Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen*****

alternateside“If nobody can tell the difference between real and fake, who cares if fake is what you’re showing?”

Score another one for Anna Quindlen. Often prodigious writers lapse into formulas, becoming predictable, but not Quindlen, who brings a snappy, original tale to the reader every time. She makes us think, and she makes us like it. Big thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

The story is built around a controversy that develops around that most prized acquisition among financially successful New Yorkers: a parking place. Local ordinances have a Byzantine set of rules involving parking on alternate sides of the street, and the neighborhood’s homeowners are sick to death of going out to move the car. A privately owned parking lot leases spaces, but there aren’t enough to go around, and a seniority system makes some residents intense; think of the rent-controlled apartments that get passed down like family heirlooms, and then you’ll have the general idea.

Ultimately, however, the parking place is metaphor, and perhaps allegory, for other aspects of life that go much deeper, and the way Quindlen unspools it is not only deft, but also funny as hell in places.

New Yorkers will appreciate this novel, but others will too. This reviewer is one of those visitors that Quindlen’s characters regard with scorn, the people that pop into town, gawk, buy things, and then leave again. But I’m telling you that despite the title, this is not just—or even mainly—a book for New Yorkers.

The audience that will love this book hardest is bound to be people like the main characters: white middle-class readers old enough to have grown children. But the take-down of petite bourgeois assumptions and attitudes is sly, incisive, and clever as hell.

At one point I began highlighting, for example, the many ways in which the phrases “you people” and “these people” are wielded.

Here is a final word of caution: if you are contemplating divorce, this may tip you over the brink. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what you need.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction and occasionally are visited by that “crazy liberal guilt thing.”

Limelight, by Amy Poeppel*****

Limelight“Welcome to Gotham, babe.”

Amy Poeppel is a star, and since I loved her debut novel, Small Admissions in 2016, requesting the galley of her second novel was a no-brainer for me. Thank you, thank you Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available to the public May 1, 2018.

Allison Brinkley is excited when her husband receives a promotion that takes them from suburban Dallas, Texas to New York City. The excitement! The opportunities! Most people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to visit Manhattan as tourists. She can hardly wait.

Once they arrive, however, reality sets in. There’s no room for anybody’s stuff, and the bedrooms are tiny. Her eldest child is sulking, and the youngest gets in trouble at school. The mothers at the prestigious private school where the children are enrolled snub Allison as if she were the new girl at middle school.  She loses her teaching position, and then she loses her tutoring job too. She wants to be a good family organizer, provider, and cheerleader; and yet.

On top of everything, she bangs into another vehicle right in front of the school; when she goes to settle up with her insurance details, she instead finds herself in the apartment of a badly behaved teenager that turns out to be a famous teen heartthrob. Allison is mesmerized, but not in the manner to which Carter Reid is accustomed; she wants to know how his apartment and his lifestyle has spun out of control so badly. Where is the boy’s mother?

Before she knows it, Allison is swept into the official Carter Reid entourage. He’s sick in bed, and half of his people have up and quit because he’s so insufferable. But Allison deals with adolescents for a living, both as a teacher and as a mother. She knows how to talk to kids, and she knows how to get them to take their medicine and show up to appointments.

But Carter has another problem nobody knows about. It’s not a problem to be proud of, and it’s getting in the way of his career.

Nobody writes like Amy Poeppel. The beginnings of her novels are bizarre and disorienting because the protagonist’s normal is not most people’s normal. My first impression is that one of us—Poeppel or me—must be crazy. But once I am properly hooked on the story, she pulls me in and lets me know what’s up with that. Before the halfway mark is reached, I want to be the gal pal that drops in on Allison, asks questions, maybe drags her into the kitchen for a conversation. I wonder, how much more of her own money is she going to spend on this wealthy brat before she asks for compensation? Has she forgotten she has kids of her own at home?  Has she completely taken leave of her senses?

I make one prediction after another, anticipating well-worn fictional formulas, but Poeppel doesn’t do formulas, she creates surprises. At the end I find myself walking with my head up and a spring to my step. I will bet you a dollar, reader, that you need some of that too.

Frosting on the cake is that rarest of all things, a positive abortion reference tucked in quietly toward the end. It makes my feminist heart sing.

I can’t wait to see what this writer brings to her next novel; will she bring Allison back with a sequel, or will she start from scratch? Whatever it is, I have to read it. Limelight is sharp, funny, and wicked smart. You have to get this book and read it.

The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Zero Day, by Ezekiel Boone****

ZeroDayWelcome to the spiderpocalypse. Boone wraps up his creepy, crawly trilogy with engaging characters, great humor, and an ending that is deeply satisfying. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria books for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, February 20, 2018.

