Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley*****

Findyouinthedark4.5 rounded up. What a way to make a debut!  Ripley’s creepy new thriller will have you locking your windows and looking under the bed at night. Thanks go to Atria Books for the review copy, which I received free of charge. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t expect it, but once I flipped it open and began reading, there was no question that I would finish it. You’ll feel the same.

The story is told in the first person by Martin Reese, a wealthy entrepreneur who took early retirement. He explains to us that he is on the way home from one of his digs, and he has to get back in time to pick up his daughter, Kylie from swim practice. Martin regards himself as a family centered man, and so at first I assume this is true. Is the guy an archaeologist?  Is he a cop? He isn’t either of these. So the digs are…?

Alternately we read a second narrative, told in the third person, about Detective Sandra Whittal.  She’s nobody’s fool, and the anonymous calls she receives that lead her to the graves of women long presumed dead at the hands of serial killer Jason Shurn set off all sorts of bells and whistles. Whittal doesn’t think this caller is the clever public servant he claims to be. She regards him as a murderer in the making, a man building toward a killing spree of his own.

The pacing here is strong, building toward the can’t-stop-now climax, but it’s the tone, the phrasing of Martin’s narrative that is disquieting.  His conversational tone tells us that he genuinely considers himself to be one of the good guys, but there are little cues here and there that that make me lean in, because something is wrong, very wrong here. Martin tells us that his wife and daughter are his whole world, but he spends very little time in their company. He tells us that he is searching for Ellen’s missing sister, a presumed victim of the serial killer whose remains haven’t been found, but a dozen small signals tell us that he’s never going to stop doing this. As the story unfolds, the dread and tension increase without ever letting up.

Contributing to my foreboding is the way Martin talks about and to his wife. Ellen suffers from anxiety and depression related to her sister’s death, but she functions in the real world, holding down a position of responsibility at a credit union. Though Martin tells us that everything he does is for her and Kylie, there are little cracks in the surface that show anger and resentment toward her. He doesn’t treat her as his equal; he is patronizing toward her, treating her and Kylie as if they are one another’s peers. Conversely, he confides an unusual amount to his fourteen-year-old daughter, and is the final arbiter of disagreements between his wife and daughter. I expect this sick dynamic to factor into the story’s denouement, but although his inattentiveness is a factor in some of the surprising results, the bizarre relationship isn’t fully addressed or resolved, and it is here that half of a star comes off.

This story is a page-turner. I read it quickly and if it hadn’t been quite so sinister, I would’ve torn through it in a weekend, but I gave myself an evening curfew where this book is concerned. I didn’t want it in my dreams. I didn’t even want it in my bedroom. As a younger woman, I am sure it wouldn’t have impacted me this way, so it may not disturb you quite as completely as it did me.

If you enjoy a book that conveys the emotional impact of Thomas Harris or Truman Capote, here you go. But plan to sleep with the light on while you’re reading it.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li*****

NumberOneChineseLillian Li’s debut novel , a tale of intra-family rivalry, intrigue, and torn loyalties is a barn burner; it captured my attention at the beginning, made me laugh out loud in the first chapter, and it never flagged. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company, from whom I received a review copy in exchange for this honest review.  Don’t let yourself miss this one. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

The book opens with bitter scheming on the part of Jimmy, one of two brothers that fall heir to the family restaurant after their father passes away.  Jimmy has waited for the old man to die so that he could run the restaurant his own way. The Duck House serves greasy, cheap Chinese food, and he is sure he can do better. He craves elegance, a superior menu with superior ingredients. He wants renown, and he doesn’t want his brother Johnny to have one thing to do with it.

Johnny’s in China. Johnny runs the business end of the restaurant, and he takes care of the front of the house. He’ll come back to Maryland in a heartbeat, though, when the Duck House burns down.

