Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

The Lido, by Libby Page***-****

thelido3.5 stars rounded up. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review this charming debut. This book is for sale now.

Kate is a journalist, painfully shy, anxious, and lonely. Rosemary is an elderly widow. When the Lido—which I learned is an open air swimming pool—in Brixton is slated to close, Rosemary is up in arms. She isn’t usually an activist, but she has swum in this pool her entire life, and many of the most memorable events she has experienced took place there. She loves it still, and she cannot abide the fact that the lido is being sold to private developers who want to put up “swish new high rises.” Rumor has it that it won’t even remain a swimming pool; they may pave it over and put in tennis courts. Rich folks love tennis.

Kate smells a story, and she wants to interview Rosemary. Rosemary makes a counteroffer: she’ll do the interview only after Kate has swum at the Lido.

For Kate, this is traumatic. She isn’t crazy about her own body, and the thought of disrobing in front of others in a locker room nearly undoes her. But she swims, and she gets her interview. Over the course of the fight to save the lido, which Kate joins, she and Rosemary become good friends, and Kate’s own life blossoms. At the same time, there’s a bit of history here as we wander back in time with Rosemary to the war years when she met her husband, George.

The text has a soothing quality that you don’t see much of anymore. It’s not a page turner, and gets a bit slow in places, but sometimes a more sedate pace is what’s needed. I found it good bedtime reading, because it helped me unwind. My feminist heart is cheered by a story in which both main characters are female, and neither of them fits the tiny-but-fierce model that so many writers seem to favor. Kate is awkward. Rosemary is a fat old granny. Oh hell yes. Both are white women; there is a side character named Ahmed, but those looking for a truly diverse bit of fiction will have to look elsewhere.

Some readers are disturbed by blue language and sex scenes. Though the story isn’t entirely devoid of these, there’s very little of it.  The text is accessible to anyone with a high school education.

There are moments where the sweetness goes over the top. I gagged when the Brownie troop joined the protest to save the pool, and I wondered how Rosemary could have dozens of sweet memories of George and not even a single resentful or ambiguous one. But these are relatively small concerns.

For those looking for a feel good story, this book is recommended.

Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware****

thedeathofmrsw“How could one family, one person, have so much?”

Hal’s mother dies, leaving her nothing but a cheap rented apartment, a deck of tarot cards, and endless sorrow. She is perplexed but slightly hopeful then, when she receives a note from an attorney indicating she has inherited money; it’s got to be a mistake, but she sure can use it. Why not see where it leads?

My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

Ware writes in a classic style that’s been compared to Agatha Christie. The traditional elements are there: a menacing old house with a creepy housekeeper; a fortune, complete with competing would-be heirs; an ambiguous old photograph; sinister strangers; a nasty winter storm that prevents escape. In less capable hands it might feel generic, but Ware provides some clever twists that update the old-school model, making for an absorbing read.

My practical side inserts itself, and I find myself wondering—if she feels intimidated by the family, can’t she find an attorney to handle this mess for her at a distance, given what’s waiting at the back end of the transaction? And when she returns to the spooky old house with nothing resolved yet, her stomach in her boots, quivering, I want to say—in all that great manse, surely she can find a different bedroom, one without bars on the windows and locks on the outside of the door. Why be bullied by an 80-year-old housekeeper? Find a different room and claim it, for heaven’s sake. Clean it and put the sheets on yourself if it comes down to it.

But if Hal followed my advice, the story would be no fun at all, so it’s just as well she cannot hear me.

Ruth Ware writes like nobody else, and those that have read her work before know how addictive it is. The more pages I turned, the more I wanted to turn. Mystery lovers and Ware’s fans will want this book right away; turn on all the lights and lock the doors and windows before you dive in. Trust me!

This book is for sale now.

Robicheaux, by James Lee Burke*****

Robicheaux“You ever hear of the Bobbsey Twins from homicide?”

Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel are back. For those that have never read the work of James Lee Burke, it’s time; for those that have missed his two best-loved characters, this new release will be as welcome, as cool and refreshing as a Dr. Pepper with cherries and ice. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for this honest review.

