Monday, August 2, 2021


BREATHE (Ecco, 2021) is a major new novel by Joyce Carol Oates that once again plumbs the topic and tributaries of "marriage"--a theme familiar to even the most casual of Oates's reader. It concerns a husband and wife—Gerard and Michaela—who are temporarily living in New Mexico where Gerard is engaged at an academic institute. Michaela’s world tilts, as in an earthquake, when Gerard becomes suddenly and gravely ill, requiring around-the-clock vigil and triggering severe and at times terrifying emotions in Michaela.

The setting of New Mexico’s high desert is unfamiliar territory for Oates (most of her work is set in upstate New York, New Jersey, Detroit), but no less vividly evoked on the page than her usual settings. As always in Oatesworld, the location is inextricably tied to story; the jagged desert escarpments, the “breathless” high altitude, and a pantheon of Pueblo gods haunt the protagonist, Michaela, as she prays/wills her ailing husband’s convalescence.

It is not a spoiler to say that her husband, Gerard, succumbs to cancer and pneumonia, because the focus of the story is on Michaela. One could select from Oates’s vast oeuvre any number of stories/books where a spouse, often a woman but not always, tumbles into a chaotic, self-imposed or self-destructive delirium, at the marital or physical loss/separation of the other spouse. An example of a male protagonist that comes to mind is Jerome “Corky” Corcoran in WHAT I LIVED FOR (1994).

The image of a character jolted into a new and unfamiliar world echoes Oates’s lifetime fascination with Alice in THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, which she credits as one of her earliest influences. For example, Michaela is reminiscent of Ileana from an early Oates story “The Dead,” a takeoff on James Joyce’s story of the same name and collected in Oates’s MARRIAGES AND INFIDELTIES (1972)--a woman under totally different circumstances than Michaela in BREATHE but nonetheless caught in a psychological pressure cooker that leaves her somersaulting through hellacious, personal grief and loss and romance.

Michaela suffers through sustained interior torment in counterbalance to the rudimentary functions of widowhood she must undertake, from the disposition of cremains to the task of finishing Gerard’s last manuscript. Some of this territory is familiar to readers of Oates's searing memoir, A WIDOW'S STORY (2008), about her marriage to Raymond Smith and, especially, the aftermath of his (unexpected) death. If there is autobiography to be found in Gerard, though, it is not principally Smith but Charlie Gross, Oates's second husband and the renowned father of cognitive neuroscience. 

Oates renders Michaela’s confused sublimation into widowhood in the hallucinatory, dreamlike prose that has become a hallmark of her long career.  As in her story “The Dead,” Oates employs a number of devices in her narrative style that simulate the  protagonist's psychological unbalancing: shifts between second- and third-person points-of-view, the interrogative mood, elliptical and rhetorically repetitive prose, and so on. This style can be irritating to the reader (as is Oates’s obsessive employment of italicized prose), but it is ultimately effective in creating an indelible literary experience that is at once utterly original and frighteningly familiar.

FTC Disclosure: I received an electronic Advanced Reader's Copy of this novel from NetGalley.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Dakota Winters

THE DAKOTA WINTERS by Tom Barbash (Ecco, 2018) is a witty, dialogue-driven portrait of a family and celebrity in the liminal place and time of New York City in 1980-81. The Dakota of the title is not the wintry plains of the upper Midwest, but the New York landmark apartment building home to John Lennon and other notables.

The novel opens with Anton Winter, a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, returning to his family in New York to convalesce after suffering a bad bout of malaria in Gabon. There, he draws closer to his father, Buddy Winter—a famous talk show host (think Dick Cavett meets Stephen Colbert) whose on-air crackup has rendered him toxic to the showbiz industry.

How and if Buddy is able to return to showbiz with a new talk show, with Anton’s help, is the story that propels the narrative, and it’s an entertaining if melancholy ride. The contours of Buddy’s mental health, which seems to be perpetually fragile, partly inform the Buddy-Anton relationship and keep Anton attached to Buddy and his career perhaps longer than he should be.

There are plenty of moments of lightness and fun. We encounter many historical figures of the day, including Johnny Carson and Joan Kennedy, and the guests on Buddy’s show like Peter O’Toole and Larry Holmes, but the most fully, fictionally developed real life historical figure is John Lennon.

