Book Review: PICKLE’S PROGRESS, the arrival of a depressed young woman disrupts the delicate balance of a dysfunctional family

Butler, Marcia - Pickle's Progress CoverPickle’s Progress
Marcia Butler

Stan and Karen McArdle, slightly drunk, were driving home across the George Washington Bridge when they saw a young woman in their lane. Stan swerved and crashed, hitting the railing, but instead of calling 911, immediately called his twin, Pickle, a police officer. The woman, Junie, had been on the bridge with her boyfriend, Jacob, with whom she had a suicide pact. They’d argued, and when she turned away, he jumped. Karen ushered Junie into the backseat of their Volvo and vowed to take care of her.

Karen installed Junie into the basement of the brownstone she, Stan, and Pickle owned together. The brownstone itself was a source of contention since Karen and Stan had renovated the bottom two levels and moved in a year prior, but Pickle was impatiently waiting for the renovation of his top floors.

Flashbacks reveal that Karen, Stan, and Pickle have had a long, complicated relationship, made more difficult by the influence of (now deceased) Mrs. McArdle who inexplicably favored Stan and despised Pickle. The delicate balance of their threesome was disturbed by Junie’s arrival. Pickle believed she was his soulmate and considered retiring from the police force, Stan stopped drinking and relaxed some of his obsessive ticks, and Karen feared the destruction of the harmony she’d stoked for years.

Pickle’s Progress is a character-driven novel, and it focuses more on Pickle and Karen, to me the least likable. While I don’t require characters to be likeable–in fact, too likable, they lose their complexity–but Pickle and Karen are simply mean. Pickle, for example, lies about Jacob to Junie so he will have a better chance with her. Karen consistently puts down Stan and Pickle and manipulates those around her, when she isn’t ordering them directly. The title implies that Pickle will develop psychologically, but while circumstances change for him, it doesn’t seem that he has really come to terms with his past or resolved to alter his behavior in the future.

The dialogue is written to be sharp and witty, but to me it didn’t land, and instead felt clunky and labored. At one point, Karen and Stan were compared to George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If Butler was trying to emulate his repartee, she wasn’t quite skillful enough to execute it (though who is?).

An epilogue, in the form of a letter written three years after the main events of the novel, indicate that some interesting developments occurred, perhaps more interesting than those we were privy to in the narrative.

I suppose if I am reaching, I would say the novel speaks to the need to forgive oneself and step away from the past to find love in the present, but the message isn’t completely clear, and I’m a bit baffled what I’ve read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Central Avenue Publishing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, unaccompanied minors crossing borders

Luiselli, Valeria - Lost Children Archive (3)Lost Children Archive
Valeria Luiselli

A woman and her husband met in New York City while working on a sound project documenting the hundreds of languages spoken in the metropolis. After the four-year project concluded, they hadn’t made a plan. The woman wanted to document the sounds of children in the immigrant courts while the man wanted to capture an “inventory of echoes” of the Apaches, because “they were the last of something.” To complete his multi-year project, he had to relocate to the southwest, and he presented it as a fait accompli to the woman.

The two loaded up a used Volvo and headed cross-country, along with the boy, ten, and the girl, five, and they pass through Virginia, Tennessee, stopping at Graceland, making a stop in Oklahoma to visit the town Geronimo, where a confrontation with a local is tense until the parents say they are writing a screenplay for a spaghetti western. In Oklahoma, they stop at Fort Sill to see Geronimo’s grave; they are so disappointed to learn that Fort Sill is not Fort Still, the name they’d been using. Also in Oklahoma, they go to a lake to swim, and it’s one of my favorite scenes. One of the other women there is sitting in a chair at the shore, but instead of looking out over the lake, she’d looking back at the beach. My favorite moments in the novel are those rooted in detail, such as when the family stayed at motel dedicated to Elvis or when they fight over what to listen to in the car.

One of the things the parents decide the children shouldn’t hear is a series of stories about unaccompanied, undocumented children reaching the Mexican border. This story is personal to the woman since her friend, Manuela, had two daughters in the system. The girls were scheduled to be deported; instead, they disappeared, but Manuela believed they would find her in New York. At the same time, the woman was reading Elegies for Lost Children, a book within a book, chronicling the journey of seven children under the care of a coyote.

Still, when the woman learns that a group of undocumented children is being sent home, she learns the location of the airstrip and the family rushes to watch the children file onto the small craft and the plane take off, after which the mother flails in rage, hurling insults at the border patrol officers, “until I feel my husband’s arms surrounding me from behind, holding me, tight. Not an embrace but a containment.”

As the family approaches Apacheria, their destination, the boy takes more agency, clearly having heard more than the parents realized. With his sister, he thinks he may be able to save his parents’ marriage and solve the problem of the lost children, though he doesn’t understand the danger he’s putting them in.

