Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson*****

majorpettigrewHad this story not received such wide acclaim and been made into a movie (which I’ve yet to see, but I watched the Oscars), I would probably never have gone near it. I like working class protagonists, and I don’t read many romances, because often as not, they are corny, soft porn, or both. But I saw it at the library and decided to give it a try, and I quickly remembered, upon reading it, that some rules are made to be broken. So even if you usually don’t read romances, and even if a retired British pensioner is not your idea of an interesting protagonist, this should be the exception to the rule.

 I loved this story!

Major Pettigrew has difficulty with some sorts of change. He doesn’t want to see his village built up and the green spaces developed. He has lost his wife and his brother, and loss of any type is very difficult. His solitude is not splendid; he is a lonely, lonely man.

And in some ways, he seems to have lost his son, who has become arrogant, dismissive, and wants nothing more from him than his wallet and his bank card.

On the other hand, he has found something really precious, but what he has found is so controversial that the whole wide world seems to be against him.

Perhaps the hook for me was the interracial marriage, since mine is one also. But on the other hand, maybe the hook is just excellent writing. A really great writer can make us enjoy a genre we didn’t think we cared for; I believe this is one of those.

I hit a certain point in this story and could not go to bed until it was done. I usually read lying down before I go to sleep, but I was literally sitting upright on the edge of my bed leaning forward when this climax broke.

You have to read this story. It’s glorious, and it’s available to the public. Highly recommended!

The Two-Family House, by Linda Cohen Loigman*****

TheTwoFamilyHouse What an amazing book! Once I began reading Loigman’s masterful historical fiction, my other galleys waited, meek and neglected until I was done with this one. Thank you twice, first to Net Galley and second to St. Martin’s Press for giving me a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

I have seldom seen such brilliant character development in a novel. Although Loigman is proficient with setting, it’s really the characters that drive this book. It begins just after World War II. Mort and Rose live downstairs with their three daughters; Abe, Mort’s brother, lives upstairs with his wife Helen and their sons. Though Rose and Helen are not biologically related, they are emotionally closer than many sisters. And what a great thing it is when they both find themselves pregnant, just when they believed they were finished having babies! Mort has wanted a son forever, and his resentment has begun to damage his marriage. He isn’t abusive, but he is cold toward Rose. When she says another baby is on the way, he becomes almost sentimental, making a deal with the cosmos that if he treats his wife well enough, she will bear him a little boy.

Helen loves her sons of course, but she sure would like a daughter; just one. Please.

And then during a blizzard, both women go into labor. Nobody can get to a hospital, and no doctor can reach their home. Instead, a midwife makes her way into the bedroom where both of them labor. Two babies are born.

This story grabbed me by the front of my shirt and wouldn’t let me go. Where I ordinarily make remarks about pacing, setting, and characterization, my e-reader is instead full of indignant comments. First I have become annoyed with Rose, and jot down notes about the things she says and does as if I were gossiping; eventually my remarks are made to Rose herself, because all of these people are so real to me, and she is behaving so badly. The author’s development of her characters, primarily Rose, Mort, and Judith, is so subtle and so sly that at first I wonder if I am imagining the change; eventually I just want to grab Rose and yank her into the kitchen for a good talking-to.

Maybe you think I have said too much, but there is oh so much more. I never saw the ending coming until we were there, and it was so cleverly done. When the story was over, I felt bereaved in a way I had not felt since I read The Goldfinch.

Those that love excellent historical fiction, strong literary fiction, good family stories or all three have to read this book. I gobbled it up early and had to sit on my hands for awhile prior to reviewing; a number of other books have passed between then and this writing, but The Two-Family House still stands out in my mind as having met excellence and surpassed it.

This book is available for purchase March 8. Highly recommended!

The Guilty One, by Sophie Littlefield *****

Sophie Littlefield, author of the Bad Day series (A Bad Day for Sorry, etc) has hit a new level of excellence with The Guilty One. Many thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC! This book goes up for sale on August 11, and if you love a good novel, this one is for you.

Our chief protagonists are Maris and Ron. Maris is Calla’s mother…or she was. Calla is dead now. The court has convicted Karl of her murder, a heartbroken, enraged loss of control over a bad teenage breakup. Ron is Karl’s father, and as we open our first setting, he is considering jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the last minute he decides to phone Maris, and ask her whether to jump or not.

theguiltyoneIt shows a good deal about Ron’s character, weak and lacking in integrity, that he not only phones Karl’s victim’s mother to dump the responsibility on her, but also wears a windbreaker to the bridge because his travel guide mentions that it is cool and windy there, even in warm weather.