Lennon is the most important secondary character of the book. As a resident of the Dakota, he’s a familiar neighbor and friend to the Winters. The friendship he develops with Anton is revealing and formative for both of them. Lennon’s boundless creativity not only seems to positions him for a major comeback, it serves as a model for Anton’s own ambitions that he has buried in favor of helping Buddy revive his career. From this angle, Barbash’s approach to John Lennon humanizes him without ruining the Beatles aura.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Dakota
While Barbash sometimes falters in using extended paragraphs of dialogue for exposition, he is mostly successful in offering a snappy and satisfying journey into the lives of celebrity, showbiz, and Manhattan at the dawn of the headiest decade of the twentieth century. Anton, an imminently likeable character, is not as fully fleshed as I would have preferred. While I believed his actions were realistic, even entertaining, I think a deeper portrait of his relationships with his love interests would have given us a better feeling of him as whole person—and not just the son of Buddy Winter (a role he doesn’t seek to outrun, but rather outgrow).

THE DAKOTA WINTERS is an enjoyable read. Sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, it held my attention all the way through.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Missing American

Internet scammers, a political assassination, a mysterious journalist, an intrepid young private investigator, and the fascinating setting of Ghana—these are just a few of the elements that drive the action in Kwei Quartey's exquisite new crime novel, THE MISSING AMERICAN (Soho, 2020).

THE MISSING AMERICAN introduces the young PI Emma Djan, a 26-year-old Ghanaian woman who, following in her father’s footsteps, longs to be a homicide detective but is instead placed in a police bureaucracy that has her investigating dull financial cases and facing sexual harassment from her superior in the Criminal Investigation Department. The latter ultimately lands her in a situation that gets her sacked from the CID—but it’s a blessing in disguise, as she is hired at a local private investigation agency where her ambitions are better fulfilled and her talents respected.

Emma Djan is almost immediately drawn into the investigation of a missing American man, Gordon Tilson, who arrived in Ghana in hopes of meeting a beautiful woman he met online. That woman turns out to be a fraud run by one of Ghana’s infamous sakawa boys, a ring of criminal who combine cybercrimes with “traditional” rituals that allegedly enhance their power to swindle unsuspecting foreigners.

The bewildering details and rituals of sakawa are vividly rendered by Quartey in his unique and at times hypnotic prose. Where other authors may have glossed over some of these details, Quartey spares us none, which allows the reader a much richer understanding of what is at stake. 
An apparent bust of sakawa boys in Ghana
in a typical staged police photo
We meet several of the sakawa boys and the fetish priest, Kewku Ponsu, from whom they seek their supernatural enablement and around whom they revolve. Ponsu is but one of the memorable characters in THE MISSING AMERICAN.

One of the most enigmatic characters is a powerful investigative journalist, Sana Sana, whose reports reveal the perpetrators of crimes and corruption at the highest levels. With so much on the line, Sana Sana fiercely guards his anonymity, veils himself behind a curtain of beads when meeting with people and undertakes a plethora of security measures before going anywhere. His investigation into sakawa means his path intersects with everyone from Gordon Tilson to Emma Djan.

This is a long novel that is rewarding on a number of levels. The Ghanaian setting will be unfamiliar to most readers, but Quartey is a gifted guide through its sights, smells, and tastes. His rendering of the places, ethnic groups, and even dialects and pidgin English is expert. There are many crimes in the book, not just the internet scams, but of course murder, too. (We know from the title that someone goes missing.) The criminal elements are not much of a shock or surprise; but, like a great work of detection, they are presented and solved alongside the progress Emma Djan makes as the plot unfolds. The suspenseful pulse of the book is derived from the many elements of the plot and subplots that require satisfying resolutions--and Quartey, better than most writers, delivers in tying them up.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas -- the
real-life Sana Sana?
Quartey brings alive a corner of Africa by mining realistic details of life and crime in contemporary Ghana and weaving them into a compelling and entertaining narrative. The sakawa boys present a huge challenge in global cybercrime, but also in local politics. Sana Sana appears be based on a real investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who maintains his anonymity almost identically to the way Quartey describes his fictional counterpart. The Ghanaian locations, cities, landmarks, foods, slang are all credibly portrayed and thereby lend the most enjoyable details to this delicious and spellbinding novel.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Hard Cash Valley

The action is intense, gritty, and recurrent in HARD CASH VALLEY, the third crime novel from Brian Panowich (Minotaur, 2020). It’s the story of Dane Kirby, a fire chief turned consultant to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Kirby is sent to Florida to help the Feds investigate the fallout from a brutal murder associated with the victim’s alleged swindling of prize money from the Slasher—the biggest (underground) cockfight in the USA. The Slasher took place at the Farm in Dane’s home turf of McFalls County, which is familiar territory for readers of Panowich’s previous two novels, BULL MOUNTAIN and LIKE LIONS.

Early in the investigation, Kirby is teamed with a hard-nosed FBI agent named Roselita Velasquez and the duo learns that the victim’s younger brother is hiding out somewhere in Georgia. Finding and protecting the boy, who has Asperger syndrome, becomes a driving force that leads Kirby and Velasquez down some harrowing paths in the north Georgia mountains.

