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.

Buried in a Good Book, by Tamara Berry****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

I’ve been enjoying Berry’s Eleanor Wilde series, which I read and reviewed from the first book forward; when I found this one, Buried in a Good Book, the start of a brand new series, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.

I’m a bit skeptical of novels that feature the words book, library, reading, bookstore and such because obviously, potential buyers are likely to get all warm and fuzzy-feeling just seeing the title. It’s a soft landing, that’s for sure, marketing books and book-related topics to booklovers; and then I wonder if the author is just too lazy to take on something more challenging. But every time Berry embraces the obvious, it turns out to be with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, and by the end of the book I am laughing out loud. That holds true for this one as well.

Tess Harrow is newly divorced, and her adolescent daughter, Gertrude is heartbroken, because her father has more or less ghosted on her. When an elderly relative dies and leaves his cabin and his hardware store to Tess, it seems like an omen. She’ll get her girl out of Seattle and the heartbreak she’s experienced there; get off the grid, more or less, and enjoy Nature. Yikes.

Be careful what you wish for!

The day is nearly over when they pull up to the cabin, a fixer if ever there was one; Tess knew it might be rugged, but she didn’t know that the lovely little pond out back would be fully stocked with body parts, too. And whereas some might be daunted by such an occurrence, she looks at all of it as excellent material for her next bestselling thriller.

This novel is different from the Ellie Wilde mysteries in that we are more than half into it before the author moves in for the laughs. Just as I conclude that this time Berry is playing it straight, something happens—no, I will NOT tell you what—and I am guffawing and snorting, neither of which is becoming while one is eating lunch, but it simply cannot be helped. Berry is a sly one, all right. My notes say, “I never knew metacognition could be so damn funny.”

I enjoy everything she does here, and the fact that it’s set in my own stomping grounds of Washington State makes me love it all the better. Recommended to any reader that is ready for a good story and a good laugh. It’s for sale now.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.

Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang*****

“Secrets. They have so much power, don’t they?”

Qian Julie Wang is born in China to a professional couple living under the shadow of governmental disfavor. Her father’s elder brother has written critically about Mao Zedong, naively signing his own name to the article, and as a result, the entire family lives under a cloud and the threat of violence, courtesy of Chinese Stalinism. When her father finds a way to relocate himself and his family to New York, it is under a tourist visa, and so they cannot legally remain in the USA, or get any sort of legitimate employment. Wang’s memoir tells of the deprivation and terror, combined with occasional lifesaving windfalls and ingenuity, of growing up as an “illegal,” and of how, against all odds, she ultimately finds success and citizenship.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the invitation to read and review, along with my apologies for being inexcusably late.

Wang comes to the USA, which in Chinese translates to “Beautiful Country,” as a small child. From the moment her feet touch American soil, her parents drill the story into her: “I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life.” Because they are in the US illegally, they must find work to do under the table, and so they are exploited by the most malevolent sweatshop owners. At first, Wang is also employed, toddling off to do piecework with her mother, but eventually she is enrolled in school, where she proves to be highly capable once she overcomes the barriers of language and culture.

More than anything, her life and that of her parents is dominated by fear and secrecy. Opportunities that would otherwise be helpful must often be bypassed because of the documentation required. Her parents’ emotional stability, their marriage, and her mother’s health are broken.

If this story seems unbearably grim—and I confess, this is why I delayed reading it, moving other, pleasanter stories to the top of my queue—it is ultimately a story of resilience and of triumph. Wang is a gifted writer, and she breaks up the horror by recounting small victories and pleasures that punctuate her youth. But the most important aspect of how the memoir is presented, is that everything is told through the lens of childhood, and so we see everything as a seven-year-old Chinese girl, a nine-year-old, etc. would see it.

Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version of this memoir from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Wang does her own narration, which is my favorite way to hear a book, because there’s no danger that the reader will add emphasis or interpretation that conflicts with the author’s intentions. The climax arrived as I was wrapping Christmas gifts, which made me all the more aware of my level of privilege.

Wang tells us:

“Most of all, I put these stories to paper for this country’s forgotten children, past and present, who grow up cloaked in fear, desolation, and the belief that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal. I have been unfathomably lucky. But I dream of a day when being recognized as human requires no luck—when it is right, not a privilege. And I dream of a day when each and every one of us will have no reason to fear stepping out of the shadows.”

Highly recommended.

