Best Feminist Fiction 2018

ASparkofLightA Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

Goodbye, Paris by Anstey Harris*****

GoodbyeParisThis novel took me by surprise. The first time I saw it, I passed it by, because the cover suggested a light romance, and that’s not a genre that appeals to me.  It’s been compared to Jojo Moyes and Eleanor Oliphant; I read neither. Later I saw an online recommendation for this book and changed my mind, and I am so glad I did. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Touchstone for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

You see, when we begin we recognize that Grace is deluded about David. Oh, how many of us have either been that woman or had her as a friend? Grace and David have been together for eight years, except when he needs to be present at home, for the sake of his children. Grace tells us that David is a devoted father, a dedicated dad who’s promised that he will do a finer job than his own father did, and so even though there’s nothing left between him and his wife, he cannot divorce her until the kids are grown. No, really. And then of course there’s some concern about her mental stability. What if he files, and then she does something awful?

So Grace totally understands why she must be alone every Christmas:  David is with his kids. Grace spends all the most important occasions of the year by herself, making stringed instruments in her workshop; and David is with his family in Paris. He wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true, and she doesn’t ask too many questions, because he is terribly sensitive.

It’s all about trust.

She assists in staying out of the public eye, and she is ever so discreet, but then a random event puts David’s face in the news, a hero that pulls a woman off the Metro tracks just before the train comes. Who is this mysterious man, they ask. And then it all hits the fan. And as we knew—we tried to tell Grace, but she wouldn’t listen—David isn’t a stand up guy. He isn’t even that good as a parent. David is just a philanderer, and Grace has spent eight years of her life planning a future with this asshole, not because she is stupid, but because she is a decent person that expects others to be as upright as she is.

I have never assaulted another human being in my life. I am getting old. But let me tell you, if David had been flesh and had been standing before me, who’s to say he wouldn’t be the exception? I fumed as I prepared dinner, did the dishes, let the dog out.  That rotten scoundrel, treating poor sweet Grace this way. Oh, how crushing for her. It isn’t fair; it really isn’t.

Every reader sees it coming, but what surprises me is that David is outed so early in the book. And here’s the glorious thing: this story appears to be a romance, but it isn’t. It isn’t about Grace and David, and no new knight arrives toward the climax to sweep her away. No, the story is about Grace, and it’s about the ways that friends—true friends—help us pull ourselves together when everything seems to be coming apart. And the metaphors are resonant ones:

 

“I have to take into account that this violin didn’t really work very well, didn’t have much of a voice. If I take these ribs off completely and remake a whole new set, it will give the instrument a better chance to sing.”

 

Grace rebuilds her career as she rebuilds herself, scaffolded by the warmth and emotional nourishment of the friends that love her, and one of them tells her, “You have to grasp life by the balls, Grace…and don’t bloody let go until you have to.”

Ultimately, this is a charming story you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

TheBigBookofFemaleDWell now, that was a meal. Penzler does nothing halfway, and this meaty collection of 74 stories took me awhile to move through. I read most, but not all, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The collection begins with Mrs. Paschal, published in 1864, who must find “the cleverest thieves in Christendom,” and it concludes with a piece by Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are broken down into sections, beginning with The Victorians and Edwardians, followed by Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, and The Modern Era, and concluded with Bad Girls. Says Penzler in his introduction:

“Seeing the Evolution of the female detective’s style as it gathers strength and credibility through the decades is educational, but that is not the purpose of this book, or not the primary one, anyway. The writers whose work fills these pages are the best of their time, and their stories are among the high points of detective fiction that may be read with no greater agenda than the pure joy that derives from distinguished fiction.”

And so the reader must absorb the hallmarks of the time period, and that means the earliest entries carry a certain number of stereotypes, primarily about the nature of women, but in the end, the detective is successful nevertheless. And it’s fun to see historical details written in present tense long ago, and so we know it’s getting to be late out when the lamplighters come out to start the gas lights in the hallways of the manse, for example. It’s also interesting to read authors that were the runaway sensations of their day, the ones that sold the most and wrote the most and were on the tongues of every mystery reader—and yet now they are completely obscure. We can never tell who will stand the test of time until it happens.

