Lone Women, by Victor LaValle*****

“Queer folk, the Henrys.”

Adelaide Henry is “profoundly lonely,” growing up without siblings, with older parents that spurned the world around them. They had their reasons. And yet, in the opening chapter, as I see Adelaide pour kerosene over both of their lifeless forms and burn them, along with their house, I wonder…were they bad enough to deserve this?

But nothing is as it seems, and this is part of the magical spell that Victor LaValle weaves into this kickass novel, Lone Women. By the time I understand the why and the who and the what, I feel an intimate connection to Adelaide, as if I may be the only one trusted with her secrets.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This is one of the finest novels to be published in 2023, and you should get it and read it.

Adelaide flees the California farm where she’s lived all of her life, and buys a homestead in Montana. Almost everything about her life changes; from the warmth of California to the frigid winters of the Northern Rockies, from life with her parents to one lived alone, and from an all-Black community to one that is almost entirely Caucasian. She brings very little with her, only what she can carry, but she is curiously possessive of her extremely heavy trunk, and though I initially assume that she keeps something of great monetary value inside it, I soon realize that isn’t it. My early notes ask the same thing over and again: “What is in that trunk?”

From there, our story unfolds and I can’t stop turning the pages. I’ve never read a novel of any genre that’s like this one, and I’m guessing that you haven’t, either.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t read the synopsis. Go into it blind. It’s a lot more fun if you learn of the characters and events at the times the author intends.

There’s a powerful message in play, but the story is so adroitly delivered that it never feels like a polemic.

I won’t say more, because I don’t want to ruin it for you, but believe me, the next time LaValle publishes a novel, I will be first in line to read it. Highly recommended, especially to feminists.

Hang the Moon, by Jeanette Walls*****

Jeanette Walls is the author of outstanding memoirs, most notably The Glass Castle. Her new novel, Hang the Moon, is brilliant, and you should read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Sallie Kinkaid is born and raised near the turn of the twentieth century in a tiny backwater in Virginia, daughter of its wealthy scion, “Duke” Kinkaid.  Her mother has died, and Duke has remarried, and now Sallie has a younger half-brother, Eddie. Sallie is a daredevil, given to occasional recklessness, whereas Eddie has a gentler, more introverted nature, with a love of learning and music. But one day, hoping to awaken some more adventurous aspect of his personality, Sallie takes Eddie out for a ride in her cart, and he is injured. Just like that, Sallie no longer lives with her father; she is cast out to live with an impoverished aunt, and there she remains for nearly a decade.

Sallie is a young woman when she returns, and now she must navigate the shoals of local politics, keeping clear of Duke’s sometimes unpredictable temper.  Duke owns nearly every property in the county, and he is deft at doling out favors and keeping the local peace, always in a way that works to his own advantage. Sallie has a hundred questions, some longstanding, and others that develop as she works for her father. However, questions are discouraged in the Kinkaid home. An aunt tells her, “Honey, there are some rocks you don’t want to look under.”

When the local economy is shaken by the unthinkable, Sallie must make some hard choices as she comes into her own. Moonshine has long been an unofficial, yet pivotal way that the local working class makes its living, and when feuds erupt and the government attempts to intervene, Sallie must choose sides. As she comes into her own, she discovers some hard truths about the family she thought she knew. Walls is at her best here, with a strong, resonant setting, a clear, credible plot, and unforgettable characters. This is the sort of book that one comes back to. Highly recommended.

The Magic Kingdom, by Russell Banks*****

Some writers may fade as their bodies begin to fail them, publishing books that aren’t quite up to their usual standards; Russell Banks, on the other hand, seems to have saved one of his best for last. The Magic Kingdom tells the epic tale of Harley Mann, a boy that spends most of his boyhood on a Shaker plantation in Florida, and then becomes a real estate mogul later in life. My thanks go to Net Galley and Knopf Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Harley’s father dies when he is young, and his mother is forced to take him and his many siblings elsewhere. At first, they land in a religious cult on a plantation that works them like slaves; then Elder John, the head of a Shaker Colony in Florida, rescues them. Harley’s mother and most of his siblings become Shakers and remain with the colony until its eventual demise, but Harley has his doubts.

Nobody can craft character the way that Banks has, and he has melded a fascinating setting, one which begins over a hundred years in the past and follows Mann into his dotage in 1971, and which also incorporates a fair amount of Florida geography and history. Most of the story centers around Harley’s deep and abiding love with Sadie Pratt, a young woman being treated for tuberculosis in a nearby sanitarium. Sadie is not a Shaker, but is friend to them, and visits often when her health permits; Harley, just coming of age, falls for her hard. There’s a good deal of tension between Harley and Elder John, who despite all of his adherence to Shaker beliefs and practices on the surface, is also privately building himself a personal stake that only Harley knows about. By the time the book is over, I find myself wondering whether Harley’s character represents a real historical figure. No indeed; this is just the kind of magic that one finds in Banks’s novels, his capacity to build characters so real that they are nearly corporal.

