Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim*****

The buzz around this mystery started early, and it started loud. If it hadn’t I am not sure I’d have asked to read it. When I saw the premise—the use of a hyperbaric oxygen tank to murder an autistic child—I thought wow, this author is reaching. But a quick web crawl taught me that though controversial, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is actually used to treat autism. The treatment is controversial but the basis of the story is a sound one, so I have learned something already, and now that I’ve read it, I am glad I didn’t let it pass me by. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sarah Crichton Books for the review copy. Miracle Creek will be available to the public April 16, 2019.

The HBOT therapy device is owned by Pak and Young Yoo.  A lot of hard work and financial struggle went into procuring this device; there were years when they had to live apart, with Young and their daughter Mary in Baltimore, Young working round the clock for room, board, and her daughter’s private school tuition while Pak worked two jobs in Korea, squirreling away resources. Now the unthinkable has occurred—the chamber has gone up in flames with patients inside it. Two people are dead and others are horribly injured, and there’s an intensive investigation that leads to an arrest. Elizabeth, a single mother, is charged with starting the fire in order to murder her little boy and free herself from the difficult caregiver role. On the surface, the facts are damning indeed, but what the cops don’t know, at least in the beginning, is that every single person that was there that day is lying about it.

Elizabeth, Kitt, and Teresa are mothers of autistic children, digging deep and running up their credit cards hoping for miraculous transformations. The seventh patient is Matt, whose wife has pressured him into trying this treatment to raise his sperm count. The other characters in this story are the Yoo family that own and operate the chamber, and the legal teams assembled for the trial.

Most legal thrillers and courtroom mysteries hinge heavily upon what happens in the courtroom. In contrast, although what plays out in court is not unimportant, the real meat of this story has to do with the actions, thoughts, and memories of the townspeople that are involved, primarily when court is not in session. Although our point of view is the third person omniscient, specific critical details are revealed to us in stages, and what we learn at the end differs greatly from the conclusions most of us will have drawn at the outset, when we had less information.

Why do people lie, and in particular, why would anyone lie to the authorities investigating a deadly disaster like this one? Make a list of the possibilities, and as you read, you’ll see them all, a veritable potpourri of bald-faced lies and critical omissions of facts. At the end of it, we find just one (lying) person that has integrity and pure motives, and everyone else has crossed a line, not only legally but ethically. And although there’s just one character here that I’d describe as dynamic, the others are developed to an extent as their layers of rationalization, anger, fear, resentment, and greed are revealed to us.

This is an explosive debut, and Angie Kim is a force to be reckoned with. You want to read this book, and happily, you won’t have to wait long. Highly recommended.

Such Good Work, by Johannes Lichtman****

I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy of an obligatory write-up.  And then my own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.

The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me, and most likely will be to all English teachers.  We want to believe; we want to be supportive. And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.

Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure.  He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.

At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately.  Many years ago I saw a short film that showed a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential. Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)

The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy Samaritan.”

Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.

The title has sharp edges.

Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a good memoir.

The Winter Sister, by Megan Collins****

Sylvie doesn’t want to go home. Sixteen years ago her sister Persephone was murdered, and her mother, a single parent, was undone by it. Sylvie’s built a new life for herself and would prefer not to revisit the old one, but her aunt calls and summons her. Sylvie’s mother is gravely ill and Aunt Jill says it is Sylvie’s turn to take care of her. Reluctantly, Sylvie packs and heads home to face her demons.

I was invited to read and review this compelling debut novel courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 5, 2019.

Persephone went on a date the night she was killed; she wasn’t permitted to date and so she had to sneak out. And right away my antennae twitch, because who doesn’t let their seventeen-year-old daughter date? The heck? She was a senior in high school, yet was reduced to climbing in and out of the bedroom window to avoid her mother’s anger. At fourteen, Sylvie was her confederate, leaving the window just a finger’s width ajar so that Persephone could return home undetected. But Sylvie had become increasingly ambivalent; Persephone came home with bruises with increasing frequency, asking her little sis to paint temporary tattoos to cover them up for her. Should Persephone be seeing Ben, the boy responsible for the bruises?  One night she decides not to leave the window open. That way it will be out in the open. Persephone will have to come in through the front door. She’ll be busted, but then the problem of the abusive boyfriend will be where it belongs, right on their mother’s plate.  Let the adult do the adult job, she figured. But that night, unable to sneak back in, Persephone instead returned to her boyfriend’s car, hopped in, and never came home.

Her body wasn’t found for three days.

The guilt of the thing followed Sylvie everywhere she went. She told no one. Their mother took to drink and locked herself away, refusing to respond to her daughter’s pleas on the other side of the door. Aunt Jill took Sylvie home with her when it became obvious that her mother had ceased to mother.

But now, Sylvie has to go back. And she carries so much anger with her; how is it even possible that Ben, the boyfriend, was never arrested or charged? How is it possible that he is working—of all places—in the clinic where her mother goes to receive her chemo?

Collins’s narrative is deeply absorbing, with a component of the psychological thriller in that at times, I wonder whether she is reliable. Things are certainly not what they seem. The resolution is surprising, yet fair to the reader. It’s a clever plot with layered characters, and I look forward to seeing what Collins writes in the future.

Recommended to those that love the genre.

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


Best Debut Fiction 2018

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                                                                                           Honorable Mention:

Best General Fiction of 2018

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TheCaregiver

The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

The Lido, by Libby Page***-****

thelido3.5 stars rounded up. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review this charming debut. This book is for sale now.

Kate is a journalist, painfully shy, anxious, and lonely. Rosemary is an elderly widow. When the Lido—which I learned is an open air swimming pool—in Brixton is slated to close, Rosemary is up in arms. She isn’t usually an activist, but she has swum in this pool her entire life, and many of the most memorable events she has experienced took place there. She loves it still, and she cannot abide the fact that the lido is being sold to private developers who want to put up “swish new high rises.” Rumor has it that it won’t even remain a swimming pool; they may pave it over and put in tennis courts. Rich folks love tennis.

Kate smells a story, and she wants to interview Rosemary. Rosemary makes a counteroffer: she’ll do the interview only after Kate has swum at the Lido.

For Kate, this is traumatic. She isn’t crazy about her own body, and the thought of disrobing in front of others in a locker room nearly undoes her. But she swims, and she gets her interview. Over the course of the fight to save the lido, which Kate joins, she and Rosemary become good friends, and Kate’s own life blossoms. At the same time, there’s a bit of history here as we wander back in time with Rosemary to the war years when she met her husband, George.

The text has a soothing quality that you don’t see much of anymore. It’s not a page turner, and gets a bit slow in places, but sometimes a more sedate pace is what’s needed. I found it good bedtime reading, because it helped me unwind. My feminist heart is cheered by a story in which both main characters are female, and neither of them fits the tiny-but-fierce model that so many writers seem to favor. Kate is awkward. Rosemary is a fat old granny. Oh hell yes. Both are white women; there is a side character named Ahmed, but those looking for a truly diverse bit of fiction will have to look elsewhere.

Some readers are disturbed by blue language and sex scenes. Though the story isn’t entirely devoid of these, there’s very little of it.  The text is accessible to anyone with a high school education.

There are moments where the sweetness goes over the top. I gagged when the Brownie troop joined the protest to save the pool, and I wondered how Rosemary could have dozens of sweet memories of George and not even a single resentful or ambiguous one. But these are relatively small concerns.

For those looking for a feel good story, this book is recommended.