And now a confession. The first time I set out to read this tome, I read the entries in the first two sections and decided I would skip the portion devoted to pulp, which isn’t my personal favorite, and I would skip forward to read an entry by one of my favorite present-day mystery writers, and then go back again to cover the sections that come after the pulp section. That was my plan. I’m telling you this because the mistake I made here could happen to you, too, so here it is.

What I did was I skipped to the last section and began flipping through it, and then I was pissed, because I thought the best female detective writers of today had been left out, and in a huff, I abandoned the rest of the book and picked up something else. It wasn’t until I sat down to write a halfhearted review, in which I would explain what I read and what I skipped and why, that I reread the promotional teaser and realized I must have missed something. I went back to the galley, moved back to the second-to-last section that is clearly labeled “Modern”, and there they all were, and it is the longest, most inclusive section in the collection. That changed everything. So reader, if you go for this book, bear in mind that the sections are not completely linear. The “Bad Girls” section at the end, which didn’t do much for me but you may like it, is made up of stories about women criminals from a variety of different time periods. The most recent time period, the one bearing selections by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, the late and beloved Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, and a host of others, is second-to-last.

Once I realized my error, of course I returned to read the rest of the book.

The one sorrowful note here is that those of us that love these modern female detectives enough to have bought other anthologies, for example those brought to us by the Paretsky group, “Sisters in Crime,” will run across selections we have already read. I have seen both the Grafton and Paretsky stories already, although the piece by Barr, “Beneath the Lilacs,” is new to me. However, I see authors I haven’t read and will happily watch for now. The end of the mid-century section features “Mom Sings an Aria,” and although it veers a wee bit toward stereotypes, I can’t say I mind too much, because this writer makes me laugh out loud. James Yaffe is on my list now. “Blood Types”, by Julie Smith is likewise pithy, and “Miss Gibson,” by Linda Barnes also cracks me up. And I don’t know why I am still surprised by this. After reading so many anthologies, you’d think I’d realize that the greatest charms are had by finding brand new-to-me authors, but since it’s a good surprise every time, I may allow myself not to absorb the lesson; this way I can still be pleasantly surprised over and over again.

If you buy a holiday gift for a mystery lover, I recommend you get this book. If you try to buy something by your loved one’s favorite author, you may run up against it as I did: they’ve already read it. (And you probably hate returning things as much as I do.) But what are the chances she has this anthology? It’s over a thousand pages of detective fiction, and last I saw, it’s on sale for less than twenty bucks. There, that’s one gift chosen for you, and it’s not even November yet. You’re welcome.

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.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell****

ThenSheWasGone3.5 rounded up. Thanks to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC. This book is now for sale.

This is my third title by this author, and she is consistently strong. Our protagonist is Laurel, who is struggling. Her daughter Ellie–her favorite child—is missing. She’s been missing for years, and it hasn’t really gotten any easier.  Her marriage is over because Paul could move on, while Laurel could not; she is no longer close to their other two children, because all her thoughts and feelings went to the child that was missing.

Then one day she meets Floyd. He is warm and delightful, and his daughter Poppy, who seems too good to be true, calls to her.

I have read other reviews that suggest that the mystery here is easily solved. That’s true. But it hardly matters, because I wasn’t in this thing for the mystery. I was in it for the character. There are so many observations, small tidbits of mom-philosophy, some of which I didn’t know anybody shared with me. I have notes in my reader, where I usually ask questions or point to technical aspects of a story, that simply say, “I know, right?”

All of the characters in this story are Caucasian, and so I suspect that the main target audience is white mothers in their forties and beyond. I recommend this story to everyone in that demographic that enjoys women’s fiction.

Limelight, by Amy Poeppel*****

Limelight“Welcome to Gotham, babe.”

Amy Poeppel is a star, and since I loved her debut novel, Small Admissions in 2016, requesting the galley of her second novel was a no-brainer for me. Thank you, thank you Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available to the public May 1, 2018.

Allison Brinkley is excited when her husband receives a promotion that takes them from suburban Dallas, Texas to New York City. The excitement! The opportunities! Most people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to visit Manhattan as tourists. She can hardly wait.

Once they arrive, however, reality sets in. There’s no room for anybody’s stuff, and the bedrooms are tiny. Her eldest child is sulking, and the youngest gets in trouble at school. The mothers at the prestigious private school where the children are enrolled snub Allison as if she were the new girl at middle school.  She loses her teaching position, and then she loses her tutoring job too. She wants to be a good family organizer, provider, and cheerleader; and yet.

