The Split, by Sharon Bolton****

My first book by this author was The Craftsman, which came out in the fall of 2018. That story blew me away, and after that I made it a point to watch for new books by Bolton. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title is a double entendre: our protagonist, Felicity, is avoiding someone, and she is certain he’s found her. Since her field is glaciology, she decides to travel to Antarctica with an expedition. He’ll never find her there, and even if he should, he’d be at a distinct disadvantage to her. Those are her stomping grounds. Thus, she is about to split.

The catch, however, is that her superiors are uncertain she is mentally stable enough for this journey. She keeps missing time; there are whole blocks, an hour, an afternoon, a weekend, when she doesn’t recall where she was or what she is doing. She finds evidence that she has done things she does not remember doing. As we perch in her psychologist’s office, veritable flies on the wall observing her therapy sessions, it soon becomes clear what the issue is, or at least it did to me; and thus, the second meaning of the title.

One of the things I appreciate about this story is that there is no coy effort on Bolton’s part to deflect the reader’s awareness of what ails Felicity. I would have liked at some point to see or hear the correct name used; Felicity has a dissociative disorder. But this is a small quibble.

What I appreciate the very most is that Bolton doesn’t sensationalize this disorder, but sticks closely to the truth. Why not? The real thing is dramatic enough all by itself to keep our interest. And when I realized where we were headed with this I regretted, if just for a brief while, having signed on, because this topic cuts close to the bone for me. I have a close family member with this disorder, and hearing the voices of people that were, and yet were not, my relative’s voice is one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. After a few weeks of it, I had to pull back and ask to only be phoned by the dominant person in my relative’s body, the one that I, like the rest of the family, was acquainted with. And so, once I decided to continue reading this book, I listened closely for inaccuracies in its telling, using my relative as a baseline (a sample size of one, which I’ll admit is sketchy,) and I found none. Most readers won’t have this experience for comparison.

Although the mental condition is revealed, bit by bit, fairly early in the story, there are still surprises aplenty, particularly with regard to the stalker. The climax is a bit farfetched, but nevertheless this is a solid job, and Bolton gets big props from me for dealing with a difficult premise accurately and fairly.

I flipped back and forth between the printed review copy and the audio version I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons. Both versions are well done and easy to follow, so you can’t go wrong. Recommended to those that love a good psychological thriller, and that have no triggers that might conflict with your enjoyment.

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.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib*****

Anna isn’t eating, and she’s so weak that she faints from time to time. Her husband, Matthias is afraid for her; this isn’t the life they envisioned when they moved from France to the States. She is admitted to a facility for women with eating disorders, and it is that address that gives the book its title. Big thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my feedback.

I never would have expected to want to read a novel about an anorexic protagonist. In real life, Anna would have offered me her fries and her dessert, and I would have cheerfully accepted them. She in turn would inwardly shudder, my stocky grandma body providing her with a cautionary example of what happens to those that eat such things.

When I was a sweet young thing growing up in the 1970s, there were rumors that some of the girls at school kept their figures slender by throwing up after they’d eaten; a friend and I commiserated over our own lack of self-discipline. We had scarfed down our Halloween candy and not even considered ralphing it back up in the bathroom. Now we could barely fasten our jeans, while those classmates were smaller than we were.

We thought that some girls have all the luck.

It wasn’t until the death of singer Karen Carpenter that anorexia became well known, and even then, it took us awhile to clue in on the details. Because it’s about body image, and yet it isn’t. And Zgheib does a wonderful job of educating the reader using that approachable medium, fiction.

In Paris, Anna was a dancer. When she and Matthias married, she planned to go on dancing professionally, at least until they had children. But when he was presented with a prestigious promotion that required him to relocate to the United States, they packed their things; Anna had expected to continue her career in America, but she was never chosen.