The last time I read Littlefield’s work, it was the Bad Day series. The first book won multiple awards and was deeply satisfying, a savvy, witty dig at domestic abuse. The same topic enters this discussion in a more oblique fashion. In her earlier series, she seemed to lose momentum as the series unfolded, and it appeared to me that she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a series that was mostly of the detective fiction genre, or mostly romance. Here, she has taken a giant step away from mystery and detective fiction, and this straight-up fictional story is told with grace, maturity, and authority. It’s obvious right there in the first few pages. I was reading a handful of galleys at the time, and my first note to myself was “See now, this is good writing.”

Maris has lost her marriage, and at first it appears to be a consequence of Calla’s death—so few couples can experience the death of a child and stay together—but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that a split was in the works long before this. And Maris makes a decision that resonates with me. She drops everything and everyone, more or less, and without thinking, going purely on instinct, starts over in a new place, with a greatly reduced standard of living. At first I wonder whether Maris is merely slumming, seeing how the other half lives, but deep down, I have to trust Littlefield not to do anything so shabby, and she doesn’t. Maris is the one we root for, the one that drives the plot forward and pulls us in.

Ron and Deb have stayed together as Karl has gone through the trial and been found guilty, but the strain is there. Ron starts out entirely believable and not very likeable. He never becomes the stand-up individual that Maris is, but he is a dynamic character, complicated and interesting. He undergoes a lot of change as the story progresses.

Throughout this riveting novel, there was never a moment when the veil lifted and I recalled that these characters weren’t real. I raced toward the end with a sense that I had to see how it came out, and then when it was over, I felt a sense of loss, wanting to turn another page and find Maris still there so I could check in with her, like a good friend. And that is ultimately the hallmark of great writing.

Get online. Take a bus. Get in the car. Hijack a plane—okay, maybe not—but do what you need to do in order to get a copy of this accessible, compelling new fiction. Littlefield rocks it. You can pre-order it now, so you will be able to read it right away. If you do, you too will want to stand up and cheer!

Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont *****

amongthetenthousandJack is an artist living in New York City. Sometimes he sleeps in the apartment where he lives with his family. Sometimes he sleeps in his studio, when his work is really going strong. Just as sometimes he sleeps with his wife, whereas sometimes, he sleeps with whoever. This story is about the fallout that occurs when one of the random women he has taken up with, then discarded comes back with a vengeance, and though she intends to punish Jack through his wife, instead she ends up punishing him and his wife through their children, who are the unhappy recipients of the series of randy e-mails the woman he’s just jettisoned prints up and delivers to his building. My god, my god. And before I go farther, let me say thank you to Net Galley and Random House for allowing me a sneak peek. This book will be published next month.

Jack and his latest-fling have been prolific writers, it seems. It takes a large, somewhat weighty box to hold all the hideous missives that have passed between the two of them. And though it’s a rotten thing he’s done to his wife Deb, it slips out early on that she has married him only after dating him while he was married to someone else. Hey, what goes around, comes around.

Unfortunately, Jack is sufficiently garrulous enough with his recent conquest that he shares his children’s names with her, and when eleven year old Kay accepts the box to take upstairs, she is thinking that it is nearly her birthday, and perhaps what is inside is a gift that she can’t wait two weeks to know about. And then one of the papers on top of the pile has her name on it. It isn’t underlined, nor in bold or colored ink, but one’s name tends to jump out at one. And so the steamy sex talk she is way too young to see in any context whatsoever is accompanied by the sentence, “I know about Kay.”

It’s almost enough to permanently traumatize a kid. Well, maybe we can forget that “almost”.

The events are so horrible that any sensible reader would turn away rather than face what comes next, but Pierpont has a fresh, immediate writing style that pulls one in, almost to the extent that we care about those kids as if they were our own. We keep reading because we have to know what happens to them.

Several times I grew angry enough with Jack that I found myself senselessly typing angry retorts into my kindle comments. Nobody sees that stuff but me, but typing seemed better than waking my spouse to inveigh against this self-absorbed asshole, this swine who has the nerve at first to blame Kay for reading mail not meant for her eyes. Oh please!

