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

The Tango War, by Mary Jo McConahay****

TheTangoWarI read my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This book is for sale now.

This meaty little nugget is one of a kind. I had sworn off World War II, both fictional and historical, because so much information gets repeated; you can only read so much about the most visceral parts of this conflict before your worldview darkens. I am out of the classroom and had promised myself a chance to stop and smell the roses in my retirement years. But then there’s this.

Firstly, there’s nothing about the Holocaust to speak of here. That was a draw card, because I am done with that most searing of horrors for awhile. Instead, she writes about Latin America during the war—and I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about any of this. I was aware that there were some nations down there that are reputed to have flirted with the fascists, and even then, I wasn’t sure it that was the truth or a myth.

The book is broken down, not by relevant Latin American countries, but by subtopics, and this is both more analytical and more interesting than if she’d done it the obvious way. Who knew that there was a model city established inside of the Amazon in an effort to rope more employees—well, slaves—into harvesting rubber for the war? Who knew that vast amounts of South American petroleum ran the trucks and tanks that rolled over Europe? Perhaps most appallingly—who knew that Japanese expatriates and their families, born and raised in Peru and other locations in Latin America,  were kidnapped in a down-low deal between the US and the governments of the affected nations so that the US could intern them, then use them for prisoner swaps?

There are enough weird-but-true facts here to cross your eyes, and the author has her documentation at the ready.  A fifth star is denied because of what isn’t here; why portray United Fruit as upstanding patriots? Many of us know this corporation was a sinister entity with its roots tangled deeply in the CIA. Lots of Guatemalans have plenty to say about United Fruit.  More directly related here is the brief, friendly reference to Disney as a WWII patriot, and yet many of us know how warmly Uncle Walt regarded Hitler: the catch-phrase “Mauschwitz” says it all.  Partial truths make me wonder what else I am missing as I read this.

With that one caveat, this book is recommended to you. The citations are thorough and the text is written free of technical terms that might hamper a wide readership.  Read it critically, but do read it.

The Craftsman, by Sharon Bolton****-*****

TheCraftsman“One night…what’s the worst that can happen?”

4.5 rounded up. I am late to the party where this author is concerned; a literature chat session directed me toward this galley, and now I am sure to read Bolton’s work again. My thanks go St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, October 16, 2018.

Is it a thriller, or is it a horror story? Bolton successfully rides the center here, and there’s a good case to be made in either direction. Our protagonist, Florence Lovelady, is a high ranking cop in the UK. Her career was made when she identified a serial killer and was instrumental in his arrest; now he is dead, and she returns to the small town where he nearly made her one of his victims 30 years ago. The plan is to attend the service with her 15-year-old son in tow, and then spend the night or two in a hotel, where her spouse will join them.

Things don’t go according to plan.

The plot is cunningly constructed, beginning with one of the creepiest fictional funerals in literature. The foreshadowing will give even the most cynical reader a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. As for me, I know my limitations, and as soon as I saw how things are in this one, I decided it could not be the last thing I read before falling asleep at night. Ever.

The interesting thing here—and what keeps this story from actually becoming too horrible to be any fun—is that we know, at the outset, how this case, which takes place in 1969, comes out. We are told in a smooth first person narrative what the broad contours of the case are. We know what the crime was; what happened to Florence while she investigated it; who did it; and that he was caught and convicted. There now.

So as we look back to the teenager that was kidnapped, then buried alive, I confess my eyes skipped over some of the explicit horror, but really the description isn’t a lengthy one, and after all, we know that the guy was apprehended. We see the numerous humiliations to which Detective Lovelady is subjected, in the day when female cops are scarce on the ground and expected to run along and make the tea for their colleagues and to comfort the crying women; I love the scene in which she is told she’s being (punitively) put on a desk to type up reports, and it turns out that she doesn’t know how to type. Ha. But then again, we also know that her career is a successful one, that she has weathered these miseries and now outranks most of the men that treated her badly.
But there are surprises in store too, as new developments surface while she’s there in town. One thing after another unravels till we are on the edge of our seats—and this time we don’t know how it will all shake out.

At about the eighty percent mark, a plot element that I won’t identify comes into play that makes me stop cold for a moment and roll my eyes. Oh please. Not this thing. Every steadfast reader of the genre has a mental list of overused devices they hope never to read again, and after doing so well at avoiding them all, Bolton lets a big, beefy one loose, and just as things are on a roll, too. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it took the wind out of my sails for a moment. However, after a brief visit to the literary corn-and-cheese factory, she comes out on top again, and the ending is deeply satisfying.

