Bookworm: ‘Wicked’ romance and you can’t take it with you

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Before We Were Wicked”

  • By Eric Jerome Dickey
  • c. 2019, Dutton
  • $27, $36 Canada; 341 pages

They said it would never work. He married up too high. She was a gold-digger and he didn’t realize it yet. She wanted a daddy figure; he was mama’s boy. Neither was good enough for the other, so they said it wouldn’t work. And in the new novel, “Before We Were Wicked” by Eric Jerome Dickey … they were right.

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When Ken Swift first spotted Jimi Lee, he wasn’t looking for a woman. He was looking for the man his boss, San Bernardino, had sent him to punish, because that man hadn’t paid his loan. San Bernardino didn’t mess around.

“Before We Were Wicked” author Eric Jerome Dickey.

When it came to women, neither did Ken Swift. Jimi Lee was gorgeous, an Ethiopian in a white skirt who could dance like nobody’s business. She came to the club with another guy but she left with Swift, who took her to his condo. She told him her birth name, told him that she was headed for Harvard in the fall, said her parents were very strict and would be angry at her audacity. Then she said she was a virgin.

She learned about lovemaking fast. Lee and Swift broke all her parents’ rules and some her parents didn’t even know about, and they were purposefully careless about birth control. Even so, her pregnancy came as a surprise.

Lee’s parents kicked her out of their house. Swift married her at the L.A. courthouse. She was 19 and her dream of Harvard was gone; he was 22, a husband, father, and an enforcer who busted skulls to pay for diapers for his baby girl and clothes for his increasingly unhappy wife.

“Before We Were Wicked” by Eric Jerome Dickey.

And then, while on a job for Bernardino, Swift murdered a man in self-defense. Lee knew it, which only increased her discontent: she started sleeping around, drinking, leaving home the second Swift arrived. Eventually, Jimi Lee told him what she wanted out of a divorce, which was everything he owned.

And that was fine with Swift; things were not important. He’d never miss them, but could he ever give up Lee?

What you’ll need to know about “Before We Were Wicked” is this: there are bedroom scenes in this book. Lots of them.

There’s also a lot of dialogue here, which may seem like overkill and can be confusing but it’s important to read it all, to set the moods of love and anger. It’s through that dialogue that author Eric Jerome Dickey lets readers watch the unfolding of a fast-paced, passionate relationship that really has no future. To shake things up, then, in the midst of our voyeurism, we glimpse the Elephant in Swift’s Room, which is his work for San Bernardino, who doesn’t appear in this novel but who acts as an irritant that prods the marriage until it explodes.

That all makes this the tightest of novels but with lots of spice, so beware. This book is hot and violent and if you can handle that, “Before We Were Wicked” will work right fine.

“Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes)”

  • By Lorna Landvik
  • c.2019, University of Minnesota Press
  • $25.95, higher in Canada; 306 pages           

They say you can’t take it with you. The money you’ve amassed, the property you own, jewelry, art, and fancy cars won’t mean a thing once you’re dead and gone. No, you can’t take it with you, but in the new novel “Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes)” by Lorna Landvik, what’s been left behind?

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If you asked Haze Evans how old she felt, she’d probably never say the truth (81), but not because of vanity. No, despite creaky knees and her status as the oldest employee at the Granite Creek Gazette, she preferred to focus on staying active, curious, and productive by writing a feature column several days a week.

“Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes)” by Lorna Landvik.

Or, well, she used to. On her way home from a show at Minnesota’s Lakeside Playhouse, Haze collapsed in the car and was taken directly to the hospital. Her prognosis was iffy.

Susan McGrath would’ve cried, if she let herself. Haze had been at the paper since Susan’s grandfather hired her decades ago, and Susan counted Haze as a dear friend. It was unthinkable that after fifty years of columns, the Gazette wouldn’t print Haze’s wise words – but then Susan remembered that Haze kept a file of all her printed work, along with comments she’d received.

While Haze healed, why not reprint her old columns?

For 14-year-old Sam McGrath, the only thing worse than working for his dad was working for his mom. It didn’t help that was also caught in the middle of their impending divorce. Plus, he was a geek. Plus, he had a crush on a girl who would never look twice at him. Even if he had a driver’s license. Which he didn’t.

But he did have a job, and that was to go through Haze Evan’s old columns, helping to decide which ones to reprint in the Gazette. He hadn’t known Haze well, but he learned a lot about her from her writing. He learned a lot about the people in his small town, too. And he learned a secret that would change everything …

Words, as you know, have power. They can influence, impact, inspire, and incite, and in “Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes),” they come from a character that never speaks one word throughout.

No, author Lorna Landvik’s Haze is mute and ailing from page 5 forward, but that only makes her presence stronger and it imbues extra meaning to her columns and her diary, both of which, together, make up about half the book. The other half consists of a delightful unfolding of gentle drama, Mom humor, current events, politics, twists, and surprises revealed at a pleasant pace and wrapped in a love story to close neighbors and small towns, where people might gossip but the truth is better.

Your book club wants this book. Put it by your easy chair, bedside, lunch box, or tuck it in the car. Find it in the library or the bookstore because “Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) is a book you’ll want to take with you.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.