And when Deb equivocates, I want to smack her, too. Sure, I know I said that what goes around comes around, but once you have children, the whole equation is altered, and you have to act immediately on their behalf. She feels a little sorry for Jack at first, at the alienation his children display toward him, and I just want to shake her. Don’t feel bad for him, the pig! Feel bad for your kids! Hello?

The kids are really what the book is all about, what makes it worth reading. They aren’t little big-eyed Holly Hobbie dolls, but both innocent and insolent, naughty and adorable, disturbed, devastated, and resilient as well. They flounder; they struggle. And when the story ends, the spell isn’t really broken until one accepts that they are fictional, because believe me, the whole thing feels so very real.

Pierpont is a damn good writer. She will be a force to be reckoned with in the literary world, a writer to watch. I can’t wait to read whatever is next!
As for you, you should get this novel when it comes out July 7. Maybe you should even reserve yourself a copy. What a fascinating book, by a strong new author.

The Sunlit Night, by Rebecca Dinerstein *****

thesunlitnightWhen was the last time I read something this poignant? No, it’s more than poignant. This novel is a real powerhouse, and my heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury, USA for letting me read it as a DRC. It affected me to the extent that I needed to let it steep in my mind for a few days after I read it, before I could review it. That’s always a good sign.

You see, Yasha has grown up without his mother, at least for most of his life. He, his father, and his mother all received much sought-after plane tickets to the USA from Russia. Not all were scheduled to depart at the same time, and not all of them did. And so Yasha and his father have lived above the bakery, and now and again they phone to see when Mama might be coming. It isn’t like she is dead or in jail. She just hasn’t come. She puts them off; she makes excuses. So Yasha helps his father run the bakery, rising early every day and jetting home from school promptly when the bell dismisses him. Season follows season,and year follows year;the loss grows deeper and stronger, as does his bond with his father, a flour-speckled, graying eccentric with the world’s kindest heart. His father is his life, and the place where his mother once was is a constant void. “No mother. No mother. No mother.” Unless you are made of brick or cement, you have to feel his pain.

I think the narrative that alternates here, that of Frances, who is destined to meet Yasha, is supposed to be equal in force, but to me she is an also-ran. The book is really about Yasha, and I am fine with that. Frances also hails from a family that is coming unstuck; her parents have given her and her sister notice that they need to get out of the tiny Manhattan apartment in which they grew up, because they are going to separate.

At the same time, Frances’s boyfriend, the man she loves so much that she has turned down a prestigious art fellowship in order to follow him to the ends of the earth, dumps her. Doesn’t even stay with her till she boards; he just leaves her there all by herself, hurt and stunned. He’s gone.

Yasha and Frances will meet at the top of the world, or the nearest possible place. It’s in Norway, not far from where the Sami hunt reindeer. In the summer, the sun never goes down.

Generally I am not a reader of romances. I am perhaps too cynical; I hear the violins starting up and slam the book shut. No schmaltz for me, thank you kindly. But once in awhile an amazing story comes along. Think of The Thornbirds; think of The Prince of Tides. The Sunlit Night is such a story, an exceptional story for which rules were meant to be broken.

It comes out in June, and you just have to read it. Don’t let yourself be left out.

Away, by Amy Bloom *****

away Lillian escapes a pogrom after seeing her husband and parents viciously murdered and her little girl has disappeared. She was told by a neighbor that her daughter had drowned in the river, and so she allowed herself to be herded onto a ship bound for New York.

“In the fifty-seven blocks of the Lower East Side, just that day in July 1924, there are a hundred and twelve candy shops, ninety-three butchers, seventy saloons, forty-three bakeries, and five hundred thousand Jews.”

Away, strong historical fiction by Amy Bloom, is in turns poignant, fascinating, wry, and wrenching. It’s a great book, but it won’t lift your flagging spirits. However, a couple of amusing moments had a Keillor-like tug to them, and they kept the tone light enough to engage me.

Things aren’t going all that well for Lillian, and maybe that is why, when a cousin arrives from the old country and tells her that her little girl is alive, Lillian makes plans to go get her. Nobody will give her boat fare, but a dear friend hatches an alternate plan: she can head west across North America, go north into Canada, and then island hop her way across the Bering Strait. It’s a terrible idea, but if it will bring Sophie back into Lillian’s waiting arms, she’ll do it. And so she’s off.