On top of everything, she bangs into another vehicle right in front of the school; when she goes to settle up with her insurance details, she instead finds herself in the apartment of a badly behaved teenager that turns out to be a famous teen heartthrob. Allison is mesmerized, but not in the manner to which Carter Reid is accustomed; she wants to know how his apartment and his lifestyle has spun out of control so badly. Where is the boy’s mother?

Before she knows it, Allison is swept into the official Carter Reid entourage. He’s sick in bed, and half of his people have up and quit because he’s so insufferable. But Allison deals with adolescents for a living, both as a teacher and as a mother. She knows how to talk to kids, and she knows how to get them to take their medicine and show up to appointments.

But Carter has another problem nobody knows about. It’s not a problem to be proud of, and it’s getting in the way of his career.

Nobody writes like Amy Poeppel. The beginnings of her novels are bizarre and disorienting because the protagonist’s normal is not most people’s normal. My first impression is that one of us—Poeppel or me—must be crazy. But once I am properly hooked on the story, she pulls me in and lets me know what’s up with that. Before the halfway mark is reached, I want to be the gal pal that drops in on Allison, asks questions, maybe drags her into the kitchen for a conversation. I wonder, how much more of her own money is she going to spend on this wealthy brat before she asks for compensation? Has she forgotten she has kids of her own at home?  Has she completely taken leave of her senses?

I make one prediction after another, anticipating well-worn fictional formulas, but Poeppel doesn’t do formulas, she creates surprises. At the end I find myself walking with my head up and a spring to my step. I will bet you a dollar, reader, that you need some of that too.

Frosting on the cake is that rarest of all things, a positive abortion reference tucked in quietly toward the end. It makes my feminist heart sing.

I can’t wait to see what this writer brings to her next novel; will she bring Allison back with a sequel, or will she start from scratch? Whatever it is, I have to read it. Limelight is sharp, funny, and wicked smart. You have to get this book and read it.

Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao***

GirlsBurnBrighterThanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this review.  This book is for sale to the public now.

This story is billed as one of matchless friendship, and it is that, but the misery and despair are so stark and ever present as to destroy all hope, and this ambivalence is the reason for my slowness and frankly reluctance to review.

Our story is set in India, and our two protagonists are Poornima, whose struggling father runs a small textile factory that makes saris, and Savitha, one of his workers. They become friends and uphold one another through the desperate struggle for survival. Poornima’s mother is gone, and the daughter is not considered beautiful, which makes her dowry an even more essential aspect of her marriage than it would otherwise be. She herself has no desire to marry, particularly not to someone she has never met and that only plans to marry her for the income generated by the union, but her father is genuinely eager to be rid of her—one more mouth to feed—and she is hustled through the ordeal despite her misgivings.

Savitha has vowed to protect and defend her friend, but she is banished and must make a run for it.

The entire story is bleak, stark, and horrible. For those that are unaware of the fate of some women in some Asian countries, this may be worth reading for enlightenment, but for many feminists this is not news. Stories of Indian women being fatally burned or badly disfigured by accidentally-on-purpose kitchen accidents by angry in-laws that expect more of a dowry price than is actually paid have circulated since the 1980s at least. I would have found the story more compelling and less difficult to read if there was some small twinkle of hope somewhere. At the seventy percent mark I decided I couldn’t stand it, but when I skipped to the end, I discovered that at least one protagonist was still alive, which is better than I expected, and so I went back and read the rest of it. It proved to be a small reward for a great deal of horror.

Don’t get me wrong; if there was a way that even one woman in India could somehow be spared because I had read this novel, I’d be all in. But to read news that is both old and terrible to no end—because if the US government were ever to actively assert the rights of women anywhere, which it hasn’t, it sure as hell won’t be under the current administration—seems like a lot of grinding sorrow to no good purpose.

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs that have no knowledge of how women in India are treated, with the caveats above.

