The Half-Life of Remorse, by Grant Jarrett*****

TheHalfLifeofRemorseHere is a story for our time. It’s fresh, moving, fall-down-laughing funny in places, and has the best character development I’ve seen lately. I was growing cranky from having to pan other people’s bad books, and I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Sparkpress almost as an afterthought; then it nearly knocked me off my feet with its voice and sheer creative power. It was published last week, and you should get it, read it, and then make other people do the same thing. It’s that strong.

The format is a simple one, and because there’s not a lot of plot or setting, everything boils down to the inner monologues of the three characters here. We start and conclude with a brief narrative in the third person omniscient, and in between we have the staggered monologues of two homeless men and a professional single woman confined to a wheelchair. Sam has blocked out a traumatic past, likely suffering from PTSD and who knows what else. His monologue is a literary sounding one, and indeed, he was once an academic. Now he calls himself a wizard, and at times, we nearly believe him.

The other homeless man calls himself Chick. He is not a young man either, and is running from his own misdeeds, and Sam tells us that Chick “…is a testament to life’s unrelenting desperation to continue.” Chick is not literate, but he manages to communicate brilliantly in his own tumbledown, roughshod, clumsy manner. Every now and then he tries to use a slightly larger vocabulary than he possesses, and ends up referring to “the persecuting attorney” and not wanting to “cast inspersions” upon the characters of others. Though he is thoroughly profane and limited grammatically, in his own way Chick is as eloquent as Sam.

The third character, a less developed but still important one, is Claire. Claire lost the use of her legs when her family was invaded by criminals during her childhood. Both Sam and Chick were there, but at the time, they did not know each other.

Jarrett writes in a way that is wholly original, and the juxtaposition of Sam’s monologue with Chick’s is startling and very funny. Somehow this author manages to slam tragedy and humor right up against one another without diminishing either. Most importantly, he is able to portray both Sam and Chick as men that still have purpose and a personal code of honor despite the horrors they have experienced and the bad choices they have made. Jarrett’s prose is the sort that grabs me by the hair and doesn’t release me until the story is finished. At one point, I found myself lightheaded because I had forgotten to breathe.

This novel is highly recommended to everyone that loves strong fiction.

The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”

 

Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is drawn to a cottage said to be haunted by a boy that died in a hurricane many years before.

The story begins with a lengthy internal monologue that made me fear I’d regret requesting the review copy. There’s a saying that only those that know the rules of written convention well are entitled to break them upon occasion, and Godwin is one that does, and she does it for a reason. I can promise the reader that if you push through the first twenty percent of the story, complete with very frequently used parenthesis, you’ll be in it for keeps.

Marcus is one of the most resonant characters I’ve read in a long time. He is orphaned, unmoored, and friendless; his one good friend insulted Marcus’s mother, and the friendship was broken. Now his great fear is that Great-Aunt Charlotte, a reclusive painter that values her privacy and has a very small home, may grow weary of the inconvenience of having him with her and send him away. The reader can clearly see this brusque but thoughtful woman grow attached to her young relative, but Marcus is too overwhelmed and depressed to catch a clue. He tries to make himself scarce to reduce his impact on her, and in doing so spends an inordinate amount of time nurturing and watching the nests of leatherback turtle eggs laid on Charlotte’s beach, and walking or biking back and forth to the far end of the island, where the legendary Grief Cottage, Charlotte’s most lucrative painting subject, sits desolate and friendless, not unlike Marcus himself.

A measure of a well written a novel is the way our affection for it lingers after we have finished reading it and look back after we’ve read other things. Because I received a very early galley for this one, I have read and reviewed 24 other books since this one, and yet when I see the cover for this title, I heave a deeply satisfied sigh. Oh yes. Grief Cottage. That one was wonderful!

Those that only enjoy action-packed thrillers will have no joy here; rather, Godwin’s prose is the sort one sinks into, like a deep feather bed or a favorite chair by the fire. For those that love strong literature, I cannot think of a better way to spend quiet spring evenings.

Highly recommended.

Grit, by Gillian French**

gritSometimes there is so much in a novelist’s heart that their debut novel tries to do too much. Perhaps that is what happened here. I expected to enjoy Grit, and I tried to engage with the story, but every time I thought we were on our way, it turned out we were going somewhere else. Regardless, my thanks go to Edelweiss, Above the Treeline, and Harper Teen for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It is scheduled for release May 16, 2017.