Bloom is strongest when she is building characters and describing setting. By the time the book is over and done, Lillian is so real that even though I have half a dozen books I am also reading, I think of her fondly from time to time as one might when a good friend or much-loved relative that has been to visit and then gone home again.

That said, I didn’t like it as well as her most recent work, Lucky Us, reviewed earlier and available in my archives. But that is faint condemnation, because the latter was one of the best works of fiction I have ever read.

If you like well written three-hanky stories and excellent historical fiction, you can’t go wrong with Bloom. If your pockets aren’t deep enough for impulsive book buying, check your public library; it’s where I found my copy.

The Christmas Train, by Rexanne Becnel****

thechristmastrainRexanne Becnel has written a brief, sweet, sentimental story that can only play at Christmas time. Were I to read this story in February, I would roll my eyes. In April, I would stick two fingers down my throat and make little retching noises.

Note that although the publisher bills this as a romance, it is really a love story between many family members, and the protagonist is a child. A great big thank you goes to Net Galley and Simon & Schuster for the ARC.

In October, in November, in December, I sigh contentedly. It really is about the season. Maybe those of us who celebrate this season find permission in it to drop our guards and bury our noses in sentimental stories. It did me a world of good!

Anna is ten years old, and her beloved Nana Rose, the grandmother with whom she has lived most of her life, has died. Her mother can’t wait to spend the money from the sale of Nana Rose’s house, and has no intention of raising her own child for those remaining childhood years. She sends a quick message off to Anna’s father in Iowa telling him the kid is coming and it’s his turn. Then she takes her kid to the train station and dumps her there. First, though, the rules require she find an adult for her ten-year-old to travel with. She finds a very elderly, fragile woman who is headed for the same train stop as Anna, and after a quick conversation to line things up, she drops her girl with the gran-stand-in and books it. Done.

Anna is devastated, and she is afraid of the father her mother claimed had never wanted her. She fantasizes about remaining with the sweet old lady, who reminds her a bit of her own late grandmother. But this old lady has problems of her own.

The tale is beautifully paced, and the characterizations absolutely believable. I could imagine being the child, and I could imagine being the elderly lady.

I dove into this tender bit of prose late one evening and waking with the flu, picked it up again and stayed with it till satisfied, when the last page was turned. After all, I couldn’t abandon the child, and I had to see to the elderly woman, too.

The ending was a little over the top, and if I had my way, I would delete one sentence, but hey, it’s Christmas. Well, almost.

Highly recommended for those who love Christmas!

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson *****

Jackson’s folksy, humorous love story is more complex than it appears at first glimpse; its entertainment value is instantly obvious. She has taken the town of Between, Georgia, which exists midway twixt Athens and Atlanta, and used it to create a fictional haven for a plethora of characters drawn so deftly that they all but materialize in front of the reader.

Nonny, our protagonist, is between many things. In fact, the deeper one looks at this supposedly light romance, the more “betweens” there are in the story, in setting, in plot, and above all, in character. The teacher in me wants to assign an essay question about it. You are excused from the essay, but you ought to read the book, even if, like me, you generally pass on romances. And for goodness sake, pay attention!

In some ways, this is a story that could have been set in just about any Between in just about any English-speaking setting as long as it was in a small town (and anyone who sniffs at the story as failing to accurately represent Georgia and Georgians completely misses the fact that this is not really a story about Georgia at all). How many of us have dealt with the question of nature versus nurture? How many of us have alcoholics, anxious individuals who are prone to harming themselves, yet keeping “four baby steps” out of the psych ward, neat freaks, slobs, and feuding relatives in our lives? Are you nodding yet? And how many of us have a small person in the family we suspect is being raised by the wrong relative? Then there are those of us who are between relationships, and the world that exists between the hearing and the deaf, the blind and those whose visual acuity is dandy. I am only scratching the surface here. There is so much of life jammed into this one work of fiction that it leaves me breathless.

It is the commonness and humanity in this tale that ultimately makes it so empathetic and readable, but the writing is brilliant. The prose are so fresh and original that they make me question several of the five star ratings I have given to other writers.

Jackson has written a real gem. Sometimes I conclude my reviews by saying that a book is worth reading if you can get it free or cheap. Not this story, not this time. Open a window and order it, or get in the car and go get it. You have to read this book. Whether for depth of literary analysis or pure fuzzy joy, you’ll be richer for doing so!