The in-patient facility where she is treated has strict, clear rules about every aspect of daily life, and most of the privileges hinge around timely consumption of the food that’s provided. Anna’s struggle is profound, and her story is moving. Because it’s about food, but not really. She has buried a trauma involving the deaths of her brother and her mother, and she’s channeled her self-hatred into this eating disorder. We catch glimpses of this as she expertly dodges questions raised in therapy. One of the most moving moments, strangely, has to do with a bagel and cream cheese. She’s supposed to eat it, and she throws a pluperfect hissy. She never eats dairy, she says. She wants the vegan option! No dice, honey. But as time moves forward and this difficulty continues, she finally reveals that actually, this might have once been her favorite food. It was so delicious, and it took her such iron self-control to forget its taste. All that work, she thinks, and now it’s ruined. And she is genuinely shattered by this.

Only one sufferer in three recovers from anorexia.

Due to a backlog of galleys, I checked out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the voice actor that reads it is perfect.

Highly recommended.

You Are Not Alone, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen****

I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

Shay Miller has watched a woman die, and now life will never be the same. She is alone in the big city, barely getting by like so many working class women. She is in love with her roommate but doesn’t rock the boat by propositioning him; she has no friends or family nearby. Then one terrible day, she is waiting for her subway when a sinister looking man turns in her direction. Imagine how glad she is to see Amanda, a normal-looking woman who’s also headed her way. But instead of providing the security Shay is hoping for, Amanda jumps onto the tracks in front of a moving train.

It happens so quickly!

Shay is the sort of person that relies on information to deal with stress. She has a little notebook, what she calls her “Data Book,” filled with all sorts of oddball statistics that she quotes from at the start of each chapter and throughout the novel. (Frankly, I could have lived without this feature, which began to feel like filler at times.) She deals with the stress of having witnessed a suicide by finding out every single detail she can about the late Amanda.

And this part is the hardest aspect for me to buy into. She’s haunted by what she saw; okay. Amanda looked a lot like Shay, which made her more fascinating to our protagonist. Fine. But the obsessive way she pursues information—even once she finds she has the dead woman’s necklace, which she had forgotten momentarily—doesn’t jibe with me. She goes to her apartment, visits the woman’s mom…huh. Go figure.

Now, once I quit rolling my eyes and allowed myself to buy this premise, things flowed a lot more smoothly. Cassandra and Jane, friends of Amanda’s, hold a memorial service for her, and it is by attending this event that Shay comes to know these two sisters. They are kind, they are solicitous, and they are caring. Before Shay knows it, they are her new best friends, and because she herself is a good person—if a little odd—it doesn’t occur to her that their motives might not be as benevolent as they pretend to be. They are the spiders, and she is the fly.

Here’s the thing I like best about this story. Shay’s character has to be rock solid for it to work, and once we get past the stupid parts at the beginning, it is. I half expected her to be dumb as a box of rocks all the way through, but not so much. The way she is developed, neither too unrealistically savvy nor ultra-naïve, is admirable. There’s a thin path through the middle between these two extremes, and I wondered if she would be the dithering idiot that has to be saved by someone smarter, but that’s not how it shakes out. There are a couple of loose threads that are left dangling, but it’s the way Shay’s character is crafted that wins the day.

Those that enjoyed this authorial pair’s other books will like this one too; those in search of a good beach read or a fun weekend book should consider this one. All told, big fun, and delightfully original.

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves***-****

This mystery opens a brand new series by Ann Cleeves. I haven’t read this author before, but when Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and review, I hopped on board. This book is for sale now.

Detective Matthew Venn is called upon to investigate the murder of a man found on the beach. His queries force him to return to the strict evangelical Christian community in which he was raised. The Brethren cast him out because he is gay, and so returning in a professional capacity brings back all sorts of memories and feelings.

The last person to see the victim prior to his death may have been 30-year-old Lucy, a woman with Downs Syndrome. This character is engaging as is her adoring father. Lucy rode the bus to The Woodshop each day with this man, and this produces some consternation when her father learns of it. As a mother, I can appreciate his concern.

