so beautiful, all that clean, untouched white.” And so I wonder: did they teleport the furniture indoors? Because otherwise, surely that snow would have been touched in a whole lot of places.

There are a couple of other inconsistencies, albeit smaller ones, and I am using a fair amount of ink to discuss problems that may seem trivial, but this is no debut author, this is a successful writer with a host of books in her repertoire, and she should know better.

The plot, on the other hand, is excellent. There was one development that I thought was obvious, but when I finished my eyeroll, I was surprised to see that she didn’t take it where I expected, and instead did something much better. I particularly like the way the romance unfolds, and the way that Ivy helps Phoebe out of her dilemma. There are other threads—involving a Santa suit, of course—that are equally delightful.

So, in spite of my complaints, I do recommend this charming, fluffy tale to you. It’s a mood elevator, and we can all use some of that. It’s for sale now.

One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London*****

I’m not usually a romance reader, but when I saw the plus-sized woman on the cover of this novel, I was mesmerized. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The premise is that Bea Schumacher, a successful plus-sized fashion blogger, is invited to be the subject of a season of Main Squeeze, which is a fictional reality show on the lines of The Bachelorette. I have been yearning for a proud, plus-sized protagonist since I read a novel last summer featuring a main character that used to be quite large. I didn’t want a protagonist that had a history of being big as her private, shameful secret. I wanted a protag that is plus-sized right now and fine with it. So I wasn’t drawn in by genre or the tie to reality television; I was hooked by the protagonist’s size.

Bea has never had a serious romantic relationship, and has just had her heart stomped on hard by a lifelong male friend. Bea had seen—or thought she had seen—their friendship evolving into something more, and after one magic night, she was sure her dreams had come true. Then the man of her dreams took off running and quit taking her calls. It would shake any woman.

But Bea has established herself as a serious force in social media, and a major reality program has come knocking. Isn’t it about time to have a plus-sized Bachelorette—er, Main Squeeze? With plus-sized courage, Bea throws her hat into the ring, but she also reminds herself that this is surely not the way to find real and lasting love; she is doing this to build her brand, and when it’s over, she’ll go back to her blog with lots of new followers. The only problem is that the audience is not so stupid that they can’t see what she’s doing. Ratings drop like a rock because Bea is obviously phoning it in, and the program director lets her know that she either needs to engage emotionally, or act like she’s doing so. No actor, Bea cracks open the door to her heart.

The readers most likely to enjoy this book are plus-sized women, and I have to tell you, there are some ugly remarks made by members of the public that are especially hard to read. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, ladies, but it still hurts every stinking time. So there’s that.

But when all is said and done, I like this book a lot. Yes, it’s a light read in most ways; I don’t rate novels on the seriousness of their content, but rather on whether they represent the best of their genre. This book is a beach read perhaps, or a light romance, but the meaty social issues that are woven into it make it more-than. In the end I found it uplifting, and in this difficult year, that’s the kind of read I’m looking for.

A note on the audio version. Since I missed the pub date, I procured a copy of the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons, and then immediately knew two things: first, that I HAD to read this book right away, not for the author or publisher, but for myself; and second, that this book is absolutely not suited to the audio format. It’s not the narrator’s fault; the text is liberally sprinkled with social media posts and parts of TV dialogue, and when read aloud it sounds artificial and disjointed. I promptly sent the audio version back and moved the digital galley to the top of my queue. If you read it, read it. It’s no good as an audio book.

That said, this book makes my plus-sized heart sing, and if you can use some of that, get this book. You’ll be glad you did.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

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

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler*****

Therese Anne Fowler is a complete badass. I have never read her before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll read her next book. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. You can buy this book now, and you should.

I don’t usually begin by discussing the narrative voice, but I’m doing it this time because it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this novel. The story is told in the second person, but the point of view shifts seamlessly from that of the neighbors that are friends with a key character—I’ll get there in a minute—to an omniscient narrative, and I never catch the shift; by the time I realize a change has taken place, we’ve been there awhile. So, one minute, the narrative will say things like “All of us thought…” and “Everyone knew…” but later, we’ll be told what a protagonist is thinking. This is a risky way to write, and she’s carried it off so well that I can only bow in awe.

The story is, to some extent, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a tragedy, and we’re told this at the outset. The neighborhood in question is Oak Knoll, an old, established one in North Carolina. Valerie Alston-Holt is a forestry professor with a deep dedication to the environment; her son Xavier is gifted. Xavier’s father was Caucasian, but died when the boy was small, so it is just the two of them, mother and son. The new folks next door, the Whitmans, are a blended family. Julia, the mother, was living a hardscrabble life as a single parent with her daughter, Juniper, when the wealthy, charismatic Brad Whitman, who was her boss, married her. They have a small daughter together, but Brad has also adopted Juniper so that they can be a real family. Julia can hardly believe her good fortune. Her standard of living has risen beyond anything she ever dreamed.