A very unusual novel, Lost Children Archive recounts the unnamed family’s road trip but also the story of the (named) undocumented children traveling with a coyote in the fictional Elegies for Lost Children. At times, the two stories overlap. Parallels, too, are drawn between the forcible removal of the Native Americans and the deportation of the immigrants as well as with children on the orphan trains running from New York to the midwest.

Other texts are woven into the narrative such as Lord of the Flies, The Road, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Circles, cycles, echoes, and repetition appear frequently.

The book contains sections that are lists of inventories of the boxes belonging to the man, woman, and boy, including pictures which are reproduced. The woman’s box was full of material for her project on undocumented children, and she’d collected duplicates of mortality reports which were heartbreaking, perhaps even more so because of their dry, clinical language.

I liked Lost Children Archive less when it veered toward the philosophical (often unnecessary because the narrative unfurled the theme) or times when it seemed to try too hard. An entire section (about the length of a chapter), for example, was a single paragraph. While I can identify reasons for that choice, it didn’t make it any more pleasant to read. At the end of the book, Luiselli included an author’s note with a statement on her beliefs on intertextuality, listing key sources and “borrowed” phrases. I didn’t know whether to be thankful, because I did miss some of the references, or irritated, because the note was a bit condescending.

Overall, Lost Children Archive, though, was successful in its risk-taking and lovely in its writing. I learned more about the harrowing journeys undertaking by child immigrants and feel disbelief that the United States doesn’t just gather them in our arms and say, “There, there.”

Book Review: LATE IN THE DAY, beautiful writing, but an unsatisfying plot

Hadley, Tessa - Late in the DayLate in the Day
Tessa Hadley

Christine and Lydia, best friends from school, met Alex when he was their French teacher. Lydia cajoled her way into his circle where they met his best friend, Zachary. Christine ended up marrying Alex and Lydia married Zachary. Their daughters, Isobel and Grace, became best friends. Grace was besotted with Alex’s son, Sandy. For decades, the families maintained a bastion of closeness. But, when Zachary suddenly dies of a heart attack, an essential component of their foursome irrevocably shifts the balance between the remaining members while revealing long dormant secrets and desires.

Although Tessa Hadley’s book Late in the Day contains some beautiful writing, I hated almost every minute of reading it. Shortly into the book, I realized it would be very difficult for Hadley to write an ending to satisfy me. Not only was the ending dissatisfying, the process of getting there was unpleasant and uncomfortable.

The book is tightly wrapped around the primary characters, although Christine’s mother, Barbara, and Alex’s mother, Margita make notable appearances, along with a small collection of secondary characters. I was distressed to see how very misogynistic Alex was, with little commentary. Even more so, the extent to which the women–Christine and Lydia and Isobel and Grace–conformed to the expectations of the men they were seeing, again with little criticism, floored me. The only two women who seemed independent were the widows Barbara and Margita who had by this time given up on me, which doesn’t seem like a viable alternative to relationships. It was a very hetero-normative book as well.

Perhaps if the marriages were in contrast to women’s friendships as some sort of theme, this might be interesting or tolerable. Instead, the friendships have as much lies, betrayals, and secrets as the romantic relationships, plus Lydia is so selfish and so unlikable with no payoff or seeming meaning behind it.

Instead of using quotation marks, or even the fashionable no quotation marks, Hadley decided to use dashes for direct quotes, but they would sometimes appear in the middle of a character’s dialogue. I found it very irritating and a technique that took me out of the narrative in a way I can’t imagine the author intended.

While I know Late in the Day has received many positive reviews, they totally baffle me. I truly disliked this book and when I was done regretted spending the time reading it.

Book Review: LIGHTS! CAMERA! PUZZLES! a breezy mystery

hall, parnell - lights camera puzzlesLights! Camera! Puzzles! A Puzzle Lady Mystery
Parnell Hall

Cora Felton’s ex-husband, Melvin, has written a tell-all memoir, Confessions of a Trophy Husband: My Life with the Puzzle Lady, documenting their fiery marriage, though he’s kept secret the biggest scandal of all: Cora, the Puzzle Lady, can’t solve a crossword to save her life. Still, the book paints Cora poorly, and she’s lost an endorsement deal that provided most of her income. When she learns that Melvin’s book is being made into a movie, she signs on as an associate producer, partly to influence how she’s depicted but mostly because she needs the money.

Cora’s first day on the movie began with auditions for “present day Cora” and she was grumpy as she compared herself to the parade of actresses ushered to and from the stage by a production assistant. She’s called back to the theater by her friend NYPD homicide sergeant Crowley when one of those PAs is found murdered. The screenwriter had given Cora a crossword puzzle he’d found; Cora was convinced it was supposed to be planted on the body.