This is a solidly constructed mystery fashioned by a pro, and yet for some reason I had difficulty engaging with the protagonist. I’m rounding my rating up to 4 stars because I have a hunch that if I had read the printed galley provided me, I might have understood it better and therefore might have found it more interesting. I fell behind in my reading and reviewing over the summer and obtained audio books of a few titles whose publication dates had passed, figuring to catch up. It took me a long time to figure out that The Woodyard was actually not a lumberyard or hardware store, and so some of the plot left me scratching my head. If I’d read with my eyes instead of my ears, I might have caught on sooner. Once I figured out all the pieces, I could follow what was happening and recognized the red herrings as they passed by. The ending was reasonable and the whodunit surprised me.

This is a decent work of crime fiction and I recommend it to the author’s faithful readers.

What Rose Forgot, by Nevada Barr****-******

Nevada Barr’s newest stand-alone mystery is a humdinger. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now, and you should read it.

Rose Dennis wakes up ragged and half naked in the bushes. Sturdy staff members close in on her and drag her back to the secure wing of the Alzheimer’s unit.  She overhears an administrator in the hallway opine that she’s unlikely to last a week, and she knows she has to get out of there. But proving she’s not suffering from dementia is a tall order, and saving herself calls for desperate measures.

Barr’s wit and sass are at their best here, and the pacing picks up at ten percent and never flags. Rose and her thirteen year old granddaughter Mel are well crafted characters. Although I appreciate Rose’s moxie and self reliance, Mel is the character that impresses me most. I spent decades teaching children of about this age, and so I am overjoyed to find a writer that can craft a believable seventh grader. For Mel to do the things she does, she has to be gifted—as Barr depicts her—and again, this character is right on the money, clever without losing the developmental hallmarks of adolescence. The dialogue is resonant and I love the moment when Rose borrows Mel’s cell phone for most of a day. The suffering Mel tolerates for her beloved grandmother is priceless.

But now let’s go back to Rose, and to her situation. A lot of Barr’s readers are Boomers; I am perched on the margin, retired but not yet drawing Social Security.  Looking through Rose’s eyes at the way senior citizens are treated gives me the heebie-jeebies.  As a younger woman I had regarded assisted living facilities as a sensible approach to aging; my mother lived the last few years of her life in one, and I have often joked to my children, whenever I have done them a favor, to “remember this moment when you choose my nursing home.” But after reading this novel, I am not going into one. Not ever.

Now of course most places aren’t complicit in murder for profit schemes, but there is so much here that is completely believable.  Nursing assistants talk to the patients as if they are toddlers. “Diapers are our friend.” Rose is planted in a day room in front of a picture of Sponge Bob and a handful of crayons.  Do we really believe such patronizing behaviors aren’t present in real-life nursing homes? It makes my skin crawl. And the pills that render senior citizens passive and helpless: “Her brain floats in a chemical soup concocted by evil toddlers in a devil’s pharmacy.” And this place has a two year waiting list!

Rose isn’t going gently, and before we know it, she’s on the loose. Now and then the things that she does in her own self-defense make me arch an eyebrow, but the fact is that people age very differently from one another. Some are still kicking butt and taking names when they’re eighty; others pick up the knitting needles and head for the rocker at sixty. And more to the point, what Rose does makes me want to cheer, and so I choose to believe.

My only quibble here is with the way Barr depicts large women. She’s done it for decades; I wrote to her about it once, and her response was that these negative notions weren’t her own thoughts but those of Anna Pigeon. Well folks, here we are with Rose Dennis, and the Nurse Ratchet character here is—oh of course—huge. I would love to see Barr feature a plus size character, oh just once, that is a good person. Please let’s lose the stereotype; other authors have managed it, and Barr should too.

Should that hold you back from buying and reading this book? It should not. I laughed out loud more than once, and the subtext is powerful.  I recommend it for Barr’s many readers, and for all feminists at or near Boomer-age.

When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

An Anonymous Girl, by Hendricks and Pekkanen*****

Come into my lair, said the spider to the fly.