The narrative begins with a recap of our characters and what has gone before in Skitter and The Hatching . Whereas I don’t recommend skipping the first and second books, it’s great that Boone brings us up to speed; with such a complex story, the refresher is useful for both new readers and old ones. And holy Moses, as we join President Stephanie Pilgrim, she is faced with an attempted coup. The military divides into camps, and quick thinking is called for. After all, Pilgrim knows there’s only a matter of time before everything goes “kaploowee.”

Boone has several side characters and plot threads that heighten suspense. We revisit the Nazca line where the first terrible eggs were uncovered; we check in on civilian survivors in places across the US; and in my favorite thread, we join the Prophet Bobby Higgs and his followers. It’s so droll and darkly funny that if you can read it without laughing out loud, you are advised to take your pulse to be sure you are still alive.

Ultimately, of course, what we have are spiders, and here Boone saves the best for last. New to the series is the “Hell Spider”, and the descriptions are his most deliciously satisfying yet:

“Realistically, to the Hell Spiders, a human being is just like a burrito, a soft wrapper with a tasty filling.”


Boone’s progressive bent makes good fiction even better. I particularly appreciate his deep and abiding respect for women, which makes him one of the finest male authors of feminist fiction I’ve read. I also wonder whether this might be the first series carried by a major publisher that features a gay married couple whose status is incidental to the story rather than a crisis moment in the plot. Within the genre, I’d bet on it.

Boone keeps his prose accessible, yet it’s not dumbed down. There is no explicit sex here, and I can see this as a title that teens will also enjoy. If I still had a classroom, this series would grace my shelves.

Recommended to all that enjoy a good horror series. 

She Regrets Nothing, by Andrea Dunlop****

“Love,” she thought, “is for the rich and foolish.”

SheregretsLaila is just twenty-three when her mother dies, and she is astonished when her cousins appear at the funeral. Cousins? What cousins? In fact, they are from her father’s side of the family, long estranged—and they are very wealthy. Cousin Liberty wants to make amends, and nobody has to tell Laila twice. She ditches her home in Michigan, leaves her spouse, a dull dentist who’s blindsided by her sudden departure, and heads for New York City, to live in the style to which she would like to become accustomed.

Lucky me, I read this darkly funny story free courtesy of Atria Books and Net Galley. It was released Tuesday, so you can get a copy of your own now.

As Laila arrives in New York, the reader cannot help but worry for her. She’s never been to New York before, and she has very little money. She’s brought a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry, the only things of any value her mom had owned, but she doesn’t want to sell them. As she meets her newly found kinfolk and settles into a guest bedroom, it’s instinctual to wish we could grab her by the wrist and yank her back out of there. Careful Sweetie, you’re playing with fire. They’re being nice to you now because you’re new. When the novelty wears off, they’ll spit you back out again. New Yorkers are tough, and nobody uses people and discards them as quickly as the very rich—right?

There are at least a dozen places where I make predictions that prove incorrect. For example, given Laila’s trump card that makes her a possible heir, I find myself waiting for the DNA test that will prove she actually isn’t related to them at all…but that doesn’t happen. I can tell things won’t work out the way she anticipates because the author drops so much wry foreshadowing. But what she does with it at the end is both completely consistent with the protagonist as we know her, and a complete surprise as well.

Part of the joy this novel sparks is its understated quality. Some writers will drop something amusing into the storyline, but then they have to go back to it, explain it, make sure the reader got it and at that point it’s cold and lifeless. None of that for Dunlop. Stay on your toes; if you’re paying attention you’ll get it, but if you are distracted, oh well. Think of it like trying to catch a cab right after the theater lets out; watch out or you’ll be left behind.

I confess that I have read neither of the novels to which this one is compared in the promotional blurb, but to me, the humor is similar in some ways to that in The Nanny Diaries.

If you need a giggle—and frankly who doesn’t—you should order this snappy, cleverly turned novel. It’s a fast read and it made me laugh out loud.

Smoke City, by Keith Rosson*****

SmokeCityNerds, geeks, and bibliophiles be ready. Marvin Dietz, who in an earlier life was the executioner of Joan of Arc, is leaving Portland, and he’s collected some unlikely traveling companions. Why not join him?  I read this story free and early thanks to Meerkat Press, but it’s worth your nickel to seek it out, because there is nothing else like it. This book is available to the public Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Mike Vale was once a great painter, and now he has been forced out of his record store by a shifty, corrupt landlord, so he heads south to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his ex-wife. En route he picks up Dietz, who is hitchhiking, and further along the way Casper stows away in the back. The voice with which their story is told is resonant and the word-smithery makes me shake my head in some places—who writes like this?—and in others I laugh out loud. Here’s a sample from the passage where we meet Casper:

 

‘I want my money,’ Casper said. “My money or my gear. You pick.’
‘Jesus wept,’ the last counterman said before wheeling around on his stool. Then Gary, our mechanic, walked past me and threaded his way through the tables. He laid his hand on the end of the bat… Casper turned and looked at him. What little fight there was deflated out of him like a balloon. Almost lovingly, Gary put him in a headlock.