The little shots off the bow that are fired at the Disney Corporation—by Harley, of course, and his representative after his demise, not by Banks—add a tinge of edgy amusement.

Because I had fallen a bit behind, I procured the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the narrator does a fine job, and it’s as easy to get lost in this story listening to it as it is reading it from the text; I did some of each.

This novel is brilliant, and all that love excellent literary fiction or historical fiction should get it and read it.

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter***-****

3.5 stars rounded upwards. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Eliza has always been close to her father, a man that runs a fleet of pearling vessels. Her mother is gone, so it’s only Eliza, her father, and her brother. Then one day, the fleet comes back, but her father isn’t with it. He’s gone missing! Did he fall overboard? No, not that anybody saw, but if he isn’t on the ships, it seems the logical explanation.

For a variety of reasons, Eliza doesn’t believe it. She is determined to find him herself; yet to do so, she must go places and do things that are absolutely unacceptable for a woman in Western Australia in 1886. Fortunately—and conveniently—a young German man wants to go these same places, and he accompanies her. From there, things proceed in about the way you might expect.

Other reviewers that came before me say that this story is beautifully written, but terribly sad. I steel myself, but though the story is melancholy in places, I don’t find it depressing. However, I am also less impressed than I anticipated.

The good: I love the setting, and the setting plays a large role in this tale. Australian pearl divers! I have never read anything like this before, and I learn some things. I have never thought before about how the pearls that jewelers sell are collected. Though I would imagine that the process has changed over the past 150 years, it is still interesting to me. Along the same lines, I appreciate the amount of detail in the author’s notes.

On the other hand, the character development is underwhelming. Neither Eliza nor Axel is much different at the ending of the story than at the start. Eliza is a bit wiser, and she has learned things about her father and brother that had been kept from her before, but I can’t call hers a dynamic character; Axel is even less so. The same applies to the quality of the writing. It isn’t bad, but after the buildup, I expected it to be better than this. But the worst thing is a plot twist, right within the climax, that is jaw-droppingly improbable. My mother used to warn me that if I roll my eyes up into my head, they may stay there, so I am grateful to have emerged from this novel with my vision intact. Ohhh, brother.

So for a bit I consider that this is a three star read, but the resolution involving Eliza and Axel is very nicely done, and it wins me back enough to round it up to four. I recommend this book to those interested in the setting.

When the Moon Turns Blue, by Pamela Terry*****

Once in a while the odd thing happens,

Once in a while the dream comes true,

And the whole pattern of life is altered,

Once in a while the moon turns blue.

The tiny Georgia hamlet of Wesleyan is preparing to bury one of its own, and Mother Nature is preparing to cover the entire town in ice. But nobody—well, almost nobody—knows that a source of local tension is about to go nuclear, as someone is planning to topple and destroy the statue of a Confederate general in the park inside the boundaries of Old Man Griffin’s land. “The fight was just getting going good, and now somebody’s declawed the cat.”

This riveting, curiously charming and sometimes hilarious novel is the second by Pamela Terry, whose outstanding debut novel was The Sweet Taste of Muscadines. This one may be even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

With the death of Harry Cline, we find ourselves at his funeral, a massively attended affair. But his wife, Marietta, develops a disabling, blinding migraine, and although they have been on the outs for years, Butter, her (former) best friend, comes to the rescue. By the time they’ve snuck out the side door of the church, we already know at least a little about both women, and now we want to know everything.

With just two novels published, Terry has already proven herself to be among the best authors when it comes to character development. Soon we’ll meet others—Marietta’s obnoxious brother, Macon and his beleaguered wife Glinda, who will have a large part in this story and is one of my favorite characters, as well as a host of others, who have smaller roles but are each so unmistakably established that it’s no work at all to keep track of them. But perhaps her finest achievement here is in creating a masterpiece that is ultimately a feel good book, despite the use of a red hot real world controversy within its pages.

I generally read several books at a time, and this one is the one that I saved for bedtime, because I wanted to be able to read it uninterrupted, and it is the one I wanted in my head when dreams came. It didn’t let me down.

This inspirational work of Southern fiction stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest classics, To Kill a Mockingbird and Fried Green Tomatoes. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stephenson****

When life gets you down, it’s time to kick back and relax with a nice little book about multiple murders. Benjamin Stevenson’s nifty little mystery is just the ticket. This book is for sale now.

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

Once in a while, a novelist will disarm his audience by speaking to them directly; this is known as breaking the fourth wall. Stevenson doesn’t just chip a corner of plaster; he comes in with a wrecking ball, because that’s just the kind of writer he is. The product is as funny as the title. Each chapter is devoted to a family member, and some of them get more than one.

The premise is this: narrator Ernest Cunningham is invited to a family reunion at an out of the way mountain lodge, a ski resort in the dead of winter. The event is timed to coincide with Ernest’s brother, Michael’s, release from prison, where he was sent for…well. You know. And as is true with all families, there’s all kinds of baggage, both literal and figurative; there are grudges, guilt, and oh yes, secrets. So many secrets!