The story features witches—yes, real ones! As well as shadowy, mostly unnamed stonemasons, and Dwane, who is by far the best-written sexton in a thriller or mystery anywhere.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy a creepy murder story with supernatural elements.

So Close to Being the Sh*t Y’all Don’t Even Know, by Retta**

SoClosetobeingtheshHuh. Go figure.

Although I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, the television show for which this comedic actor has become famous, I thought I would enjoy her memoir. For one thing, she’s a big woman, and I love it when well-padded women have the courage to go on stage for a purpose other than disparaging themselves. At least one reviewer on Goodreads hadn’t watched her program, yet loved this book. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC; I want to like this book too, but I don’t.

Retta is the child of Liberian immigrants who sacrificed a great deal so that she could receive a stellar education. They had no clue that life would lead her to show business instead of medical school. She began her career by doing stand-up routines, and so I went to YouTube and watched a clip from Comedy Central, and I thought it was pretty good. But much of the humor she uses is in the delivery. Without the pauses, without the facial expressions and other body language, things that cannot be conveyed in writing, that routine comes out flat. I watched her perform her signature line, and whereas I didn’t feel the magic, I suspect context would improve it.

If the memoir were simply a little dull, I could likely go with a third star here, but there are aspects that I found abrasive. I don’t need to know all about the many thousands of dollars apiece that go into her handbag collection, and I wonder why anyone would find that kind of self-indulgence amusing. How many good causes could use that money? I don’t need all the details of what she does on the toilet; ew. And why insert a chapter complaining about the gifts she has received from others? Was she raised to be so ungracious? So much of the collection includes her great love for booze that I found myself wanting to hire a skywriter to fly over Southern California to say, GET HELP.

On the other hand, I’m a member of the Boomer generation. I suspect that a lot of Retta’s fan base is younger than I am. So if you already a big fan, you may like this book, but unless your pockets are deep—not deep enough for fifteen thousand dollar purses, but deep—I suggest waiting until you can get It free or cheap. Others may want to read something else. 

Gods of Howl Mountain*****

GodsofHowl“Christ’s father let him die on that cross,” she said. “I understand why he done it.” She leaned closer, whispering, “But Christ never had no granny like me.”

Rory Docherty has come home from overseas “with war in his blood”; he’s come home to the mountains of North Carolina, and home to Granny May, the local herbalist—some also say she’s the local witch. His mother Bonni is in a mental institution, which was even a worse place to have to go in the 1950s than it is now.  Rory doesn’t know for sure what broke her, because she hasn’t said one word in the years between then and now; Granny May knows, and withholds this powerful secret for reasons of her own. The life of the Docherty family is seldom easy, having Bonni erased from their midst has hit them hardest of all.

I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I’m not permitted to share my galley with anyone else, but I can do this: I can read it as many times as I damn want to. And although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that, out of the five or six hundred free novels that I’ve received in the last few years, I’ll do it with this one.

But back to Rory, to Granny May, and to Eustace, the wily, ruthless old bootlegger that owns Howl Mountain and almost everyone on it. And back to the sweet-faced preacher’s daughter that has lit a fire under Rory’s troubled heart. Granny May would have him stay away from those snake-handling holy rollers, but Rory is utterly bewitched, and when the lights are on at the storefront church, he finds himself there too.

The characters and the setting are what drive this novel, but what also drives it are the cars, most specifically Maybelline, the custom-made vehicle that can outrun Federal revenue agents.  I’m generally not interested in cars; if they run, that’s good, and if I will be comfortable inside them, that’s better. But Brown has some magic of his own, and the way he crafts this ride, which is the family’s main source of income and their most valuable piece of property apart from the mountain itself, is magnetic. It is almost a character itself.

The balance of power is shifting on Howl Mountain now. Rival Cooley Muldoon seeks to unseat the Docherty clan; threats to Granny May have taken ominous forms, and she waits on the porch with her pipe and her gun late into the night. She storms into the brush to find what, exactly, has made the cry like a panther on her roof.

“Death, which walked ever through these mountains, knew she would not go down easy.”

This is likely the go-to novel of 2018. I cannot help but think that Rory Docherty, Eustace, and Granny May will join the ranks of beloved literary characters whose names are recognized by a wide swath of the English-speaking world.

If nothing else, Brown has taken the hillbilly stereotype that some still cling to and in its place leaves believable characters with nuance, ambiguity, and heart.  It’s a showstopper, and you won’t want to miss it.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.