The search for the boy follows a trail that becomes increasingly scattered with the bodies of anyone involved in the international cockfighting ring, and Dane Kirby—with his intimate knowledge of the landscape and the players of McFalls County, and a motivation to find and protect the boy—is essential to guiding the investigation while tussling with federal and local law enforcement along the way.

Dane Kirby’s motivation runs much deeper than achieving the satisfaction of a rescue operation. An event in his past—not revealed until near the novel’s end—haunts his existence and drives his energy, and it constitutes a powerful secondary storyline. The profound psychological heaves of love and loss inform nearly every decision Dane makes; those yearnings make him at once more courageous and more fragile. He’s a man trying to live in the physical reality of his world, but the spiritual realms seem, at times, to inhibit his ability to make meaning out of anything.

Panowich’s prose is graceful and addictive. His characters, no matter how minor to the plot are memorable from their first entrance on the page. Take James Edwin, the key holder for Black Mountain Safari Zoo. "The obese man in sweatpants and house shoes fumbled around in the large pocket of his canvas jacket the way a woman would rifle through the insides of a purse until he pulled out a set of keys... ." This is a character you can instantly see in your mind’s eye. 

The emotional undercurrents of HARD CASH VALLEY are often wrenching but never melodramatic. This is a deeply affecting and entertaining crime story that rewards the reader with both a memorable payoff to the mystery elements of the plot and a moving conclusion to Dane Kirby’s journey of the soul.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, RODHAM (Random House, 2020) is one of her best. In short, RODHAM is the alternative autobiography of Hillary Rodham Clinton—part roman Ă  clef, part fantasy novel for progressives and part lamentation for the Hillary that might have been had she not married Bill Clinton.

The novel begins with Hillary’s 1969 Wellesley graduation speech, with its impromptu opening a response to U.S. Senator Edward Brooke’s condescending remarks on political activism that he gave right before hers. This is a great beginning, for it illustrates the first public blaze of political acumen for which Hillary would later become renowned. In the fraught years following 1968, Hillary emerges as a reflective ally in civil rights issues and a conscientious workhorse in legal aid cases (and later as a professor and politician whose drive to help others is a major motivation for her decisions).

The first third of the novel covers her meeting Bill Clinton at Yale, law school, and eventually accompanying Clinton to Arkansas to teach at the Law School at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Some reviewers have cringed at the few somewhat explicit sex scenes between Bill and Hillary, but they comprise just one piece of the larger portrait Sittenfeld creates to illustrate the alluring “aura of Bill Clinton.” At the end of the day, her verdict appears to be that he is a brilliant, charming philanderer—and possibly predator—who churns out Arkansas folksiness to disarm others, and whose soft skills and ability to work a room are otherworldly.

The novel breaks from reality as Hillary drives out of Arkansas leaving Bill in the rearview mirror. From there, she pursues a successful career as a law professor at Northwestern, enjoys solid relationships with her best friend and her family in the suburbs (save her father, Hugh, who is mean and cruel to the women in his life), runs for the U.S. Senate against Carol Moseley Braun, and ultimately runs for president.

This novel is so enjoyable not because it excavates any new territory about the Hillary Clinton we currently know, but because it brilliantly imagines the Hillary that we wanted her to be. That’s a heavy burden for a living person to carry, of course, but for a novel, it is deliciously entertaining. Sittenfeld does give Hillary some foibles, but not many. Hillary admits few missteps in this novel and offers no regrets.

Sittenfeld made the bold choice to write in the first-person, and the voice she gives Hillary is relatable, crisp, sympathetic, and keen. This choice affords us a vantage point into Hillary’s imagined interior life that often makes us feel like we are reading a truly honest memoir.

RODHAM is captivating from beginning to end. It is a work of great imagination that is heartbreaking, compelling, and funny in equal turns. The subject of this book is obviously not for everyone. But Sittenfeld’s dynamic prose and gifted storytelling is engaging for every reader.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Hide Away

Buckle up and prepare yourself for the thrilling ride that is Jason Pinter’s new novel, HIDE AWAY (Thomas & Mercer, 2020).

This page-turner introduces a new character, Rachel Marin, a witty, resourceful and incisive mother of two whose strong sense of justice is the well-earned outcome of events in her recent past. Rachel’s vigilante tendencies, and her determination to keep the secrets of her past buried, provide for some dramatic entanglements with local detectives who are investigating the apparent murder of a once popular former mayor, Constance Wright.