Robicheaux is a Cajun cop from New Iberia, a small town an hour from New Orleans. Southern Louisiana, he tells us in his confidential narrative, has become “the Walmart of the drug culture.” He is under tremendous pressure; grieving the loss of his wife, Molly in an auto accident, he blacks out one drunken night, the same night that a murder occurs. Dave was in the area, and he cannot say he didn’t commit the murder, because he can’t recall anything. That’s why they call it a black out. His daughter Alafair returns from the Pacific Northwest to help her father pull himself together; she tells him he didn’t do it because murder is not in him. Clete says the same thing. But Dave is a haunted man, and he wonders what he is capable of.

To cap it all off, Dave has been assigned to investigate the rape of Lowena Broussard. The story doesn’t gel, and he wonders if it actually happened.

All of the fictional ingredients that make up Burke’s fictional gumbo are here: slick politicians, mobsters, thugs, and sociopaths. We also have people from Hollywood, whose casually entitled behavior and attitudes are anathema to Robicheaux and probably also to Burke. Alafair has been hired to write a screen play, and lascivious comments directed her way from those in charge of the film make Dave see red.

Clete figures prominently here; as longtime readers already know, Clete “would not only lay down his life for a friend, he would paint the walls with his friend’s enemies.” At one point a couple of thugs follow him into the men’s room at a local bar, and we fear they will kill him. Instead, “Maximo and Juju went to the hospital, and Clete went to the can.”

Burke has long been admired for the way he renders setting. A creative writing teacher could assign this book, because examples of how to render a place in a way that is original and immediate can be found by flipping to almost any page. But there’s more than that here. The dialogue crackles. The narrative is luminous at times, philosophical at others (are the Confederates the new Nazis?) and hilarious here and there as well. It’s enough to make ordinary writers sigh; I may write, and you may write, but neither of us will ever write like this.

There’s also plenty of fascinating Cajun culture here, and it’s so vastly different from anything I have known in my long life, most of it spent in the Pacific Northwest, that I find myself rereading passages. There’s a travelogue feel to parts of it that is unmatched anywhere else.

Lastly, I have to tell you that this story holds an extra element of suspense for me. These characters were originally crafted in the 1960s, and our author is growing old. I wonder as I read whether he intends to kill his heroes, one or both, in order to prevent future pretenders from usurping them. Every time I find Clete in danger, my heart nearly stops. I know that Dave has to make it all or most of the way through this book because it’s written in the first person, but Clete can go any damn minute.

Will Burke pull the plug?

Obviously I am not going to tell you anything more; the quotes you see above all occur early. But for those that can read work that is gritty and at times violent—I had to take little breaks now and then—there is no better fiction anywhere.

Note to the reader: there are some of Burke’s older books on YouTube in the form of audio books. Authorized? Unauthorized? Who knows, but for now at least, there they are.

Fidelity, by Jan Fedarcyk***-****

fidelityRetired FBI agent Jan Fedarcyk makes her debut with this intense spy novel, and it is bound to keep the reader guessing and turning pages deep into the night. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received for review purposes. I rate this story with 3.5 stars and round it upward.

The selling point for the new reader of what is destined to become the Kay Malloy series, is that the author has spent 25 years in the FBI and knows what she’s talking about. Though she reminds the reader that a lot of the FBI agent’s job is done at a desk sifting through endless forms to fill out and reports to write and not much of what we see on TV, we also know that she can spot an implausible situation a mile away and not go there or do that.

So the initial question that came to me was whether someone that’s worked for the Feds for a quarter century still has enough imagination left to write interesting fiction, and now I can tell you straight up that Fedarcyk does, and she can, and she did. I like the level of complexity, which is literate without being impossible to follow. The reader will want to give her story full attention; nobody can watch television and read this book during the ads. It’s well paced and the suspense is built in a masterful manner.

Characterization comes up a little short, and I can imagine that this will be her key focus in writing future books in the series. Kay is so darn perfect, and I never feel I know her deeply, despite the discussion of her past and how she is motivated by it. We see her tempted to use her position for a very small, somewhat justifiable personal reason briefly, but she is nonetheless something of a cardboard hero all the way through. Likewise, the Russian spies are big, blocky bad guys, thugs that drink Vodka. The spy novel tradition has been honored, but I would like to see more layers to these characters as we move forward. The ending, while it surprises me to some extent, is not one that the reader had a reasonable chance of guessing, but to some extent that’s true of a lot of espionage thrillers.  What might be really cool would be to see an espionage version of Kay’s own Moriarty come into play.