The tension is there from the start. The Whitman home is out of character in comparison to the neighborhood, a garish, over-the-top McMansion built on a large lot created by tearing down the existing home that had been there. And the outcome of the construction is that a tree—a beloved tree—on the Alston-Holt property next door—is now dying.  The forestry professor sees an attorney, and the battle is joined.

Despite the tension between the adults, Xavier and Juniper are drawn to one another. They are teenagers, upperclassmen in high school, and they’re both squeaky clean kids, serious students. Neither has been in a serious relationship before. As we see their romance blossom, the narrator reminds us that this won’t end well.

I began this novel using my review copy, and although I could see it was going to be good, I was falling behind my reading for unrelated reasons. I scooped up the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the reader does a wonderful job, and the story is well suited to this medium.

Fowler is an experienced writer, and it shows. There are several lazy stereotypes she deftly avoids. The Alston-Holts are middle class, not struggling financially. (Here I think of the new book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, who reminds us that only one in five African-American families is poor.) Brad Whitman, who is a complete horse’s ass, is a charismatic Christian, but he is not a preacher, he’s a businessman.

Of course this story has a great deal to say about race and wealth, and how society empowers us according to these parameters. But because the characters are so intimately developed, so brilliantly fleshed out, the message integral to the story never feels like a manifesto. And reader, I’ll tell you, I’m a tough old granny who rarely is undone by a sad story, but I grew a little misty at the end of this one, and I thought about it for quite awhile afterward.

Highly recommended in whatever form you enjoy.

Dear Emmie Blue, by Lia Louis***

I read this copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. From time to time I find myself reading too much dark material, which is the direction I’m generally drawn toward. I found this title and thought that it might balance my selection. And for what it’s worth, it did that.

The premise here is that Emmie has fallen hard for a young man that she met years ago by pure chance. At age 16, she had written a secret that she needed to share on a scrap of paper, along with her email address, stuffed it into a balloon and launched it into space. (How does one get a slip of paper inside a helium balloon without losing the gas inside it? But let’s not dwell there.)  Rather than falling into the ocean and choking a seabird to death, the balloon makes it to dry land, and Lucas finds it. The two become fast friends, and as time progresses, she is sure they are meant to be more.  She is devastated to learn that his plans are different from hers.

This story is a quick read with lots of dialogue. One of my pet literary peeves right now, however, is the terrible-mother-who-ruins-everything. Oh. Come. On. You can do better than this. However, other aspects of the story are more congenial. In the end Emmie takes control of her own life, as she should have done all along, and good things result.

Those looking for a pleasant beach read could do worse. However, the publicist that compares this book to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is completely delusional.

It’s for sale now.

To Have And To Hoax, by Martha Waters**-***

Oh well.

Martha Waters spans three genres here: historical romance, rom-com, and satire. I like satire, and the other two, not so much. I am rounding my rating up to three stars, because I stepped out of my comfort zone with this novel, hoping for light entertainment; those that enjoy rom-com books may be more enthusiastic than I. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lady Violet and Lord James found instant chemistry at a grand ball. Almost as instantly, they were married; then they quarreled and have been estranged ever since. Yet even the stupidest and most imperceptive reader will see that they are still crazy for one another. If one is in doubt, turn the page so the author can hit you over the head with it again. Again. And again.

I enjoy smart satire that leaves something to the imagination. This book tries too hard to be funny. I tried reading the DRC, and when I couldn’t get through it, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This made it, if possible, even worse. Overdone prose is made worse by an over-the-top voice actor.

I had been reading too much that was dark and serious, and then the pandemic broke out and I went looking for relief. I found it, but I didn’t find it here.

But again, I have never liked rom-com. If that’s your wheelhouse, you may appreciate this thing more than I do. I pushed through to the forty percent mark; my usual due diligence requires me, if skipping, to then proceed to the eighty percent mark and see if there are joyful surprises that might change my mind. But no.

Fans of the genre may feel differently, but I have to call them as I see them. Not recommended.

Best Overall Fiction 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

Best Romance 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood*****

People talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I had a pair of imaginary bill collectors, so no matter which way I turned, there was somebody to remind me I needed money. That’s how I ended up on a train at four o’clock in the morning with my nephew and a hundred pounds of weed.

