Gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

godsinalabamaThis book was just what the doctor ordered. Whenever I find myself steeped in too much important-yet-grim literature, I have a handful of go-to authors that are guaranteed to leave me feeling better about the world. Jackson is one of them. I bought my copy of this book used via Powell’s City of Books, online using the gift certificate they bestow on reviewers from time to time. I recently won another one and have ordered some more books by this writer to brighten the winter to come.

Arlene had vowed never to return to her family in Alabama. Dark things have been done there, and she did some of them herself. Let’s examine, for instance, the murder of Jim Beverly. Arlene promised God that if he let her get out of the state after it occurred, she would never return, and despite her family’s hurt inquiries, she never has. Now things are different, though. A visitor from her hometown has come to her apartment asking about Jim. In addition, Arlene’s boyfriend Burr, who is African-American, has told her that if she won’t introduce him to her people, regardless of what they are like or how they will treat him, he will leave her. And so Arlene is forced to break her vow with the Almighty and head south.

Arlene’s family is unforgettable; Aunt Flo, who raised Arlene after her mother’s breakdown, is one of the finest strong female characters of all time. I have read several books since I read this one, and yet Arlene and Flo are still riding around in my head. That’s what excellent literature does.

As to Jim Beverly and Arlene’s vow, there’s more to all of it than meets the eye, and the ending is so surprising yet so completely believable that I can only roll my eyes in admiration. Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction.

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

Protocol, by Kathleen Valenti****

Protocol“It was all so clear. She’d been so stupid…Cue the flying monkeys.”

The Maggie O’Malley series has taken wing. Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I was invited to read free in exchange for this honest review. In a crowded field, Valenti stands apart. Her snappy wit and precise pacing combine to create a psychological thriller that’s funny as hell. I didn’t know it could be done until I saw it here.

Maggie’s career is off to a promising start when she is recruited to work as a researcher for a major pharmaceutical firm. It’s a perfect chance to make the world a better place, and the beefy salary lets her take care of herself and send desperately needed funds to save her ailing father’s restaurant. It seems too good to be true, and we know what that means.

She’s barely through the door when she receives a mysterious meeting reminder on her refurbished new-to-her cell phone. Who is this person, and why would she meet her? And then, quick as can be, she sees the woman she is supposedly about to meet, die. Since the meeting reminder vanishes from her phone once it’s played, and since the reminder itself isn’t sinister, the police brush her off…until it happens again. Eventually, of course, she herself becomes a suspect.

This is a page turner, and we look over Maggie’s shoulder all the way through, wondering whether this friend or that one is to be trusted. Which date is a godsend, and which one is a snake in the grass?

The most notable difference between this story and others is the way Valenti sets up what looks like an error either on the part of the author or stupidity on the part of the protagonist, and then on the back beat, we see exactly why that was there, and that she anticipated our reaction all along. She does it over and over, and it’s hilarious. I feel as if the author is speaking to me as I read, howling, “Gotcha again!” It’s zesty, brainy writing. Valenti is the new mystery writer to watch.

This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to those that love funny female sleuths.

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery*****

theexactnatureofourwrongsThe place is Amicus, Kansas; the Campbell family has come together to celebrate the birthday of their frail, ancient patriarch, Abel. Ultimately, though, their attention is drawn, unavoidably, to the youngest among them. Billy is a walking pharmacy, but he won’t be walking anywhere for much longer if something isn’t done.

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. If I had paid full retail price, it would have been worth every red cent. It had me at hello, and performed a miracle of sorts by rendering me temporarily speechless; I had to gather my thoughts and look at my notes before I could comment.

But back to the Campbells of Kansas. Everyone has known for some time about Billy’s dependency issues; he’s been riding the roller coaster of addiction for many years. Billy’s father wants to take a hard line with him, while his mother, Hattie, just wants to bring him home and tuck him into the guest bedroom. Brother Jesse objects, “He’s forty-fricking-seven, Mom.”

Elder daughter Doro, who is sixty and perhaps the only sane, normal person in the family, is concerned for her mother, who is past eighty and has already had a heart attack. Doro reminds her mother that “It’s Amicus. It’s your family. Where two’s company and three turns into an intervention.”