Li does a masterful job of introducing a large cast of characters and developing several of them; although at the outset the story appears to be primarily about the brothers, the camera pans out and we meet a host of others involved in one way or another with the restaurant. There are the Honduran workers that are referred to by the Chinese restaurant owners and their children as ‘the amigos’, and we see the way they are dismissed by those higher up, even when it is they that pull Jimmy from a burning building. There’s a bittersweet love triangle involving Nan and Ah-Jack, who work in the restaurant, and Michelle, Ah-Jack’s estranged wife, but it’s handled deftly and with such swift pacing and sterling character development that it never becomes a soap opera. Meanwhile Nan’s unhappy teenage son, Pat, pulls at her loyalties, and she is torn between him and Ah-Jack in a way that has to look familiar to almost every mother that sees it in one way or another. But the most fascinating character by far, hidden in the recesses of her home, is the sons’ widowed mother, Feng Fui, who serves as a powerful reminder not to underestimate senior citizens.

Li is one of the most exciting, entertaining new voices in fiction since the Y2K, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Gan bei!

The Island Dwellers, by Jen Silverman*****

TheIslandDwellersJen Silverman is a playwright with a list of awards as long as your arm. With this impressive collection of short stories, she steps into the world of prose with guns a-blazing. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book is now for sale.

Silverman’s contemporary fiction is themed, as the title suggests, around people that live on islands in various parts of the world. Everything here is edgy and a little bit dark. Her characters are melancholy, naïve, neurotic, bent, and at times laugh-out-loud funny; she doesn’t leave her endings—or her readers—hanging, and I didn’t successfully predict the way any of her stories would turn out. We have destructive relationships; relationships that are hellishly unequal; artists that aren’t really; strange, strange animals—oh, hell, that Japanese pit viper! But the thing that ties these tales together, apart from the theme, is deft, tight writing.

Anyone planning a vacation should pack this title, whether in paper or digitally. Short stories are terrific for bed time and when traveling, because the end of each story gives the reader a reasonable place to pause even when the prose is masterfully rendered, as it is here. This volume was released May 1, 2018 and is highly recommended.

The Comedown, by Rebekah Frumkin***

thecomedownThanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy.  This debut tells me that Frumkin is an author to watch. This book is now available to the public.

The story begins with Leland, an addict with a suitcase, and Reggie, the dealer that hates him. There’s Melinda, the unhappy ex-wife, and a host of other characters, including Melinda’s daughter-in-law Jocelyn. The suitcase is the hook; everyone wants it, and so of course the reader must wonder what is in it and who has it now.

This novel grabbed me at the get-go, darkly funny and brutally frank. It struck me as angry fiction, and the energy behind it was fascinating. But ultimately, there are too many characters and too many social issues wrapped into this one story, and rather than making it complex and tight, it wanders in too many directions. There’s an overly lengthy narrative toward the end, and it’s followed by some regrettable dialogue. And there are too many characters named Leland.  The story is an ambitious one, but this should probably have been more than one story, or perhaps a series. The result is a lack of focus.

I would love to see the author write something else using Melinda as the central character, and fewer guys named Leland.

Girls Burn Brighter, by Shobha Rao***

GirlsBurnBrighterThanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this review.  This book is for sale to the public now.

This story is billed as one of matchless friendship, and it is that, but the misery and despair are so stark and ever present as to destroy all hope, and this ambivalence is the reason for my slowness and frankly reluctance to review.

Our story is set in India, and our two protagonists are Poornima, whose struggling father runs a small textile factory that makes saris, and Savitha, one of his workers. They become friends and uphold one another through the desperate struggle for survival. Poornima’s mother is gone, and the daughter is not considered beautiful, which makes her dowry an even more essential aspect of her marriage than it would otherwise be. She herself has no desire to marry, particularly not to someone she has never met and that only plans to marry her for the income generated by the union, but her father is genuinely eager to be rid of her—one more mouth to feed—and she is hustled through the ordeal despite her misgivings.

Savitha has vowed to protect and defend her friend, but she is banished and must make a run for it.

The entire story is bleak, stark, and horrible. For those that are unaware of the fate of some women in some Asian countries, this may be worth reading for enlightenment, but for many feminists this is not news. Stories of Indian women being fatally burned or badly disfigured by accidentally-on-purpose kitchen accidents by angry in-laws that expect more of a dowry price than is actually paid have circulated since the 1980s at least. I would have found the story more compelling and less difficult to read if there was some small twinkle of hope somewhere. At the seventy percent mark I decided I couldn’t stand it, but when I skipped to the end, I discovered that at least one protagonist was still alive, which is better than I expected, and so I went back and read the rest of it. It proved to be a small reward for a great deal of horror.

