“Babysitter” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Literary Fiction/Mystery & ThrillersBabysitter
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: August 23, 2022

One of America’s greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, revisits her usual themes of class struggle, the vulnerability of girls, and racism in her latest novel. Following a white, privileged female protagonist, she leads the reader through a labyrinth of horrors: sexual re-victimization, violent marriages, ruthless lovers, pedophile priests, serial child murders, incest, and rape. As only a master can, she writes as if you can see into the souls of her characters. Her carefully constructed sentences render her protagonist simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. Some parts of the story are so cringe-worthy that I needed to take a break from the book. At 84 years of age, no one writes about violence with a deeper awareness than she does. Still, I feel that this novel is only for JCO fans. She even throws in a childhood terminal illness. It is just a bit too much to cram into one story.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of sexual re-victimization, you won’t be after reading “Babysitter.” The term refers to the increased risk of adult sexual assault faced by women with a history of childhood sexual assault. In 1977, Hannah Jarrett, “an attractive white woman in her late 30s, is living the American dream: a wealthy husband, two kids, a home in the Michigan suburbs, and a Filipina nanny. She spends her days at country clubs and community relations forums.” She believes that she hides her insecurities behind her expensive and sophisticated wardrobe. But, due to abuse experienced in her childhood, Hannah cannot recognize the warning signs exhibited by people around her. She meets a man at a party and starts what she considers an affair. The man drugs, beats, and brutally rapes her. Despite the severe abuse, she calls him her lover.

In addition to exploring the patriarchal marriage dynamics, Oates also uses “Hannah’s marriage to explore the deeply embedded racism of 1970s suburban America.” The author nails white supremacy. When Hannah is discovered in the hotel lobby, battered and bruised by her so-called lover, a young black parking attendant is immediately accused of rape. Confused, she never denies that this young man is her rapist. The police shot and killed him, stating that he was resisting arrest.

The book’s title refers not to Hannah’s nanny but to a serial killer who sexually molests and tortures children before killing them. Unsurprisingly, Hannah’s husband is convinced that he must be a black man from Detroit. Sadly, JCO takes her horror stories from real life. What makes the “Babysitter” even viler is that the plot is based on a true story. In the 1970s, a real-life serial killer called the Babysitter Killer, also known as the Oakland County Child Killer, abducted and murdered children around Detroit. Per the Boston Globe, “he left their bodies on display in public places a few weeks after they disappeared. Several suspects, including the son of a prominent man who later committed suicide [also in the book], were identified, and the investigation led to a child pornography ring, but the case was never solved.” Spoiler alert: Nor is it in the novel. If you are looking for answers, the author gives none.

Oates has never shied away from taking her readers on dark journeys. It cannot be denied that her stories will leave you with a better understanding of the psyches of both perpetrators and victims. I am a loyal JCO fan and am glad I read her latest. I hesitate to recommend the book, as it is not for the faint of heart. However, if you are already a fan, you know that her work can get grisly. It appears that she just keeps getting better at what she does.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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Wrong Place, Wrong Time” by Gillian McAllister

Genre: Time Travel/ThrillerWrong time wrong place
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: Aug. 2, 2022

McAllister’s attempt at “Groundhog Day,” where the protagonist is stuck in a time loop and the day keeps repeating until she gets it right. Unlike the movie, this novel is not a comedy. The author explores motherhood and marriage in an unusual mystery. Jen sees her gentle teenage son, Todd kill a man in the middle of the night. She and her husband follow Todd in their car to the jail. They are devastated and in shock. When she wakes up the next morning, it is the day before—all is normal. This is a well-written scene, which will confuse the reader as much as the character. Jen figures out that she has transported back in time to stop the murder. McAllister mentions the phenomena of hysterical strength, which refers to extraordinary displays of human strength typically prompted by a life-threatening situation. One commonly cited example is a mother lifting a vehicle to save her trapped child. Not the same thing, but good enough to explain the author’s time travel plot. Interesting premise, the problem is that she travels further backward each night when she goes to sleep. Halfway through, it becomes monotonous reading the same days over and over. But then again, I didn’t care for the movie. Maybe it’s just me.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Lies I Tell” by Julie Clark

Genre: Mystery/ThrillerThe Lies I Tell
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Pub. Date: June 21, 2022

The book centers on two women, Meg Williams and Kat Roberts. To help the reader “supposedly” comprehend their relationship, it uses a dual narrative with a past/present storyline. They did not know one another in the past, but they did share a common history. However, before moving on to each next chapter, be prepared to go back and forth to figure out who did what to whom—very frustrating. The two women have highly different backgrounds. They come together because they want revenge on those who have wronged them and changed their lives. In the present, Kat is studying to become a skilled con artist like Meg, who has always been one. The author portrays the masculine characters as one-dimensional villains. In addition, she does the same with women, but they are the good guys. There is no character balance. Even though years ago Meg hurt Kat with one phone call, they still use the moral “girl code,” meaning women need to stick together. Towards the novel’s end, it is fun to wonder which one conned the other. Still, most of the plot is flat and unbelievable. Not sure what all the fuss was about for this book.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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The Reading Woman 2022 Calendar: September

“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” —Audre Lorde

Disclosure: I often find poetry difficult to understand. Here is what I found on “Lorde-Poetry-Is-Not-a-Luxury.”