The setting of Amicus and the time period we see as we reach back into the family’s history is well rendered, but remains discreetly in the background as it should, not hijacking the story. The story itself is based on character, not just of any one person, but of the family itself. By the twenty percent mark I feel as if I have known these people all my life. The full range of emotion is in play as I immerse myself in this intimate novel, and there are many places that make me laugh out loud.

It isn’t too long before I can identify someone I know that is a Hattie, and someone that is a Billy. Given the widespread horror of opiate addiction, I will bet you a dollar that you know someone too.

But before the halfway mark is reached, a terrible sense of dread comes over me, an aha moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. I begin to sense that perhaps I am Hattie. And within a week of having read this epic story, my eldest child calls and tells me that he’s had a phone call from his younger sibling’s dealer, a man that flatly states, “I don’t want your brother on my conscience, man. I won’t sell to him anymore, but I’m telling you, there are plenty of others that do. You gotta do something, cause he’s out of control.”

Generally, I do not include personal notes in my reviews, because that’s not generally what the reader is looking for. But here I have chosen to do so because this problem is everywhere. In the case of Billy Campbell, there’s a complicating factor: Billy is HIV positive and has been since he was 21. And again, I suspect that for many others, such issues also blur the distinction between medical treatment of some sort, and addiction.

I hope that you can get this book and enjoy it for its sly humor, brilliant word-smithery, and unmatchable character development. It’s excellent fiction, just exactly right for a chilly autumn evening in your favorite chair or snuggled beneath the quilts. But for me, it is valuable as a wake-up call, and it will do the same for many other readers also—I have no doubt.

It’s the right story, at the right time.

Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.

Family Values, by GM Ford*****

“They were standing inside the door when I came out of the bathroom. Two of them. Matching gray suits, milling around like the owned the joint. Something about carrying a gun in one pocket and the power of the state in the other changes the way a person relates to the universe. For as long as I could remember, that particular sense of privilege has always pissed me off.”

FamilyValues

Leo Waterman is a solid citizen now, no longer the scruffy Seattle PI that he was when our series began. But now that he has a lovely home and a good woman—well, sometimes anyway—he also has more to defend, and is less fettered by economic constraints. Those that have loved this series from the get-go should go go go to their nearest book seller or favorite website and get get get this book. New readers can jump right in, but likely as not, you’ll want to go back and get the rest of the series once you’ve seen this one. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, but it’s worth the full jacket price. It is for sale now.

 

Leo returns from vacation to find Rebecca Duvall, the love of his life, on the bathroom floor with a needle in her arm. Her reputation has been damaged by a suggestion of corruption, but Leo knows this is no suicide attempt. Her job as medical examiner is on the line now, and so Leo enlists the help of his boisterous investigative squad to untangle the mystery of who wants Rebecca not only fired, but dead. Ford tells the story with the gut-busting edgy humor for which he is known. He takes a playful jab or two at gender fluidity; at times this part feels a little excessive, but that’s not where the story lingers. There are a million twists and turns as our impulsive PI goes where everyone tells him he should not:

“’ I went out to see Patricia Harrington today.’

“’Don’t fuck with those people, Leo.’”

There are some arrhythmia-worthy attack scenes, and the plot wholly original and free of formulaic gimmicks. The streets and alleys of Seattle and the hinterlands beyond are all rendered immediate and palpable. 

Ultimately the heart of the tale is revealed by Leo’s regard for Seattle’s homeless men and women, some of whom were once friends of his late father. It is them he turns to for extra eyes in a difficult situation:

 

They were great for stakeouts, as long as it was somewhere downtown. They could hang around all day and nobody paid them any mind because society has trained itself not to see the poor and the destitute. That way, we don’t have to think about how the richest society on earth allows so many of its citizens to live in the streets like stray dogs.

 

The snappy banter between Waterman and Seattle cops is always delightful.  It’s even better once we add a pair of fake UPS guys, some thugs known as the Delaney brothers, local ruling scions, and poor Rebecca as the straight character representing all that is sane and normal: “Oh Jesus…what now? Locusts?”  The narrative is fresh, funny, and entirely original, avoiding all of the formulaic foolishness that makes old lady schoolteachers like this reviewer peevish.

The ending will make you want to sing.

Altogether, this novel is an unmissable treat.

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.

Doc Doc Zeus, by Thomas Keech***

DocDocZeusThank you to Net Galley, the author, and Real Nice Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This novel was published earlier this month and is for sale now.