Not That I Could Tell, by Jessica Strawser****

NotThatIOne year ago today, I reviewed Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You. When I received an invitation to read and review this, her second novel of suspense, I privately wondered whether she had written the same story all over again: missing spouse, missing kids, and is it foul play or a voluntary departure? But although there are many common elements, possibly what will become a signature aspect of her work, I can promise you that this is a very different story. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

Our setting is Yellow Springs, Ohio, and our protagonists are the women of the neighborhood, primarily Izzy, who comes in search of a fresh start after her sister marries the man she had her heart set on, and Clara, a stay-home mom that also recovering from a traumatic past event that is alluded to frequently but whose particulars are withheld till near the story’s climax. And we have Kristen, college administrator and estranged wife of Doctor Paul. All are close neighbors, and these women–along with other women in the neighborhood–form a tight bond.

At the outset I feel as if I’m the wrong reader for this story. It’s all so light and fluffy; I don’t need to know the name of every child in the neighborhood, nor what everyone is wearing. But I also remember that I felt that way at the start of Strawser’s last novel, and I didn’t feel at all that way further into the book, and so I keep reading. Sure enough, the adverbs drop, the wardrobes and cute kiddies fade into the background, and the tone darkens nicely (said the evil book blogger with a sinister smile).

After a lovely fall evening spent bonding with friends around a backyard bonfire, Kristen and the twins have disappeared. The police take a hard look at Paul, who is seeking half of the hefty sum in Kristen’s savings account in the divorce proceedings, but nobody can prove anything. There are no bodies; she may have taken the kiddies and left. Some things are missing that make us think she’s taken off voluntarily, and yet other aspects of her absence send up flags.

Paul, for instance, is a smooth operator, but he isn’t a nice guy.

Strawser weaves a complex, credible plot with a strong feminist subtext, one that tells us there needs to be greater support for victims of domestic violence, and also that for some of us, happy endings are possible without romantic relationships. In addition, it is heartening to see a strong work of fiction that mostly features women characters.

I recommend this novel to women and those that love them, and I look forward to seeing more of Strawser’s feminist fiction in the future.

The Bathwater Conspiracy, by Janet Kellough*****

TheBathwaterConFeminists rejoice! Janet Kellough, known for the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, has cut loose with a genre-bending science fiction mystery novel that’s cleverly conceived, brilliantly written, and funny as hell. I was invited to read it free of charge, courtesy of Edge Publishing and the author.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. Women have inherited the Earth, emerging victorious from the Testosterone War, but that was a long time ago. About the only time anyone even thinks about them is in an academic setting, and it wouldn’t even come up now, except that a student from the Men’s Studies field of history has been murdered. Even stranger, the Darmes—the future equivalent of the FBI, perhaps—are hushing it up.

This presents a problem for city police detective Carson MacHenry, who gets the call initially. First she’s told to solve the case; then she’s told not to. And while most of us, in a similar situation, would yield fairly quickly, Carson is disturbed by the skullduggery involved in this whole thing. Who the hell wants a cop to NOT solve a crime, especially a murder? Add to this Carson’s workaholic tendencies since her split with Georgie; home is too damn lonely, and a meaty case like this one is far more alluring than returning to her cat and her empty home.

Given the setting, which is more disorienting than it seems on the surface, it’s helpful that Kellough soft-pedals the invented language and coding that many science fiction and fantasy writers favor, keeping it minimal so that we are not scrambling to catch up with a complex plot.

Carson is assigned a rookie partner, an annoying, punctilious young cop named Susan Nguyen. In order to pursue the investigation she’s been warned away from, Carson sends her hapless partner off on one snipe hunt after another, and from about the halfway mark I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s no way that’s all there is to Nguyen. And of course I am not going to tell you how this aspect plays out, but it’s hilarious.

There are deeper issues lurking beneath the surface here, issues of philosophy and ethics related to genetics, research, and science. In addition, even the most die-hard feminist readers will catch themselves assuming, at some point, that one or more characters are male, even though we have been told everyone is female. Back in the day we called this consciousness raising; you can call it anything you want to now, but it is bound to make you think harder.

At bottom, though, the voice is what makes this a terrific read rather than merely a good one. The wry humor and side bits are so engaging that I was sorry to see the story end.  I laughed out loud more than once.

Those that love strong fiction and lean to the left should get this book. Fans of police procedurals, science fiction, LGTB fiction and above all, smart stories written with great, droll humor have to read it too. It’s for sale now at about the price you’d ordinarily pay for a used book. Go get it.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.