Mother May I, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted to see that she has another novel coming out this spring. My heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley, Harper Audio, and William Morrow for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

One of the things I love about Jackson is that she recognizes and includes social class as a large factor in the lives of her characters. I am initially sorry to see that her protagonist, Bree Cabbat, is married to a wealthy man, but once the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the story won’t work any other way. Although Bree is rolling in it now, she grew up poor, the child of a single parent that took her back-to-school shopping at a Goodwill two towns over from their tiny Georgia town, carefully making sure that Bree’s classmates not recognize their own castoffs when Bree wore them. Later, theater classes helped Bree refine her accent to make her more employable; acting lessons helped her project the carefree confidence that is common to young adults whose families have money.

Now she is married to Trey, a man “who’d grown up with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys.” As the story progresses, there are frequent subtle reminders of this; Trey has a gun safe; Trey has a bottle of whiskey, a gift, that cost over two thousand dollars; their daughters are in an upscale school with a nice theatre program, and their daughters are enrolled in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and Robotics. Yes, our Bree has come up in the world, alrighty. And so when their baby is kidnapped out from under her very nose, naturally Bree’s assumption is that there will be a ransom, and that she and Trey will pay it.

But this time, she is oh so wrong.

When the call comes, it turns out to be a very elderly woman bent on exacting revenge against Trey’s business partner, who is also his cousin. Bree must do exactly as she says, because if she sees any sign of police, “I’ll break his flimsy neck…I’ll twist his little head right around backward.”

Dear God.

 This story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let me go till I was done with it. I was initially approved for the audio version, and by the time I was given access to the print version, I had finished the first galley. Ordinarily, when something like this happens, I write my review, submit it to both places, and figure my work is done here. But for Jackson I do due diligence and more, and it’s a pleasure to read her book twice, so I did. And while both versions are excellent, I give a slight edge to the audio version. Print is a desirable medium anytime one is reading any mystery, because sometimes we want to flip back to check a detail or two. But Jackson always records her own audio books, and so I know the interpretation of the reader is always completely consistent with the writer’s intention. And in this case, the key side character—Marshall, an ex-cop that was married to Bree’s best friend, now dead—has a distinctive voice that comes through somewhat in the printed version, but much more plainly in the audio. I love the way she voices him, and although Marshall isn’t the protagonist, his role in this story is critical. The narrative shifts between Bree, who speaks to us from the first person limited, and Marshall, who comes to us in the third person.

The story carries an added social justice component: it’s MeToo on steroids. The things we learn about the men in the story add complexity, and though there’s a trigger or two here, I suspect most female readers will find the denouement deeply satisfying. I do.

The ending would ordinarily be deemed over-the-top, but because I believe the characters and story so completely by the time we get there, I also believe the resolution.

The one thing I would change here, if I wanted to be picky, would be to find a way to inject some of the epic laugh-out-loud humor I have enjoyed in Jackson’s earlier books. But that’s a tall order, given the intensity of this one.

One way or the other, this book is guaranteed to be one of the year’s very best. Don’t let yourself be left out. I strongly recommend this book to you, even at full cover price.

The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, which I received over a year ago. I began reading this story numerous times, but I didn’t find it engaging enough to continue, and so each time I began it, I would end up returning it to my queue in exchange for something I liked. However, I recently began moving through my backlog with assistance from Seattle Bibliocommons, where I was able to get audio versions of those I’d left by the wayside. Ultimately, this is how I was able to follow through, and it’s a good thing, because the last half of this book is far better than the first half.

The story features three women, all of them in the American Midwest in the early 1920s. The sisters are Ruth and June, and their mother is Dorothea. June is the golden one, the prettiest and most successful. Ruth, who is younger, just resents the crap out of June. And she can tell that their mother loves June more.  June, on the other hand, is Betty Crocker; one of them, anyway. One of the few career opportunities open to women involves inventing recipes for Betty; answering Betty’s mail; and playing the part of Betty on the radio. Women visit the company expecting to meet Betty, and thy are outraged to learn that no such person actually exists.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her family remain in the family home with Dorothea, and the sisters are estranged. Their mother hates to see them this way, and she schemes to bring them together.

The narrative shifts between the three women, and from the past to the present. When we are taken back to their youths, we learn what has come between them, and what assumptions, grudges, and secrets each holds that has not been said.