Doc Doc Zeus is a tough one to review. There are strengths that drew me at the outset and I thought I was going to love it; unfortunately, the literary aspects and a blind spot or two regarding women and rape have kept me from cheering and promoting the way I expected.

Conceptually, it’s innovative and gutsy. We have Diane, who at 14 has been manipulated by a conservative Christian group and agrees to carry a baby rather than have an abortion.

Diane’s physician is Dr. Zeus, and he is being paid by the church that is housing Diane. Diane is thrilled because she is made to feel heroic, special, for deciding not to end the pregnancy. At age 14, she is right in the throes of the all-about-me stage of adolescence, and this is the strongest part of Diane’s development as a character. Of course, once the baby is born and sent off to live with adoptive parents, Diane is no longer being spoiled and petted, and so she is in a vulnerable place. Her parents are not as available as they might be, so she is isolated, and makes an excellent target for a guy like Zeus.

Zeus is pond scum, a serial rapist, a liar and a thief. He conspires to direct his hospital’s lab business through an intermediary company he owns for no purpose other than to drive up costs and line his own wallet. The guy is so toxic and free of any redeeming qualities that I couldn’t read this story for very long at a time; there are other reasons, too. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Our third main character is Dave, who works for the state’s medical board. Dave is frustrated by the lack of interest on the part of the state in pursuing Zeus legally. Why is this guy allowed to practice? There’s plenty of documentation to show that he should not only be stripped of his license, but be behind bars. Why can’t this happen?

The best part of the book is the opening, not to mention the quirky, engaging title. When we begin, the narratives by Diane and by Zeus make me alternately laugh out loud and groan. It’s dry humor, savagely funny. I want it to stay that way.

Sadly, by the thirty percent mark, I am starting to wonder whether a high profile editor might be needed to assist with the literary aspects of this thing. The last time I saw this sort of problem was also with an author that had a lot of technical expertise and a lengthy, successful career in an area that dovetailed with his novel; Keech is retired from a state attorney general’s office. He has plenty of knowledge regarding state bureaucracy as it applies to physicians, but the elements a novel requires—character development and above all a story arc, with the action and urgency rising around the 75 or 80 percent mark and then falling back toward a conclusion, are simply not present. Our hero, Dave, is trying valiantly to shut Zeus down, but readers won’t engage with the amount of bureaucratic detail here. This area needs to be condensed, and Dave needs development as a character. The setting is nearly absent.

The other problem here is a certain tone-deafness regarding the book’s audience. Potentially, this story could be a rallying cry for women that have experienced rape and for anyone that has been molested as a child or when they were vulnerable. There are so many out there.

But for these readers, this is a hot-stove issue. Less is more. This reviewer has not even been there, and yet the level of detailed sexual predation in this book is painful to me, and unnecessarily so. Chapter after chapter; page after page. Most people that would otherwise champion a novel like this one, won’t finish it because it’s too hard to read. The crime itself should wink in briefly, decisively and memorably, and then the story should be built around it.

I would also change the ending.

To be sure, I am convinced that Keech is on the side of the angels, and I would bet my last dollar that he has seen or heard of a situation similar to the one in this story. I suspect that he’s a good man who is transitioning from his career in state government to a career as a novelist, and trying to use fiction to make a difference. For this reason also, I wanted to be able to promote this book and send out a Twitter storm telling people to read it. I avoided writing this review, because it isn’t the one I had hoped to write.

With a great deal of TLC, this story could be rewritten in a way that would work. The idea is strong, but the execution is lacking. A high profile editor might be very useful here, and if that happens and a rewrite significantly improves this work, I would be willing to reread and review again. But as it stands, I cannot recommend it.

The Locals, by Jonathan Dee*****

theLocalsDee’s new novel has created a lot of buzz. Despite impressive list of publications and accomplishments, he had slid under my radar until now; thanks to Net Galley and Random House, I read this free and early in exchange for this honest review. It is available to the public Tuesday, August 8, and those that love strong, purposeful fiction should get it and read it.

The Locals is entertaining, and it also conveys a sharply driven message, one that is timely, as we see the middle classes wasting away in Western nations that were once strong and relatively democratic, the most affluent becoming richer, and tens of thousands of homeless living in cardboard shacks and tents beneath the freeways of otherwise-successful American cities.