The novel starts out strong. Darcy Prentiss is a rebellious teenager, and the voice of the rural working class of Maine is a resonant one, and it’s what keeps this from becoming a one-star review. The teens of the small town of Sasanoa rake blueberries for summer spending money. The story devolves around the disappearance of Darcy’s best friend, Rhiannon; there are so many side stories and diversions here that I feel as if Rhiannon gets lost in the muddle.

The mores of this tale are to some degree set to the values of the Caucasian middle and working classes of 1950. All teenagers are assumed to be heterosexual by the default of the story line, but there are a lot of novels that still do this, and if it were the only issue here I would have smiled, nodded, and moved on. The plot, however, is partly teen romance, with girls that have crushes on this boy, that one, and the other, and the plot is also partly about our protagonist’s obsession with—wait for it—the local beauty pageant.

Seriously.

I keep turning the pages, waiting for this story to either become a real mystery, or to take us somewhere important. There are some tense moments in which the local kids are forbidden to mix with the migrant workers; immigration is a huge issue right now in the USA, and so my pulse beat a bit quicker as I waited to see where French would take this thread. I could happily forget all about the missing-or-dead ex-pal Rhiannon if some sort of social justice theme was in the offing. Instead, this aspect of the story leads nowhere and is abandoned. I am sad.

During a conversation that Darcy overhears between her mother and aunt another red-hot issue is raised and again, my heart beats quicker. The aunt refers to Darcy’s clothing and says,

“‘She’s asking for it. Every time she walks out that door in those skimpy little shorts with her shirt cut way down to here, she’s asking for it.'”

I think perhaps this is where things will start to move, perhaps using the narrative to explore body image issues among teenagers along with stereotypes and the slut-shaming that sometimes causes girls to hate themselves and sometimes hurt themselves, or perhaps to look at sexual assault and the way that society enables sexual violence by blaming the victims. But once again, the opportunity is squandered.

Add to this strange, wandering plot some nasty stereotypes about fat women and we end up with a story more likely to do harm than good, although there is really no message here powerful enough to do much of anything. We find our way back to Rhiannon eventually, but it’s a waste because the momentum has been lost. When the story is finally over, I am delighted to be finished with it.

In the end, we have a resonant setting with dubious characters to populate it and a plot that has too many dead ends to gain momentum. Clear focus and assistance from a high profile editor might make this story a winner, but as it stands now, I cannot recommend it.

The Standard Grand, by Jay Baron Nicorvo*****

thestandardgrand“A loaded gun wants to go off.”

Critics have compared Nicorvo’s brilliant debut novel to the work of Heller, and indeed, it seems destined to become the go-to story of those that have served in the unwinnable morass created by the US government against the people of the Middle East: “a drawdown war forever flaring up”. It’s created a tremendous amount of buzz already. I was lucky enough to read it free and in advance for the purpose of a review, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, but today it’s available to the public. You should buy it and read it, maybe more than once.

The story starts with a list of the characters involved, but the way it’s presented provides a tantalizing taste of the author’s voice. The page heading tells us these are “The Concerns”, and the subheadings divide them into practical categories, such as The Smith Family, the Employees of IRJ, Inc., and The Veterans of The Standard Grande (misspelling is mentioned later in the story). Then we proceed to list The Beasts, and The Dead, and The Rest, and right then I know this is going to be good.

Antebellum Smith is our protagonist, and she’s AWOL, half out of her mind due to PTSD, anxiety, and grief. She’s sleeping in a tree in New York City’s Central Park when Wright finds her there and invites her to join his encampment at The Standard Grand. Here the walking wounded function as best they can in what was once an upscale resort. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the story is the way extreme luxury and miserable, wretched poverty slam up against one another. Although the veterans are grateful for The Standard Grand, the fact is that without central heat, with caved in ceilings, rot, and dangerous disrepair, the place resembles a Third World nation much more than it resembles the wealthiest nation on the planet.

On the other hand, it’s also perched, unbeknownst to most of its denizens, on top of a valuable vein of fossil fuel, and the IRJ, Incorporated is sending Evangelina Cavek, their landsman, out in a well-appointed private jet to try to close the deal with Wright. She is ordered off the property, and from there things go straight to hell.