“When Audre Lorde states that “poetry is not a luxury” she is reminding us that if we listen selectively only to the cultural narratives that ground us in histories of inequity and injustice we can’t open paths to equity and justice for ourselves or for one another and we limit the ways we can work together.”

Audre Lorde

“Magpie” by Elizabeth Day

Genre: Mystery/Thrillers
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: May 3, 2020

The themes of “Magpie” are infertility, surrogacy, and mental illness. Spoiler Alert—The reader must determine which of the two women in the tale is inventing stories in her mind as the plot centers on them and one male. One of the women is in a long-term relationship. Sorry if this sounds confusing but so is the story. Reading this one sent my mind into a tailspin as I pondered just what the heck is going on. The awful sorrow experienced by a young couple as they learn to live with the woman’s inability to conceive and the painful details of her IVF treatment is what saves this novel. I am sure there are other novels that deal with IVF that will not make you dizzy.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Sparring Partners: Novellas” by John Grisham

Genre: Legal ThrillerSparring partners
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Pub Date: May 32, 2022

Since his 1989 smash hit, “A Time to Kill,” John Grisham has become one of the most well-read bestselling authors of legal thrillers. If you have heard him in interviews, you will know that his favorite sport is baseball, which shows up in some of his books. In his 2001 novel, “A Painted House,” which is my favorite out of all of his works—without a single lawyer in the plot—readers can gain insight into real-life Harry Caray’s 1952 sports announcements for St. Louis Cardinals baseball games. “Like the best pitchers in Grisham’s beloved sport, sometimes you just want to throw a change-up.”  (Rob Merrill, Associated Press, May 31, 2022). He did this with “Sparring Partners, his first collection of novellas. I am glad he made the change. I had been growing bored of his novels that all seemed to say the same thing in different courtrooms. Here, the author’s themes have not altered, but the prose is more concise with fewer characters that might cause readers to become distracted. Think Charles Dickson.

“Homecoming,” the first of three shorts that comprise the book, is the least compelling. It features Jake Brigance, who has appeared in previous Grisham novels. This time, Jake is asked to help Mack Stafford, a longtime friend, and lawyer whose life was falling apart due to swindling a client. To escape his predicament, he decided to flee and go into hiding, leaving his two daughters behind. He wants to get in touch with them again, and he’s counting on Jake’s help. I enjoyed the insights of Mississippi small-time lawyers with their inside jokes. I had a hard time sympathizing with Mack. But, this is not why the story is my least favorite. The novella has an interesting concept, yet the tale never takes off. While returning to Mississippi and revisiting with Jake is fun, Mack comes off as a lackluster character.

Second in the collection is the emotionally gripping “Strawberry Moon.” Cody Wallace is a young 29-year-old man on death row who is only three hours away from being executed. Grisham makes sure the reader will empathize with the likable Cody. We learn his back story when his lawyer, the jail’s chaplain, and a school teacher, who befriended him, come to visit during these hours. Through these conversations, we learn that 14-year-old Cody and his 15-year-old brother were orphans living on their own. Although he was only 14, he was tried as an adult for murder, though it was his brother who pulled the trigger. It is a heartbreaking tale and my favorite in the collection. The author makes a strong case for the abolition of the death penalty. Grisham has always shared his real-life position and applauds those who fight to abolish capital punishment.

The third and title story, “Sparring Partners,” is the closest to a traditional Grisham legal thriller with lots of courtroom drama centered on its vile characters in a family-run law company. Even so, it appears that Grisham is going for tongue-in-cheek comedy. The father is in jail for murdering his wife, and it seems he killed her because she was a disagreeable woman. His sons Kirk and Rusty, who despise each other, have different staff members and won’t go into the office when the other is there. Their narcissism creates some fun dialogue. They took over the once-thriving law company, which is now being destroyed by the brothers’ rivalry. The three of them (the father has connections in the jail) are scheming against one another to control the largest shares of the business to oust the other two. This results in some outrageous scenarios that make you both grimace and chuckle.