As is always the case for me when I read espionage thrillers, police procedurals, and other novels that involve heroic cops, I have to construct a mental barricade between what I see in real life and what I am willing to believe when I read fiction. One of Fedarcyk’s characters snorts in derision about the time when people were willing to die for Marxism, and I have news: some of us still would. But for a fun ride, I am delighted to suspend reality and buy the premise until the book is done.

One area where I struggled—and to be honest, I don’t know whether anyone else will or not—was with two characters, first Luis, whose last name isn’t used very much, and then Torres, whose first name doesn’t get used much either. This reviewer has taught more than one student named Luis Torres, so this may factor into my confusion about 75% of the way through the story when I realize that these have to be two separate people, but for awhile I am convinced that Uncle Luis Torres has mentored her into the field, and so when the story arc is near its peak, I have to go back and reread some of the novel to be certain I knew who is who. Luis is the uncle; Torres is the agent and mentor; they’re two separate guys.

All told, this is a promising start to what is sure to be an engaging series. The world needs to see more strong women in fiction, and so I welcome Kay Malloy and look forward to seeing future installments. A fine debut, and it’s for sale now.

The Passenger, by Lisa Lutz

thepassengerLisa Lutz is best known for her series, The Spellman Files, which I confess I have not read or watched on television. I came to this stand-alone story brand new, and can tell you that it’s fresh and original, a real kick in the pants. Thank you Simon and Schuster, and thank you too, Net Galley, for the DRC. I picked this thing up and then hardly put it down, but my review had to wait awhile in order to be within the courtesy-window of no more than three months from publication. And it gave me some time to think.

Here’s our premise: Tanya Pitts is a married woman until her husband, Frank, falls down the stairs and dies, and then she is a widow. We don’t know if he had a heart attack; if he tripped and hit his head or broke his neck; all we know is that Tanya is innocent of killing him. Yet instead of staying put, phoning 911, and sitting back to collect the life insurance and either keep the house or sell it, she chooses to run. Now why would she do such a thing?

Soon we learn a little more. The problem is that Tanya is not Tanya. She won’t stand up to a thorough vetting, which the police are likely to pursue as due diligence. Soon she becomes Amelia, but that’s not who she is either. We get tantalizing little bursts of memory and the occasional unwise-but-addictive e-mail sent to someone from her real life. As the story progresses, we get the sense that she must have done something pretty horrific in order to be so obsessively unknowable, so carefully, fastidiously disguised.

There were several times when I thought the protagonist did things that were stupid for a woman on the run, but we learn, over the course of time, just how young she really is. By the end of the story, her various dumb mistakes make total sense, because very young people, especially when tossed out into the breeze without much of a parachute, do make a lot of mistakes they won’t repeat when they are older and smarter.

While she is trying to bury herself as Amelia Keen, former-Tanya meets a barkeep who goes by “Blue”. Blue takes her in for awhile; it seems Blue has a secret or two of her own. This section absolutely crackles, and is reminiscent of Thelma and Louise for a time. When she is cornered by a terrifying man referred to as “The Accountant”, a guy with a gun, an equally nasty partner, and a cold hard gaze, Blue comes to the rescue and she wants answers in exchange.

“’You have a few enemies, don’t you?’
‘Guess so.’
‘Considering I just committed a double murder for you, I think an explanation is due.’

Blue gives her a new identity and sends her packing, and so Amelia-now-Debra is on her own again. The plotting is so taut in places that in one place, when she jerks her car back onto the switchback mountain road just before it goes over a cliff, my notes to myself simply say, “Shit!”

The quality of the novel is a trifle uneven, and this is why the fifth star, which looked like a slam-dunk for the first third of the story, is denied. But I loved the start, and I loved the ending. In fact, I loved almost all of it. There were some logistical glitches in the Wyoming portion of the story, in particular with regard to the private school where she passes herself off as a teacher for a time that makes a portion of the story just not work. It’s the writer’s misfortune, perhaps, to be reviewed by a teacher, but there are so many of us out here, and we sure do read.

That said, our protagonist has a tendency to shift her location quickly, and so before long, this problematic passage is in her rearview mirror, like just about everything else. And in no time, the author is back on rock-solid ground.

The ending left me with my jaw on the floor, and it will probably do the same for you. When this nifty psychological thriller hits the shelves March 1, you will want to have your copy already ordered. What a great way to forget the nasty chill of late winter.

Do it.