This scenario sets in motion a complex and layered plot that has elements of police procedure, amateur detection, and even broad humor. At just over 400 pages, the book is rewarding because Pinter invests in every character, so much so that the ending is a juicy and satisfying payoff.

The story takes place in Ashby, Illinois, which is where Rachel moves with her children after experiencing some horrific events in her home state of Connecticut. From Pinter’s descriptions, Ashby feels like a city about the size of Rockford—small enough for people to be familiar with one another, but enough to accommodate a range of wily characters and shenanigans. It’s a place where one can be involved in day-to-day community events but also be anonymous. The city is important to the story.

For the first 200 pages or so, you’ll read and feel entertained and curious, you’ll keep turning the pages. You might fear that you’re approaching that saggy middle part of a novel—but you’re not, not in HIDE AWAY. The action heats up considerably (in fact, there are several action scenes in this book that are superbly written, not an easy feat!), and before long you think you’ve got it figured out. But I promise—you don’t!

The story unfolds more or less chronologically, but a few chapters shift back in time to help fill in background. I liked this approach because I didn’t have to remember everything about Rachel and her life before moving to Ashby.

I love a big crime novel with a meaty, satisfying ending, a reward for all the clue-finding and image-making you’ve done in your mind while living with the characters and their concerns. HIDE AWAY is as good a thriller as you’re likely to read in 2020. I recommend it!

FTC Disclosure: I chose an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book from an array of free books on offer at a major mystery convention.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous

Bicentennial celebrations are on most Americans’ minds in 1976, but for the residents of small town Jessup, Missouri, it’s going to be a long hot summer in NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, Allen Eskens’s bracing new novel (Mulholland, 2019).

Ah, Missouri. Despite its two major metropolitan areas, the state is profoundly rural, one of those “between” parts of the country that straddles the American heartland and whose people embrace sociocultural aspects of the west, the south and the midwest. This makes it a perfect setting for murder—and for exploring the web of relationships among the townspeople, and the oblique forms of racism, prejudice and sexism that perpetually bubble just below the surface and burst over at contentious moments.

Boady Sanden, fifteen years old, is the hero of the novel. He lives with his widowed mother and is the odd man out at the local private school; he dreams of the day he can escape Jessup for the big city. And then one day, the bookkeeper of the plastics factory—the town’s biggest employer—disappears with a bunch of money. This sets in motion a series of events that turns the town, but most importantly Boady’s life, upside down.

Charles Elgin, from the company’s headquarters in Minnesota, is dispatched to Missouri to oversee the plastics plant and find out what happened to the missing money. Charles, his wife, and his teenage son, Thomas, move in across the street from Boady and his mom and their neighbor, Hoke. The Elgins, though, are different from the other folks. They’re from cosmopolitan and progressive Minnesota, and they also happen to be black, in contrast to deeply white and rural Jessup.

Thomas and Boady develop a fast friendship that tests the historical yoke of in-group loyalty that the other Jessup teens have harnessed onto Boady. And, as cruel manifestations of prejudice by some white extremists in the town become progressively violent, Boady has to become more engaged in his hometown than he would have ever imagined, while mustering the gumption that is foreshadowed in the opening scene of the novel.

Allen Eskens has honed his skills in five previous novels (THE LIFE WE BURY) and in NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, written a story so absorbing and characters so real that the payoffs feel much more substantial than they otherwise might in a nonseries novel. Eskens takes some risks for a crime novel. The book starts with a slow burn, and there’s no body until about page 139. Some of the surprising twists—and there are plenty—have less to do with the central crime itself, and much more to do with resolving multiple strands of tension and action that have built up over the course of the novel.

NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is a coming-of-age novel in the best sense. Eskens vividly evokes the ethos of boyhood in the character of Boady, and he does it particularly well by plumbing the teenager’s hopes and fears: from Boady’s daydreaming to his plan for escaping Jessup, to his fears of what length a school bully would go to exact revenge. The novel is written in first-person singular, in Boady’s voice, which is not the easiest technique for this story even though it is clearly the correct choice.

There are a few places early in the book where it appears that Eskens will moralize or preach (given the heady thematic underpinnings of the plot, one could see why), but fortunately, he does not. Instead, Eskens sets the scene thoroughly and takes his time putting flesh on the characters. The payoff is that by the time the pace increases, the reader is totally invested in the characters. The last third of the novel is utterly propulsive, and I consumed the final hundred pages in a white heat of page turning.

A lot happens in the lives of Jessup, Missouri during the summer of ’76. Some things wonderful and some things folks would rather forget. “But memories aren’t like photographs; they can’t halt the passing of time. Instead, they lay like footsteps along a path, each determined by the step that came before and colored by the ones to follow” (pp. 243-244).