The first body turns up in less than twenty-four hours. Is there a mass murderer at large, perhaps the one in the news dubbed “The Black Tongue?” If so, is s/he a Cunningham?

The whole story is told in a jocular, familiar tone, explaining to the reader what the rules are when writing a murder mystery. He assures us that he is a thoroughly reliable narrator, which immediately makes us wonder, because if so, why bring it up? Most narrators are reliable. So…?

I enjoy reading this thing, and am impressed at how well the author juggles a sizeable collection of characters. It doesn’t take me long to straighten out who everyone is, and this may be because we are apprised of who is annoyed with whom over what, fairly quickly. When he brings in reasons why certain people avoid each other, it helps me recall who they are.

There are two things I would change if I could. The book would be even funnier if he cut back on the side remarks to the reader long enough to let us forget he’s doing it; then, when it surfaced again, it would get more laughs. I note that toward the end, he tells us—in another side reference—that his editor has suggested he pare back some of the chatty parts, and that he isn’t going to do it. That makes me laugh too, because I have been harboring the same notion.

The other thing that I’d change is a detail that distracts me. The author refers early on, and then another time later, to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, but he never tells us what it is; possibly the detail that distracts me is the thing he refers to. Early on in the story—so probably not a spoiler—Ernest is badly injured, to the point where one of his hands isn’t usable. Yet throughout the story, when he could go to a hospital, he doesn’t do so, and he doesn’t even address the possibility. People come; people go. Yet there’s Ernest, with an oven mitt stuck over one hand to protect it, and nobody suggests he hop into town and have it looked at. Toward the end of the story there’s a general reference to the Cunningham stubbornness preventing family members from leaving the reunion, but it doesn’t hold water with me.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book. While I was reading it, I was reading several others, but this one became the go-to at lunchtime and whenever I had a spare minute, and so I recommend this book to those looking for a light, amusing read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Is Not the Time to Panic! by Kevin Wilson****-*****

Now is Not the Time to Panic is, according to its author, Kevin Wilson, “a book about friendship, about memory, and about what it means to hold on to the person who we were, even as we become someone else. It’s about the ways in which art is the door that lets us walk into a new life, one that never seemed possible.”

Frankie is kind of a quirky kid, friendless and grieving her parents’ divorce and her father’s abandonment of his kids. She has nothing but time this summer, and so when Zeke, an even quirkier new kid, moves into the tiny town of Coalfield, Tennessee, the two are drawn together.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Ecco Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Frankie invites Zeke over one day; her dad has flown the coop, and her mom is at work, so in order to make it clear that she hasn’t invited him over for carnal purposes, Frankie talks to him about her love of writing. Zeke says that he likes to draw, and so together, they make a poster. The words are Frankie’s, and they are indeed well written for a kid of sixteen years: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Zeke fills in the rest of the page with his artwork, and for good measure, they prick their fingers and comingle their blood on the poster. Then they dig out an old photocopy machine in Frankie’s garage, and make copies with which to furtively festoon the whole town. (After all, Coalfield isn’t a big place.) They don’t tell anyone it’s theirs, and enjoy the reactions to their guerilla art as sly observers.

The two teens share a lot in common. Both are outsiders; both are creatives; and both are living through the implosions of their families, with fathers that cheat and then leave, and mothers that are beside themselves with anger and shame.

Once the posters become noticed around town, rumors begin, and then copycats come along and make improvements, sometimes. There’s a hysterical piece in the local paper suggesting that their work is Satanic. Frankie and Zeke don’t say one word to anyone. They watch and they listen; they talk about it only with each other.

The crafting of these two characters, and their relationship, is well done, and I ache for both of these kids. The only time I see character slip is with regard to Frankie’s attitude toward sex. Her dispassionate take on it—she isn’t sure she really wants to, but maybe she should just do it and get it over with? Is not a mindset I’ve ever seen in a teenage girl, and believe me, I’ve known plenty of quirky ones. No, that’s a male attitude, and I suspect that Wilson would do better to use male protagonists, or else run his female ones by several very honest females in his chosen field, prior to publication.

As the summer goes on, I keep expecting the two to launch another joint project, but they don’t. She does some writing, and he draws, but there is no sequel, no follow-up. The poster is the poster. Shantytown, gold seekers, fugitives, hunger. Boom. That’s it. But years into the future, Frankie is still putting these damn things up. The heck…? I believe this of her; she is one strange person. Zeke’s mental health deteriorates that summer, and where that goes is completely credible. Those that work in the field will recognize Zeke, who is by far the better drawn of the two main characters.

This fascinating novel can be enjoyed by young adult audiences, because both of the protagonists are teenagers; however, this is also fiction that can be enjoyed by anybody. If you don’t read YA—and the truth is, I don’t, not anymore—you can still appreciate this one, and I recommend it to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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.