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: 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: SAVE ME FROM DANGEROUS MEN, inaugural book in new series with tough private eye, Nikki Griffin

Lelchuk, SA - Save Me from Dangerous Men CoverSave Me from Dangerous Men
SA Lelchuk

In Save Me from Dangerous Men, tough and independent Nikki Griffin owns The Brimstone Magpie, a used bookstore in Berkeley, where she’s created a community around the books that give her comfort and reassurance. Nikki is also a private investigator. Determined to protect victims of domestic abuse, Nikki’s unpaid specialty is extracting women from these relationships and ensuring the abusers know the costs of contacting the women again.

Her paid jobs require her to follow cheating husbands or track down missing people–until Greggory Gunn enters her office. CEO of Care4, an up-and-coming tech firm producing cutting edge baby monitors, he suspects Karen Li, an employee, of corporate espionage and needs Nikki’s help learning who she is working for. Although some of Gunn’s story sounded slightly off, the $20,000 cash retainer he offered convinced her to accept the case.

Distracted by her heroin-addicted brother and wanting to help Zoe, an abused woman who entered her orbit, Nikki began surveillance of Karen Li. She saw Karen meet two giant, intimidating men, and was sure that Karen looked not just nervous but terrified. Next, Nikki followed Karen to Mendocino, and saw her meet with the same two men on the beach. When one of them pushed her to the edge of the nearby cliff, she broke cover to intervene. Later, she initiated contact with Karen who told Nikki she had no idea what she’d waded into, but if Karen wasn’t successful, people were going to die.

Now, Nikki counted Karen among the women she had to protect, but that put her and her loved ones in mortal danger. Nikki didn’t know who her enemies were or who would die if she couldn’t stop what seemed to be an irrevocable chain of events.

The plot was fast-paced as Nikki seemed to leap from one dangerous situation to another. Her wild sideline was grounded with trips to the bookstore where she bantered with the ZEBRAS (the Zealous East Bay Ratiocinating Amateur Sleuths) and always was able to recommend the perfect book to customers. Save Me from Dangerous Me included a bevy of literary references, but for the most part they were simple mentions instead of integrated into the plot or described, and that might have been overdone a bit.

Although I figured out some elements of the mystery early on, other parts were a surprise to me. Nikki’s backstory and motivation for her work unspooled throughout the book. Nikki herself had some stereotypical elements: she was beautiful, wounded, had difficulty connecting with men, was intelligent and determined. She had an almost preternatural way of anticipating the behavior of others. All this was a tad unrealistic, as was her ability to continue her vigilante work without any consequences. And the book contains several fighting scenes and descriptions of violence which may trouble some readers.

That said, Save Me from Dangerous Men is a high-octane ride, analogous to an action movie where certain rules of reality can be suspended. As much as I was troubled by Nikki’s methods, there was a part of me that was rooting for her and pleased when she achieved vengeance. This is expected to be the first book in a series with Nikki Griffin. I expect I’ll return to read more about her adventures.

Thank you to NetGalley and Flatiron Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: OKSANA, BEHAVE! a self-destructive protagonist from Kiev growing up in the U.S.

Kuznetsova, Maria - Oksana, Behave coverOksana, Behave!
Maria Kuznetsova

Oksana Konnikova moved to the United States from Kiev with her parents when she was a child. Although her father was a Math Olympics champion in Russia, while working as a physicist in Gainesville, Florida, he had to deliver pizza to make ends meet. Her mother, struggling to find work as an accountant, often fell into depression. And she shared a room with her sassy grandmother who enjoyed the catcalls she received while walking down Prostitute Street. They affectionately call Oksana “fool” or “idiot” but it speaks to a distance between her and her family, perhaps most sadly illustrated when her parents and grandmother go out to dinner to celebrate but leave her behind in the apartment, alone.

Each chapter is written almost as if a self-contained short story and jumps forward in time with only the characters in common. The structure was interesting, and I got a kick out of seeing the brief mentions of Oksana’s high school friend, Lily, and her changing careers, throughout the book. At the same time, the quality and impact of the chapters was uneven. It also offers a less intimate view of the characters since we see them in bits over many time periods.

Oksana certainly is badly behaved. As a child, testing if the police will really come if she calls 911, she reports that her grandmother is trying to kill her. When a tween, she severely injures a bully when protecting a younger child from his abuses. As she ages, her behavior becomes both more selfish and more self-destructive, leaving a swath of cruel destruction in its wake. Even at the end of the novel, when her life has changed dramatically, her choices have not, and it isn’t clear she’s learned anything from the pain she’s caused.

I had also expected much more mediation on the immigrant experience. Her name and other people’s difficulty pronouncing it, her family’s food preferences, and her travel to the Ukraine are embedded in the story, but I’m not sure if we are to take Oksana’s bad behavior as a manifestation of her immigrant experience, her personality, or the result of her upbringing.

Also, I’d hoped for more information on her grandmother’s experiences in the war. From the description, I thought this would play more of a role. Certainly, this history was important to Oksana, but it wasn’t included in the novel but for a paragraph or two.

Maria Kuznetsova does have some wonderful passages and heartrending dialogue, but I found myself empathizing much more with Oksana’s victims than with her. I hoped she would develop and change over the course of the novel, but she never seemed to learn to behave. Maybe, though, the end was just the beginning.

Thank you to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: IF, THEN: Disturbing visions strike neighbors in an Oregon college town

day, kate hope - if, then coverIf, Then
Kate Hope Day

Neighbors in a small Oregon college town near a dormant volcano begin to see visions. Mark sees visions of disaster that push him to make preparations beyond all logic. His wife, Dr. Ginny McDonnell, observes herself living happily with a different partner. Samara Mehta watches her mother–who has been dead a month–prepare to sell the family house. And new resident Cass, a brilliant graduate student and new mother struggling to find balance, glimpses visions of herself pregnant.

The idea behind If, Then is fascinating, but the execution did not completely deliver. The book began with an interesting premise and the beginning was fueled by the question of the meaning of the visions and introduction of the characters.

Telling the story from four points of view provides variety and, in the case of the plot of this book, is absolutely necessary, but the characters are not all equally likable. And while I know it’s a reality for new parents, I did get tired of the descriptions of Cass’s baby’s incessant crying.

It seems clear that Kate Hope Day conducted careful research because there are meticulous details about Ginny’s surgeries and Mark’s research, but the narrative at times gets bogged down in these details, and they come at the expense of characterization. Some of the most interesting characters are secondary: Samara’s mother, Cass’s graduate advisor, and survivalist Harry, perhaps because they are among the few characters to have backstories.

With the lull in the middle of the book, I was hopeful the ending would provide a big payoff, but the denouement was rather anticlimactic and the visions and their “rules of engagement” weren’t consistent or explained.

If, Then is solidly written though and I think will appeal to readers who are interested in the “Theory of Everything” and the possibility of multiverses.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.