Don’t get me wrong; if there was a way that even one woman in India could somehow be spared because I had read this novel, I’d be all in. But to read news that is both old and terrible to no end—because if the US government were ever to actively assert the rights of women anywhere, which it hasn’t, it sure as hell won’t be under the current administration—seems like a lot of grinding sorrow to no good purpose.

Recommended to readers with strong stomachs that have no knowledge of how women in India are treated, with the caveats above.

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward*****

WheretheLineBleedsWard is a force to be reckoned with, a literary power house whose books everyone should read. I read the third book in this trilogy, the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing last summer, and then I knew I had to read everything else she had ever written. When I saw that this title, the first in the same trilogy, was being released again and that review copies were available, it seemed like Christmas. Many thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. This book was released again last week and is now for sale.

Twins Christophe and Joshua are graduating from high school, exuberant and full of plans for the future. The sole source of tension, a longstanding one that is integral to their deepest senses of self, is whether their mother, Cille, will put in an appearance. She lives in Atlanta, but she might come home to see them walk. Then again, she might not. They assure each other that really, only Ma-mee matters. Ma-mee is their grandmother, but she is the one that raised them since they were tiny; in fact, their grandmother really wanted them, and their mother really didn’t.

When their graduation present arrives—a used but still nice car for the two of them to share—they snicker to one another and say this means Cille isn’t coming. She’s done with them for sure now, bought her way out of a personal appearance. But Joshua still hopes; Joshua still longs for her.

Their father, Samuel, lives locally, and it is at him their anger is unequivocally directed. Known as the Sandman, he is beneath the contempt of even the most humble local citizens, a meth addict with a mouth full of rotting teeth that will do anything, no matter how humiliating or unprincipled, for even the smallest sum of drug money. Samuel has never pitched in a dime to help Ma-mee raise them, but now that they are adults—at least officially—he has come sniffing around.  The twins’ rage toward him is measureless.

The thing that makes this story so visceral, so moving, and so deeply absorbing is the character development and the complexity of the relationships between and among the twins and the two women. Cille’s insensitivity makes me punch my pillow a couple of times. Can she not see how little food they have, despite their proud claim to be fine, just fine?  Every gesture, every word is weighted with meaning. No statement, no financial transaction, no arrival or departure is without weight. The blues festival Cille has planned to attend as part of her vacation—to which the twins are of course not invited—and the money carelessly dropped on a rental car could go so much farther to help her elderly mother, who is legally blind now, but instead she leaves Ma-mee to her eighteen year old sons to care for. They both assume they will be able to get jobs once they have high school diplomas; they have no police record, and they’re not too proud to apply at fast food outlets and other retail locations.

The best jobs to be had are on the docks, but not everyone can get one. Their cousin observes, “Everybody and they mama want a job at the pier and the shipyard. Everybody want a job down there can’t get one.”

And so  “reality [rolled] over them like an opaque fog…” Joshua, the lighter of the twins, is hired, but Christophe can’t get a job there or anywhere else.  And so a new division is born, and a new source of tension develops. Joshua feels guilty, apologetic, and yet as time goes on, as he sweats for long hours in the Mississippi summer sun carrying chicken guts and who knows what else, his brother absents himself and comes home high; he sleeps into the day, and sometimes shows up late to pick Joshua up from work.  He’s given in to his cousin’s invitation to deal drugs, and that puts everyone at risk.

Over and again, I can see that the twins are still children. Young men don’t grow up quickly anymore. They are children emotionally and developmentally until their mid-twenties, and yet this burden is Joshua and Christopher’s to carry; the choices they make are not the choices of criminals or saints, but the choices of children. Yet they carry the burdens of men, and they are aware this is because of the defection of their mother.

Ward’s more recent work is even better written than this one, and yet it’s harsher, too; I had to put it down from time to time, because it was getting dark out there. This story in contrast is one I could read for hours on end, and I did. There’s violence aplenty as well as tragedy, but this is a reality I can look at without flinching, and that’s worth a great deal too.

 

Highly recommended to those that love outstanding literary fiction, African-American fiction, Southern fiction, and family stories.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.