Bryn Greenwood met acclaim with All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which I also read and reviewed, and I liked it a lot, but The Reckless Oath We Made is special, possibly the best novel we’ll see in 2019. The charm of the narrative voice is just as strong as the last if not more so, but there’s greater character development. It’s quirky and groundbreaking, and I will love this story until the day I die. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. You can buy it now.

Zhorzha—you can call her Zee—is in a state of perpetual crisis. Her father is in prison for robbery, and her mother has fallen apart, become a hoarder, massively obese, and agoraphobic to boot. At age 12, Zee was forced to leave home, and has been sofa cruising ever since. Recently she’s been staying with her sister LaReigne, but now LaReigne has been kidnapped. Zee and her nephew Marcus are stranded with nobody left to call for a ride; then her stalker steps forward and offers them a lift, and she takes it.

It’s the beginning of something beautiful.

Gentry has been following Zee for years; he saw her at physical therapy when she was recovering from a serious accident, and the voices in his head told him that he must be her champion. He doesn’t harass her, but he is always there. When all hell breaks loose, Gentry transports her to her mother’s house, but it’s even worse there. She is humiliated to have him—or anyone—see what kind of squalor her mother has chosen, but Gentry  sees her mother entirely differently, and since his narrative is peppered alternately with Zee’s and occasional glimpses of side characters’ perspectives, he tells us:

There, in the inner chamber, reclined upon a throne of red leather that scarce contained her serpentine hugeness, was the dragon Lady Zhorzha called Mother. My lady was blessed with a great mane of fire that ne comb ne blade might tame. Mayhap in the dragon’s youth, she had worn such a mantle, but in her age, her hairs weren grayed.

Fearless, Marcus approached the throne and flung himself upon the lady dragon. For a time, there was kissing and lamenting, for they weren greatly distressed with the fate of my lady’s sister…I would go upon my knee, but the dragon’s hoard was too close upon her.

At one point someone asks Zee whether she talks like Gentry too, and she replies, “Honestly, I don’t always understand what he says. I got a C in English in high school, and we never got to Shakespeare. I wasn’t in the advanced class.”

In fact, the juxtaposition of Gentry’s old world speech and Zee’s contemporary, frank responses that keep the story hopping. I laughed out loud several times when we moved from his speech to hers, for example:

Lady Zhorzha! Art’ou well?

Oh, thank fuck, Gentry. Yes. We’re okay.

But as much as I love Gentry, I love Zee harder. Zee is utterly believable, and she is unlike any other character I have read anywhere. She explains, when she’s asked whether she goes hunting with Gentry, that she wouldn’t know how; she comes from generations of “citified white trash whose main food-related struggle has to do with “opening dented cans of off-brand Spam from the food bank.”  

Zee is a large woman, and I am so heartily tired of tiny-firecracker female protagonists that I am cheered tremendously.  She’s nearly six feet tall, and her uncle says she is “Built like she could hunt bear with a stick.” When she is leaving the emergency room after a scare involving her mother, a staff member advises Zee to lose weight herself. One of Gentry’s friends notes that “Honestly, if she dropped fifty or sixty pounds, she would be pretty hot.”

And the thing I appreciate the most about this is that her weight not our central problem. It isn’t a problem at all. Zee is a romantic heroine who is fat, but this is an incidental part of her character. The problem is the kidnapping, and it’s complicated by all of the other challenges faced by poor people, challenges that Zee has to face without much of a tool kit; but between the kidnapping and the point when LaReigne is found, other life-changing events take place, and the Zhorzha we see at the story’s end is both wiser and happier than she is at the outset.

Greenwood doesn’t just avoid stereotypes in recounting Zee’s plight; she knocks the knees from beneath them and gives us breathing human beings and real world plot points instead, and she does it without being obvious about it. This is no manifesto; it’s more like a magnificent modern-day fairytale.

Take Gentry again, for example. Gentry is autistic, but he is not friendless, and he has some mad skills that take bullies unawares. Also?  Gentry is adopted. He is white; his adoptive mother is Black. Again, this is incidental to the story, but readers cannot miss it; there’s a very brief spot that brings it front and center, and I cheer when I see it.

Those that read my reviews know that I seldom gush, but this story is perfect in so many ways that I cannot help myself. By this time next year, I will have read roughly 140 more books, but I will still remember Zee, and I will still remember Gentry. This is among the sweetest stories of  2019, a new favorite.

I highly recommend this book to everyone that has the literacy skills and stamina to brave Gentry’s prose. Get it at full price or discounted, from the library or stolen. You won’t be sorry.