Secondary and side characters are introduced at warp speed, and at first I highlight and number them in my reader, afraid I’ll lose track of who’s who. Although I do refer several times to that wonderful list, which is happily located right at the beginning where there’s no need for a bookmark, I am also amazed at how well each character is made known to me. Nicorvo is talented at rendering characters in tight, snapshot-like sketches that trace for us, with a few phrases and deeds, an immediate picture that is resonant and lasting. Well drawn settings and quirky characters remind me at first of author James Lee Burke; on the other hand, the frequently surreal events, sometimes fall-down-funny, sometimes dark and pulse-pounding, make me think of Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut. But nothing here is derivative. The descriptions of the main setting, The Standard Grand, are meted out with discipline, and it pays off.

As for Smith, she still has nightmares, still wakes up to “the voices of all the boys and girls of the wars—Afghan, Iraqi, American—like a choir lost in a dust storm.”

There’s so much more here, and you’re going to have to go get it for yourself. It’s gritty, profane, and requires a reasonably strong vocabulary level; I’m tempted to say it isn’t for the squeamish, yet I think the squeamish may need it most.

Strongly recommended for those that love excellent fiction.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman****

beartown“You can fuck any girl you like here tonight; they’re all hockey-whores when we win.”

Fredrik Backman is a sly writer, and he has a way of spiraling around his central point so that readers are mighty close by the time they recognize where they are. He writes with philosophical grace tinged with wit, and his novels are popular because of it. And so it cheers me to see him examine what might happen to a small depressed town whose hopes are all hinged on youth sports. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Beartown is available to the public today.

In Beartown, everyone dreams of hockey, and those that don’t are stuck on the outside looking in. A man’s glory days are done before he’s 40; a woman has no glory days at all, since women cannot play on the men’s team and there is no women’s team. Everything comes second to hockey: education, social skills, and even the law are bent, sometimes to the breaking point, in order to accommodate star athletes. Hockey is the town’s only remaining business, and it seems to provide the only possible hope for young men that have grown up in the forest and don’t want to leave it to seek work.

Backman has a genius for drawing the reader in. Some of the scenes in this story actually make me laugh out loud. His respect for women is a breath of fresh air as well. In literary terms, though, the greatest success of this piece is the way a large number of characters are developed so that readers genuinely feel that we know not just a protagonist, but a whole town. We know who is related, what private baggage exists between individuals and families, which marriage is happy and which is not, and it’s delivered to us in a way that never feels gossipy or prurient. Rather, Backman makes us feel as if we are part of the town, and so everything is important to us as well.

Fans of Backman’s will be pleased once again here. My sole quibble is that I see a character at the end behave in a way that is so inconsistent with what we know of him so far that I can hear the violins play. It’s heartwarming, but if the same thing had been achieved more subtly, it would be credible as well.

Nevertheless, you won’t want to miss this book. Regardless of the ugly things that are said and done at various points, the author comes back, as he always has before, to the innate goodness of the human spirit, and it’s messages like this one that we need so badly today. Recommended to those that enjoy good fiction.

Something To Be Brave For, by Priscilla Bennett***

Bennett’s provocative new novel tackles domestic abuse. I was invited to read this one free and in advance by a representative from Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review.

somethingtobebraveforKatie Giraud is the daughter of a successful surgeon. Her father is disappointed when she chooses not to go into medicine, but he is overjoyed when she falls in love with his protégé, Claude Giraud. Claude is the son he never had. Katie is an art lover, and now she can enjoy her passion while being well provided for. Her husband is a handsome, charming Frenchman who woos her with roses and jewelry. It’s like something out of a fairy tale.

The trouble commences when the wedding is done and real life begins. You see, Claude has a wicked temper. He has enormous control issues, and he’s unpredictable. You just don’t know when he’s going to lash out. Next thing she knows, Katie is bleeding and cowering beneath the grand piano. But after daughter Rose is born, things are better, but they’re worse; Katie is more willing to try to escape this abusive relationship because she knows that it traumatizes her little girl to see Claude hurt her, but having a daughter also makes flight more complicated.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Feminists everywhere can rejoice that the problem is so well demonstrated. Even in a home where there is such affluence, leaving isn’t as easy as it sounds. Her husband’s reputation is excellent, and he’s a smooth liar. Her parents love him, and he’s friends with the chief of police. Every effort she makes is thwarted. I appreciate this as I read it, because in cases of domestic abuse, societal conversation tends to question the victim: what is wrong with her, to make her stay in a situation like that? Why not develop a spine, get up, walk out? And yet statistics tell us that a woman is much more likely to be killed by a violent spouse, or former spouse, after she has left him, than to be killed by him while still in the marriage.