The first half of this book feels like it will never end. The sloppy pop-cultural references grate on me, particularly when the shortcuts result in inaccuracy. For example, when the stock market crashes, Cullen has men jumping from skyscrapers left, right, and center, when in fact, this is mostly myth, or at best, hyperbole. At most there was a single jumper in real life. Historical fiction at its best teaches us in an enjoyable way, but when readers are presented with urban legends as reality, it is a letdown.

By the halfway point, I am only still listening to this book because I have to make dinner anyway, and having put in as much time as I have, I figure I may as well finish it up. My review is on its way to being three stars at best, and possibly two. So imagine my surprise when at the 55% mark, the whole thing wakes up! The female character that has been the least interesting up until now is Dorothea, but now we learn the meaty parts that she has kept secret, and there we find the key to everything else. I am so astonished that my jaw drops, and I stop chopping vegetables and gape at my tablet, which is streaming this story. Oh, heck! Seriously? This is why…? Oh, holy crap. Who knew?

From that point forward, it’s an entirely different ballgame. When I head for the kitchen, I’m already thinking about what I heard the day before, and looking forward to the next bit.

Those that enjoy character-based fiction could do a lot worse, as long as you take the historical parts with a grain of salt. Overall, I recommend that if you read this book, you should get it free or cheap, and prepare to be patient.

Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman**-***

2.5 stars rounded upward. I was invited to read and review this novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

World War II fiction is a crowded place, and I have left it, for the most part, having had more than my fill. I am initially interested in this story because it takes place in 1950s New York, and that’s a setting I haven’t seen much. However, this setting alternates with the protagonist’s memories of Paris during the war, and so there I am again, back in Europe during the war.

Charlotte is a young widow, working in a bookstore to make ends meet. Her infant daughter, Vivi, is often with her. A German soldier is drawn to her, and she snubs him repeatedly, but when he brings food and milk for her starving child, she caves. When Vivi becomes sick, he smuggles in medication. Yes, this is one of those I-hate-you-but-I-love-you stories. This isn’t new; I’ve seen plenty of forbidden love stories, especially with regard to German soldiers. I’ve also seen plenty of love-hate romances.

But what strength I see in this one is in the grey areas. Is it all right to fraternize with the soldiers that are responsible for the deaths of loved ones, if those you’re befriended by can save other loved ones, particularly children? Is it all right to let someone think you’re Jewish, once the war is over, if that means they will save you? Is it acceptable to be Jewish, whether inobservant or otherwise, but pretend you are not, if it increases your odds of survival? What if that means taking other Jews prisoner, serving your enemy?

I’ve said this before in other reviews, and I’ll say it again here. It irritates the bejesus out of me, this World War II forbidden-romance storyline that is always, always, always between a Caucasian European, or Euro-American, and a German. Maybe someone has been wildly creative and included an Italian, but I haven’t seen it if they have. What do we never, never see? Ever? Never? (I could go on all night like this, and don’t provoke me or I’ll do it!) We never, ever see a WWII relationship between a Caucasian civilian from an Allied nation and a Japanese soldier. Or civilian. Or anything. It’s almost as if there’s a whispered subtext that insists, “It’s okay. After all, we’re both white, and that’s what really matters.” And authors that are far too progressive, too modern, too civilized to use any of the zillion ugly epithets that were common usage at the time by Allied service people and citizens toward Germans and Italians, nevertheless decide it’s somehow acceptably authentic to use the J word for Japanese. You know the one I mean. And Feldman is a serious offender here.

Because I was having trouble plodding through this story’s text, I visited Seattle Bibliocommons and borrowed the audio version. (Laurie Catherine Winkel does a fine job as the reader.)  I had listened to about seventy percent of this story when Charlotte has a conversation with her landlord, sponsor, etcetera about his own war experience, and boy does he pour it on. I think I must have found the J word on damn near every page, sometimes more than once. I nearly stopped reading, and I nearly gave this book a single star. I fast-forwarded a bit, and when the passage involving this veteran’s way-too-long speech ends, I don’t hear the word again, so I take a deep breath and forge onward to see how it ends.

The ending is bittersweet, and it’s not formulaic.

So there it is. This book is for sale now, but my advice is to either give it a miss, or read it for free or cheap. And if another forbidden WWII white-on-white romance turns up in my inbox, it’s going straight to my round file. Stick a fork in me, cause I am done.

Girls Like Us, by Cristina Alger***-****

I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin last summer. Since I received it after the publication date, I moved it to the back burner in order to prioritize galleys whose publication dates could still be met. January came, and I still hadn’t opened the book. Deeply ashamed, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it in the evenings while preparing dinner. The audio version is three stars, but I suspect that if I had stuck to the digital review copy, it might have been closer to four, so I am rounding my rating upward.