The story starts with 9/11. Mark Firth is in Manhattan on business and is taken advantage of by a con artist. By contrast, Howland, the small (and fictional) town where he lives and in which our story is set, seems safer, and more benign. He breathes easier when he is home.

He isn’t the only one that feels that way.

Philip Hadi decides to leave the big city, and he hires Mark to fortify his summer home into a secure summer residence. From there things unfold, and Hadi takes on increasing amounts of responsibility and power in Howland.

The story is largely character driven, and I dare you to find a novel in which a large number of townspeople are better developed than these. At the outset, I think I know which are the better citizens of Howland and which are its pond scum, but as the story progresses—told in third person omniscient, with one noteworthy exception—the most lovable characters darken, while those that seem irredeemable at the outset show some vulnerability and decency. Even without the novel’s purpose, which is brainy and clever as hell, it would be a good read. I particularly credit male authors that can develop female characters with this kind of depth. You don’t see it often.

Ultimately, however, we are forced to examine, through the eyes of the people of Howland, the role of the super-rich. How much authority are we willing to cede in exchange for easy material benefit? Teachers that have questioned the authority given philanthropists that have a lot of dollars to throw around, but no background whatsoever in education, will particularly appreciate this story. Beyond all of this, it’s absorbing, entertaining, and in places it’s funny as hell.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction.

Hook’s Tale, by John Leonard Pielmeier***

HooksTalePielmeier’s debut novel gives poor, maligned Captain Hook an opportunity to share his side of the story. The teaser promises a “rollicking” story, and at first it seems to be exactly that, but it runs out of steam early on. Nevertheless, thank you, Net Galley and Scribner, for the opportunity to read and review.

At the outset, Captain James Cook (his name isn’t Hook!), named for the famous sea explorer, describes himself as looking nothing like the “unbearably pompous actor”, a clear reference to the hilarious Cyril Ritchard, who played Hook in the twentieth century complete with high heeled boots and a beauty mark; however, our pirate assures us, those periwinkle blue eyes do fit the bill. There is an assumption that the reader is well steeped in both the stage and cinematic depictions of the character, and it seems like a fair one. I love reading Hook’s fond and hugely original description of Smee, and our introduction to Hook’s pet crocodile.

“I named it Daisy, after my mother.”

Unfortunately, somewhere between the ten percent and twenty percent mark, the narrative founders, and the most frustrating part for this reviewer is that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong. The concept is strong, the voice clear, and yet my interest is gone before the quarter-mark is reached, and at that point I am reading for duty rather than pleasure. I came away with two considerations.

The first is the linear quality of the prose. The formal, old-school language is fun at the outset, but it might be more powerful if alternated with a present day narrative. Hook could have a grandson or other present-day relative that contributes; since Hook marries Tiger Lily, that might be a way to get there. Readers of the digital era may not have the patience to read the rather Victorian-sounding dialect all the way through. An alternating narrative would probably pick up the pace and make for a more compelling arc.

The second consideration is audience. There are two characteristics here that suggest completely different types of reader, and they don’t overlap very well, which may make for a small readership. We have the Boomers and those that came right after them, folks that may have seen the Cyril Ritchard version of Captain Hook on television. It was a childhood favorite of this reviewer, and you can watch the entire thing here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6K2M…

The assumed knowledge and detailed descriptions jibe with this audience. But then there is the other sort of detail, the gore and guts that are more suited to a young reader, perhaps one in his early teens. Older readers may wince at the graphic gore here, decapitations and intestines and fountains of blood—I certainly did—but younger readers that are more likely to love it are unlikely to tolerate the formal prose style adopted. It’s hard to tell whether the writer had a particular audience in mind, but if so he shot wide of the mark.

Another possibility is that the story really is better as a visual medium. Reading about people flying is not as enjoyable as seeing them do it, and I say this as a person that prefers the printed word over film almost always. J.M. Barrie’s work itself is difficult to plow through, and also racist as hell; the story took wing on stage and screen. In addition, the stage version was the first time an actor had been hooked to cables and “flew” in front of a live audience; what seems like corny, ancient technology now, was new and exciting then.

All of this notwithstanding, you may love this book. It was released July 18, and is for sale now.