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.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman*****

This quixotic little book had me at hello. Set in Australia in the 1960s, it tells a story of love, loss, and redemption in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere from anybody. I’ve finished reading other books since I finished this one, and yet I am still thinking about Tom Hope.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It will be available to the public April 9, 2019.

At the outset, Tom’s last name seems cruelly ironic, because the guy can’t seem to catch a break. Trudy, his perpetually dissatisfied wife, up and leaves him with no warning and no discussion. Just takes off. Tom is heartsick, but a ranch is still a ranch, and so he woodenly goes through all of the tasks—milk the cow, herd the woolies—that must be done. He is such a sad fellow, and he berates himself for not having done more to make that woman happy and comfortable. The ranch is not long on frills; an indoor shower would be nice, and a big old bathtub would be even better.

He actually makes lists.

 But then one day Trudy comes back. She’s been gone for a whole year, and now she’s pregnant. Say what?

When Tom takes her back, I look at the things he has said and done and wonder whether he is maybe a little on the simple side. But just as the question takes hold in my mind, we hear people in town talking about him. One of them tells another that after all, Tom Hope is not a stupid man. And so again I wonder why he lets her back in the house. But he does. He welcomes her. Sssh, he says to her self-recriminations, don’t worry about it. You’re back now.

Trudy has the baby, and then Jesus calls her and she leaves again—without the baby. So there’s Tom. You can see what I mean about that last name. Hope? What good has hope done for him so far? He’s stuck raising an infant while he runs a ranch, and it’s exhausting, nearly impossible, but he adores this little boy that isn’t his, just loves him for years, right up until the time Trudy decides that Jesus has called Peter to come to the religious compound with her.

So when the flamboyant Hannah, a woman older than himself, a Hungarian immigrant, comes to town and decides she likes the looks of Tom, all I can think is, thank goodness. Let the poor man have a life post-Trudy and post-Peter. There’s nothing like a fresh start.  But Hannah comes with baggage of her own, a refugee who’s experienced the horror of Auschwitz.

Before I requested access to this novel, the Holocaust reference in the description very nearly kept me away. Younger readers less familiar with this historical war crime need to know about it. The survivors are mostly dead and gone, and there are revisionists trying to deny it, or to say that stories of it are greatly exaggerated. So yes, there’s a need for its inclusion in new literature, and yet I feel as if I have had my fill. But the other piece of it—Tom, the ranch, the child, the romance—won the day, and I am so glad I decided to go for it. And indeed, it’s not a Holocaust story; instead, we see how the horror through which Hannah has lived informs her present day choices.

So yes, Hannah is an interesting character, and the bookshop is hers, but the story is really about Tom. One heartache after another comes his way, and he deals with every single one uncomplainingly, telling those that love him that he’s fine. Really. At times I want to push my way into the pages to say to him, what the hell? Go ahead and throw some dishes or something. You are entitled to your anger. But instead, he forges stolidly on, not because he is free of pain—we can tell that he isn’t—but because there’s no use in burdening others as well. And as one violent act after another works its way into his experience, the story builds, and builds some more, and we have to wonder when he will draw the line and say, that’s it. Enough. And the way Tom develops from the outset to the end is so resonant, so believable.

This novel is one of the warmest, most affectionately told stories that I have read in a long time. It’s never mawkish or overly sentimental; Hillman strikes the perfect balance. I would read more of his work in a heartbeat, and I highly recommend it to you. If you can find it at a discount, that’s great, but if you have to pay full cover price, you won’t be disappointed.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.