FBI agent Nell Flynn, our protagonist, returns home after ten years away in order to bury her father and deal with his estate. She and her dad were estranged, and her mother died when she was a child; she has no siblings; she is also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the fallout from an earlier case. I assumed incorrectly that this earlier case must mean that Nell Flynn either had, or was about to have her own series, yet no mention is made of this; as far as I can tell the PTSD has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with any other aspect of the story. Her boss urges her to seek treatment; she doesn’t want to because she’s hard-boiled, and yada yada. Moving on.

The body of a young woman is found, and then there’s another; since she happens to be visiting Suffolk County, her father’s partner asks Nell to lend a hand. She is recruited as a consultant, but she gets the sense that the local veterans don’t want her to dig deeply. Her father’s partner is a relative newbie, not part of the old boys’ network, and so she and he work together to try to solve the killings, but she is obstructed at every turn. Is there a cover-up taking place, and if so, is it because her father was culpable? First one thing and then another makes her wonder whether he might have killed them, and while she is at it, she also wonders if he had a hand in her own mother’s death many years ago, when she was quite small.

The thing that makes this story unique is the fact that the cop is investigating her own dead father. I also like the way the author deals with the mystery woman that her father’s will includes. I thought I saw how that thread was going to play out, and I was not even close to being right. I like Alger’s subtlety here.  I also like the medical examiner, who is female too.

The main challenge for me was as a listener. The reader that performed the audio version has a painfully wooden delivery and pronounces a couple of fairly common words differently from anyone else that I’ve heard, and each time she said them I was distracted away from the story line. The way Nell’s father’s old friend, Dorsey, is voiced sounds like a bad John Wayne imitation. So, should you read this book? If you enjoy crime fiction that’s character based, particularly with a female cop or detective, you could do worse. I wouldn’t pay full jacket price for it, though, and I don’t recommend the audio version.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Good Girl, Bad Girl, by Michael Robotham****

I had never read this author’s work before, but went looking for it after reading raves about it from online friends. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audiobook that helped catch me up when I found I’d fallen behind. This book is for sale.

Evie Cormac–whose real name is unknown–is a patient in a children’s psych ward. She was found emaciated and filthy at the scene of a violent crime; it’s believed she was kept hostage, though she won’t deny it or confirm, or talk to anyone about it. Cyrus Haven, a psychologist that looks to become a recurring series protagonist, has his own tragic past. When Evie applies for emancipation, Cyrus offers to bring her home as a foster child until she can live alone. Everyone tells him it’s a crazy thing to do.

Meanwhile, a very different girl has been murdered. Jodie Sheehan had a golden future; a championship figure skater, she was locally famous and appeared destined for great things. Instead she was found murdered not far from home. Who the heck would do such a thing? Jodie had no enemies. Police are baffled.

Throughout this tautly written novel I found myself waiting for big reveals. What connection can there be between Evie and Jodie? Who is Evie really?

The thing I admire about this story is the restraint Robotham shows. A more formulaic writer would twist things around and then hit us with all sorts of deep though wildly unlikely ties between the two cases. He doesn’t do that. I expected the big dramatic scene in which Evie spills everything; he doesn’t write that scene. I’ve probably read a few too many novels of mystery and suspense lately, and I was in the mood to roll my eyes. That eye-roll had to wait for a different book and author, because I believed most of this story, and Robotham had shown excellent taste in keeping the reveals minimal.

Here’s the one thing that makes my eyebrows twitch; it’s the same issue I sometimes have with Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware books, which I  like a lot. Psychologists don’t race around conducting independent investigations, confronting possible perpetrators, and interviewing people t hat don’t want to talk to them. And sure as hell, psychologists don’t wear bulletproof vests.

But those of us that like these stories agree to suspend disbelief given half an excuse, because a psychologist’s ordinary job—interviewing truculent teens in an office, perhaps, or making hospital rounds—is not nearly as much fun to read about as is a psychologist-as-detective protagonist.  There were a couple of times toward the end where I made little frowny notes in my copy, but for the most part I was on board. Robotham takes us deep inside Cyrus’s head, and the more I felt I knew the character, the more I was able to believe the narrative.

Should you read this book? Sure, why not? It held my attention quite nicely, including during my loathsome hours on my exercise bike.  I would happily read this author’s work again.  Recommended to those that enjoy the genre.