As director Sandy Delfin tries to keep the shoot on track while Sergeant Crowley haunts the set, additional murders plague the production making everyone wonder who will be next and why a killer targeted the Untitled Puzzle Lady Project.

Lights! Camera! Puzzles! is an entry in the long-standing Puzzle Lady series, and while reading the previous books isn’t necessary to understanding and enjoying this addition, I believe it would help give context to the returning characters and their relationships.

Though there are multiple murders, the book doesn’t have violence or gore so would be ideal for mystery lovers looking for those features. Solving the murders relies not on forensics or profiling but on observation and logic, and Cora excels at that, though her access to crime scenes strains credibility.

Cora communicates through witty, raucous banter, primarily with Sergeant Crowley, an ex-boyfriend, and it’s often funny, though at times it can be quite cutting and a little harsh for my taste. The characters that populate the movie set are a little stereotypical, especially when it comes to sex and gender, and these conventions feel outdated, but even more almost in deliberate defiance of changing expectations around equality and sexual harassment.

As a Puzzle Lady book should, Lights! Camera! Puzzles! includes puzzles for the reader to complete—a crossword by Fred Piscop and a Sudoku by Will Shortz. The book is quick and light-hearted and a good choice for an undemanding airport diversion.

Thanks to NetGalley and Pegasus Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: MADAME FOURCADE’S SECRET WAR, a forgotten hero of WWII history

Olsen, Lynne - Madame Fourcade's Secret WarMadame Fourcade’s Secret War:
The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
Lynne Olsen

During World War II, Alliance, one of the largest and most important spy networks in France, provided critical intelligence to the Allies through MI6. Conceived by Major Georges Loustaunau-Lacau (a.k.a. Navarre), Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was second in command. When Navarre went to Africa in 1941 to help (unsuccessfully) foment a mutiny against Vichy France, he put Fourcade in charge, and she was the leader through the end of the war. Not only was she the only female leader of a major spy network, most helmsman were captured and/or killed within six months. Olsen describes her as having “a strong will and a taste for risk and rebellion—traits not often seen in young Frenchwomen from well-to-do families like hers.” Fourcade also utilized a number of women in the network, never overlooking their possible contributions.

Because of Alliance’s importance to the Allies, MI6 provided them equipment, funds, and logistical support. In exchange, they received pivotal intelligence. One operative, Jeannie Rousseau, who befriended German soldiers in Paris and was invited to their parties, was able to learn about the V-1 and V-2 rockets including information about the research facilities. Her information led to a bombing strike that significantly stalled German’s missile program. Flamboyant artist Robert Douin walked and cycled across the Normandy coast preparing a detailed map of German installments that was invaluable during the D-Day invasion.

Their success made them a prime target for the Nazis who were angry at Alliance’s role in their setbacks and defeats. Fourcade, who was pregnant by her second-in-command, Léon Faye, and likely hid it from her associates, stayed on the run for safety and narrowly escaped capture several times. Three thousand agents worked for Alliance, and as the network grew, security risks proliferated.

After the war, Fourcade didn’t relinquish her leadership; along with Ferdinand Rodriguez, a former Nazi prisoner, she traveled to Western France and Eastern Germany to investigate the fates of 450 Alliance agents unaccounted for. Immediately after the war, she advocated for her agents, but for the most part, disappeared into history. Such a position is untenable for a women who made such a contribution, according to Lynne Olsen. Olsen argues that Fourcade’s omission in the history books can be attributed to the fact that she was a woman leader in a deeply patriarchal culture. Additionally, Alliance provided their information to MI6 for the Allies, not to de Gaulle’s Free France which put them afoul of the hero. Those who weren’t allied with de Gaulle did not receive the same favorable treatment as his confederates. Additionally, Navarre had ties to Pétain, the Vichy France leader, anathema in the post-war climate.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War restores Fourcade to her rightful place in history along with the courageous agents of Alliance. The book shows how dedicated and strong ordinary people can be–since most Alliance agents were untrained volunteers–in the face of injustice. At the same time, it tracks the steep losses of Alliance under Nazi persecution.

The book provided rich biographical details of Madeleine-Marie, from her childhood in Shanghai, and of key agents and MI6 personnel. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War depicts the anxiety of being on the move to avoid Nazis, the brief moments of camaraderie, the politics of dealing with MI6, and even the experience of agents in Nazi camps. It’s meticulously researched and comprehensive. If anything, I wish there had been a bit more tradecraft and a bit less detail on movements through France.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War will appeal to many readers: history buffs, particularly of World War II history or women’s history; readers interested in feminism and women’s contributions to history; or anyone who likes a compelling and unbelievable story of ordinary individuals fighting injustice.

Thank you to Goodreads! I won a copy of this book in a giveaway, but was under no obligation to review it.