Leaving is dangerous.

That said, it seems strange that I never feel bonded to Katie. I know she is an art lover, a battered wife, and a devoted mother, and I know some of her physical attributes, but beyond these things her character remains blurry and underdeveloped. Better character development would move the entire story forward and add greater impact to the overall message.

The ending feels simplistic and somewhat formulaic. But those that care about domestic violence and champion women’s issues may want to read it anyway because it adds to the discussion, one that so often is stifled as its victims remain isolated in the shadows.

This book was published April 3, 2017 and is available for sale now.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

Southern Fried, by Tonya Kappes***

southernfriedThis fetching little cozy mystery is the second in a series, but I didn’t read the first one, and I was able to keep up with it finer than frog hair. You might could, too. I am grateful to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received absolutely free of charge in exchange for this review. But don’t you worry none, cause you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Sheriff Kendrick Lowry, and she tells us the whole story in the first person. The problem starts when Myrna finds Owen in the greenhouse on top of her prize tomatoes. Why did he have to go and die there? She says it took her months to get them that plump, and if you’ve ever grown great tomatoes—an impossible feat in Seattle, I am sorry to admit—you know it’s true.

Sheriff Kendrick, locally known as “Kenni”, is assisted in her law enforcement activities by Poppa. Poppa was the sheriff around these parts, but he’s dead now, and his ghost can only appear when she has a case to crack, so in a strange sort of way, this murder is a blessing in disguise. The local stigma against a woman as sheriff in this small Kentucky town is offset by the venerable family tradition Poppa cultivated before he departed.

I believe my favorite part is the day following the discovery of the body, when Lowry arrives to find the crime scene tape destroyed and Myrna moseying around the greenhouse like nothing ever happened. You know this happens in real life, but you never see it in fiction, except here. I also love the part when someone suggests the sheriff call for backup, and she notes that her deputy is out of town, and so exactly who is she supposed to call? Again, fictional cops always seem to have unlimited resources in even the most unlikely situations, and Kappes leaned hard on my funny bone. What a hoot.

A lot of this book doesn’t make much sense, but then it doesn’t have to. It’s a romp. However, if a couple of inconsistencies had been cleared up and a hot-stove issue hadn’t been grazed, it would be better still.

Would anyone kill for an okra recipe, for example?  (I was told as a child that okra tastes like a bowl of warm snot.) Because there’s so much camp in this very funny story, I can’t tell whether I should be suspicious of this as motive or not; in the real world I don’t see it, but in this story, I feel as if anything goes.  And while I love the feminist spirit in the sheriff’s assertion that she doesn’t cook anything, period, later she goes to try out the secret recipe and I find myself wondering how she knows how to glaze a cast iron pan. This woman doesn’t even know how to boil water, and yet a fairly obvious cooking skill that nobody puts into a recipe seems to present no problem at all.

But these are just li’l thangs.

Despite the occasional feminist overtones, there are some tired devices and stereotypes that are harder to disregard. Why does half the story obsess with her crush on her deputy? It’s kept light, but the notion that a woman is nothing without a man, while not openly asserted, seems to float in the air. I would have liked to see more women, especially older women, depicted in a positive light. It seems as if every story that features a heroic young woman has to also feature an impossible mother, and so I moaned when she introduced her momma. And there’s the “cat fight”, which while there’s no denying that the narrative is straight-up hilarious, is also a stereotype that suggests women can’t get along once you put us in a room together.

The thing that knocked a star off what would have been a four star review is the place where her Poppa’s ghost notes that when he saw Deputy Finn carry Kenni’s drunken, unconscious body to her bedroom and put her in her bed, he had feared the deputy was about to “take advantage” of her.  The word is rape, and it’s never funny. The deputy didn’t, but the suggestion, accompanied by the euphemism, left an after-taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite get rid of.

If you can get past these brief but clear obstacles, you will get a lot of laughs out of the main thread here. Kappes has a raucous sense of humor, and I had immersed myself in too many dark stories. I was ready for a good laugh, and this title provided several.  But unless your pockets are deep or your interest great, I recommend you get this one cheaply when you can, or at your local library if available.