Shorter may be better for the author. “Sparring Partners” reminded me that Grisham is an excellent storyteller. I recommend the book as long as you go in knowing this is not his usual 400 to a 600-page novel. If anyone out there hasn’t read the author, this book is a great introduction to him. On the other hand, if you know his works, this is a quick reminder of his talent.

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“The Old Man” by Thomas Perry

Genre: Action ThrillerThe Old Man
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Pub. Date: Jan. 3, 2027

Former army intelligence officer Dan Chase is the action hero in this thriller. He is known as the old man. Think of a less suave 007 or a Liam Neeson film. The story examines how one’s military past can devastate the life of a seemingly ordinary individual. However, make no mistake; there is nothing ordinary about Dan. He is a trained assassin. Nonetheless, you will root for the protagonist. He is portrayed as a mourning widower and a loving father who has lived in a small Vermont town for 35 years.  His two best friends are his loving, and fiercely loyal dogs. He has been in hiding after allegedly stealing $20 million during a mission in Libya. Now hired guns are once again after him and he goes on the run. Is he being pursued by agents of the American government, Libyan assassins, or some other group with a vested interest in him and the stolen money? The writer keeps you in suspense. There is good tension throughout the novel. The back story of a secondary character—his landlady in the Chicago area—comes across as contrived and unnecessary. Readers will nevertheless be keen to keep reading to find out how this story’s cat-and-mouse game ends. Typically, I don’t read action thrillers. But, a friend recommended this one. I am glad that she did. When the novel was published, it was a finalist for the Barry Award for Best Thriller. Now, I want to watch the television adaptation of the book.

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“The Hotel Nantucket” by Elin Hilderbrand

Genre: Beach ReadThe Hotel N
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Co.
Pub. Date: June 14, 2022

Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of Nantucket. This is the author’s 28th beach read set on the tiny, isolated island off Cape Cod.  I have read three of them. Given that my most recent reviews of literary novels have been deep ones, I was seeking something light. My mind yearned for a vacation. Similar to the previous Nantucket books that I have read by Hilderbrand, this one isn’t all that unique. Despite this, every time I read one of her books I cannot help but escape from reality and enjoy the sights and sounds of beach life. Here the protagonist is a delightful ghost. She was a young hotel maid who passed away in 1922 during a fire in the hotel. The question is did someone purposely start the fire?

For decades, the hotel lay dormant.  In the present, a billionaire has bought the hotel and brought it back to life, well beyond its former splendor. Other storylines include a male rich kid working as a maid to atone for some mysterious, terrible thing that he did not long ago. The female head of housekeeping has a secret. And, the nasty breakups of island marriages. This being a Hilderbrand tale, there is plenty of gossip, and love affairs. The male chef, who is hotter than any dish on the menu, falls for the beautiful female general manager as she recovers from heartbreak. The author doesn’t stray from her usual style. I don’t believe that she has ever had a gay love affair in her books. I would need to research to learn if this is true or not.

Of course, there are twists, usually not believable, but heck this is a beach read. And also, of course, all the characters are chiseled or doe-eyed.  However, I give the author credit for making most of her characters middle-aged, which is unusual for this genre. For the guests, the general manager creates a “Blue Book” containing all her recommended island itineraries. In the appendix, the author includes a lengthy, real-life version of the “Blue Book.” I guess if you are going to Nantucket, you will appreciate it. But, I thought she was filling up pages. Links alone would have been a preferable alternative. Still, I recommend the novel, especially if you read it wearing a bathing suit, on a beach, and drinking a chilled glass of wine.

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“The Adventures of Toby Wey” by Gavin Scott 

Genre: Historical FictionThe Advenures of Toby Wey
Publisher: Havelock Press 
Pub. Date: July 31, 2009

Set in early 19th century England, “The Adventures of Toby Wey” is a historical adventure novel written with a strong dose of good cheer. The narrative swings back and forth between the thrilling and the poignant. Toby’s story, though distinctly English, often evokes that of Huckleberry Finn or Indiana Jones. As he comes of age, he is entangled in real historical events. The book could have been labeled as YA, but everyone should read it. This senior citizen reviewer found the novel to be an exciting page-turner. Only after I finished and reflected on it did I realize how much history I’d absorbed while immersed in the adventure. Considering the breadth of Gavin Scott’s novels and screenwriting credits, it should have come as no surprise.