Jessica Farris is under a lot of stress, and she has a head full of secrets that she is afraid could bury her. It’s a lot to carry around, especially at such a tender age. She’s constantly worried about money, and so when she sees an opportunity to make easy money by taking a psychological survey, she leaps on it. And at first, it seems too good to be true.

I was invited to read and review this hair-on-fire novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

The study involves morally ambiguous questions.  When is it acceptable to lie? When is it acceptable to know something that’s important to someone you care about, yet choose not to share that knowledge? At the outset, the study appears to be scholarly and philosophical. And when Dr. Shields, the study’s author, invites Jessica to participate in field work for additional compensation, she can’t believe her good luck.  But from there, things escalate, and before she knows it, Jessica is perched on the edge of the inferno, and Dr. Shields is inching up behind her with outstretched fingertips.

Just at the moment that I grow impatient with Jessica’s helplessness and naiveté, she clues in and tries to work out a game plan, but it’s an unfair contest, because Dr. Shields has so much more money and knowledge. It’s like watching a heavyweight and a Bantam weight in the ring together; all that the smaller, less powerful contender has on her side is agility.

The story is told using alternating narratives, primarily between Dr. Shields and Jessica with occasional input from Thomas, Dr. Shields’s husband.  The chapters are quick ones, and the pacing is accelerated to where I sometimes forgot to breathe.  Every time I think I see where the authors are headed, it turns out to be a red herring, and yet there are no gimmicks or unfair tricks used to deceive the reader. It’s all right there.

Highly recommended.

The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman*****

Sometimes I feel sorry for writers that hit it big the first time they publish a novel, because then the expectations are raised for everything they write thereafter, and so I wondered whether Loigman, the author of A Two Family House, would be able to match the standard she has set for herself. I needn’t have worried, because if anything, The Wartime Sisters is even more absorbing. I was invited to read and review, and my thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This excellent novel will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The setting is an armory not far from where the author grew up, one that was an important manufacturing site during World War II. The characters are what drive the story, but Loigman’s intimate understanding of the period’s social mores and the economic impact the war had on women on the home front make it far more resonant. Rather than rely on pop-cultural references to set the tone, she conveys unmistakably what American women were expected to do—and to never do–in this unusual yet unliberated time period.

Ruth and Millie are sisters, and yet in some ways they don’t really know each other. Each has built up a personal narrative full of grievances and assumptions about the other over the course of their lives; they are estranged, with Millie back home in Brooklyn and Ruth in Springfield, Massachusetts. Both are married, and both of their husbands have decided to enlist, but otherwise their circumstances are vastly different. Ruth has married well, but when Millie’s husband Lenny is gone and their parents are dead, she has no one to turn to. She has a small child to consider, and during this time period it was unusual for a mother to leave a young child in the care of others. Men worked; women stayed home. And so although she dreads doing it, Millie writes to her older sister Ruth; Ruth doesn’t want to take Millie in, but she does.

Both sisters carry a lot of guilt, and each is holding onto a terrible secret.

The story alternates time periods and points of view, and the reader will want to pay close attention to the chapter headings, which tell us not only which woman’s perspective is featured, but also what year it is. At the outset we have the present time alternating with their childhoods, and gradually the two time periods are brought together.

 In addition, we see the viewpoints of two other women that are introduced later in the story. One is Lillian, the wife of a commanding officer; she befriends Ruth and later, Millie. The second is Arietta, the cook that feeds the armory personnel and also sings for them. Although these women’s backgrounds are provided as separate narratives, their main role is to provide the reader with an objective view of Ruth and Millie.

I generally have several books going at a time, but I paused my other reading for this one, because I felt a personal obligation to Ruth and to Millie. Family is family, and while I read this story, they were my sisters. You can’t just walk away.

Loigman joins women’s fiction and World War II historical fiction masterfully, and if this work reminds me of any other writer, it would be the great Marge Piercy. This book is highly recommended to those that cherish excellent writing.

Best Mystery of 2018

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TheCraftsman