Overcoming abject poverty and unfair discrimination by the ruling class is the focus of the book. When “Napoleon was at the height of his power, Beethoven was going deaf, and James Madison was annexing Florida for the United States” Toby is born into a poor farm life. As a boy, Toby could be found looking after his younger siblings while his parents work in the fields. This is right around when Mary Shelly introduces the world to her monster. Here, the author hammers in the egotistical nature of leaders. Toby’s father, facing the inability to feed his family, asks the local squire if his cows can use common land for grazing. If a lord hadn’t been present to watch the interaction, he probably would have agreed. Alas, the squire wants a shot at parliament, and so exercises severe austerity to impress the lord. Toby’s father goes on to be imprisoned, where he dies of disease. Toby loses his mother soon after and is separated from his siblings.

In the first of many moves, Toby is taken in by two elderly sisters who hire him as their servant. Despite his sorrow, Toby exhibits a thirst for knowledge and the aptitude for changing something bad into something wonderful, a theme that becomes prevalent throughout the book. On his time off, he is tutored in history at no cost by a bored professor who is thrilled to encounter such a bright mind. On campus, a new world opens up to Toby. He makes a friend and protects him from bullies. To ensure that you fall in love with his protagonist (if you haven’t already), the author makes it abundantly evident that Toby is as kind as he is gifted. In the interim, the sisters and Toby read the bible. When a bishop comes to visit the sisters, they invite him to hear Toby interpret the bible. Scott weaves comedy tightly into the angst of such confrontations. The bishop is not impressed. He roars, “Young Master Wey is not being taught to regard the scriptures as the Holy Word of God…He is being taught to see them as so much history…What is he being educated for?.. he is a viper…he is intelligent…and he is dangerous.” I laughed aloud as Toby becomes homeless again.

At fourteen, Toby joins a carnival and learns a different sort of education. It is here where he gets his first kiss from a carnie girl while accidentally getting involved with “the most notorious British criminal at the time, the hideously maimed, psychotically violent Dog-Face Jack Shepherd.” Before jumping into his next life, he also outwits the “Notorious Chess-Playing Mechanical Turk.” There is no shortage of entertaining vignettes to choose from. None of them bored me. Our hero participates in the construction of Stockton and Darlington’s first public railway to use steam locomotives. The reader cannot help but be impressed by the details included in the story explaining the steam engine’s construction. In Toby’s last escapade, I was at the edge of my seat to learn if he succeeds in rescuing his unfairly imprisoned brother. Scott even laces his Dickens-like tale with Charles Dickens himself. The entire time you’re reading this adventure novel, which is actually a literary novel in disguise, you’ll be laughing, musing, and wanting another Toby adventure—almost four hundred pages were not enough.

The Adventures of Toby Wey by Gavin Scott: https://amzn.to/3bygm1x

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The Last Chairlift” by John Irving

Genre: Literary Fiction/Sexual Politics The last chairlift
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pub Date: October 18, 2022 

At the 1941 National Downhill and Slalom Championships in Aspen, Colorado, skier Rachel Brewster competes in the slalom event. Little Ray, as she is known, doesn’t win. However, she does manage to become pregnant. Irving begins his new novel with Little Ray’s son, Adam, journaling his life. Young Adam is sweet yet defiant of his mother. He is determined not to learn to ski. She is forever telling him to stop wringing his little hands. This theme of defying authority runs deeply through the novel, along with those of neurosis and comic obsession. Little Ray adores, for example, Adam’s short stature, and that of his step-father.

John Irving is one of the prominent novelists of our time—it is a terrifying honor to be asked to review his work. His most recent book, which he wrote at the age of 80, is a 912-page tale laced with his recognizable brand of subtle detail and humorous dialogue. As usual, his characters are oddballs. They have flaws and quirks and sometimes they’re annoying or downright unlikeable, but you end up loving them anyway. Many of the topics touched upon, including sexual nonconformity, are exactly what you’d expect from Irving.

One of my favorite chapters is “The Lesbians’ Children,” which seems to encapsulate the spirit of the novel. Now a gay mother, Little Ray, and her lover, Molly, live happily together with Little Ray’s gay husband. Little Ray’s son, Adam is straight. His best friend is his older cousin Nora, who is gay. As a young teen, Adam needs to close his ears, and curious mind, to the loud orgasms of Nora’s lover, Em. Eventually, Adam will marry Em. Irving refuses to cage his characters’ identities, weaving these threads together with such wit and empathy, it’s hard to imagine the plot unfolding any other way. Ahead of his time, Irving’s 1978 classic, “The World According to Garp,” featured a rare example of a sympathetic trans character. The world may, at last, be catching up.

With such a lengthy novel, it’s not surprising to see it grow sluggish in places. Probably fewer chapters could have resolved this problem. But come on, it’s John Irving. The man is famous for long, strange novels. Did I mention the ghosts? Or the fateful lightning strike? Just get the book and sink in.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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