‘Casper, Duncan sold your meter for a bag of crank days ago. Give it a break. Getting money from him is like getting Thousand Island from a basset hound’s tits, man. You can squeeze all you want, but it ain’t happening.’

 

As the journey continues, somewhere in California, the Smokes appear. They’re the undead, and they appear as if they are made of smoke. They can’t hear live people or see them, but their personal dramas and torments play out for people in the here and now, and they don’t observe the laws and conventions regarding private safety and property, either.  They show up at random times and in random places, causing traffic accidents and other complications. And so we have to wonder if there’s a connection between Marvin, whose many incarnations are recounted to us in his confidential narrative, and these apparitions. The government and the military are at a total loss; the press is enjoying itself, but even the most ambitious journalist recognizes that things have spun out of control.

The plot is complex, and readers must bring their literary skills along for the ride or there’s no point in coming.  It’s a story that takes awhile to develop, but it’s more than worth the slow build. The playful use of language and quixotic spirit of the prose are reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his finest hour.

Highly recommended; get it in hardcover.

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland***

NeedtoKnow

“My God, Vivian, what’s it going to take for you to trust me?”

 Need to Know is an espionage thriller written by a former CIA analyst. I read it free and early thanks to Random House and Net Galley. This book will be available to the public on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Our story is told in the first person by Vivian Miller, a CIA analyst with a mortgage to meet and four small children. In the course of her research she comes across the identity of someone she knows and then the whole house starts to tumble, as she makes one bad decision after another, punctuated with the occasional wise choice to heighten suspense.  Around the sixty percentile I found myself reading it for giggles as it becomes increasingly clear that our protagonist is as dumb as a box of rocks.

With this in mind, I have devised a drinking game for rowdy book clubs that meet in real life. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a drink every time Vivian refers to Matt as her “rock”.
  • Take two drinks every time she refers to Matt as their children’s “rock”.
  • Take a drink every time you run across the word “ringleader”.
  • Spin around three times and take a drink for every rhetorical question you find in the narrative.
  • Take a drink for every stereotype you see.

 

Spoiler alert (*snerk*): you may want to clear your calendar the day after your book club meets, because it’s going to be a rough one.

Now I understand that there may be abstainers in your drinking book club, patient souls that either really like the people in your club, or that can’t find a book club made up of tea-totters. For those people I have special instructions:

  • Take a drink when you find a well developed character.
  • Take a drink when you find a positive female role model .

 

Another spoiler alert: provide this second group of people with water, because otherwise they are going home thirsty.

I can also recommend this title to women that are newly divorced, mad as hell, and looking for something to throw. For these ladies, I recommend obtaining a hard copy, because you won’t want to ruin your expensive electronic devices. Before commencing with this title, remove pictures, monitors, and china from the wall where you’ll be reading. Broken glass is nobody’s idea of a fun Tuesday night.

“They’re good, the Russians.”

Newly divorced, mad-as-hell, book-throwing women that have recently divorced a Russian man may even want to pre-order a copy. I’d do that right now if I were you.

Купить книгу.

Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna*****

TwoGirlsDownThis is a quick read and a fun one. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday. It becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 9, 2018.

A frazzled mother in a small Pennsylvania town pops into a big-box store one afternoon, leaving her two elementary-aged girls in the car. They’re old enough not to wander off with some weirdo, and she’s just going to be a minute. When she comes back, they’re gone.

Our protagonists in equal measure are Cap, a former cop who’s left the force in disgrace, and Vega, an out-of-state PI brought in by the girls’ relatives. Vega seeks Cap out after the local cop shop refuses to work with her; sparks fly.

If you take the story apart and look at its elements, it is all old material and should be stale. We have the missing children; a single grieving female detective, a vigilante type with little to lose; a slightly-older, single-dad, lonely older male detective, all of which leads to romance, because heaven forbid we should ever have a competent female private eye without a sizzling chemical frisson to keep readers from feeling threatened by her competence. We have the single dad’s (also-competent) teenage daughter left alone for long periods of time, vulnerable to the forces of evil. And of course our female detective has to be diminutive, a tiny-firecracker type.  Even Vega’s love of firearms isn’t new; consider Kinsey Millhone and Stephanie Plum. And our female detective has to be a very light eater. God forbid she should chow down at dinner time; no, she pushes her food around and away.

The pieces of this thing have been done to death. And yet.

And yet, the whole of the story is so much more than the sum of its parts. A strong writer can take overdone elements and make them gleam, and that’s what Luna has done here.

The thing that makes it work is the element of surprise. When I am looking ahead, I can often see, in a broad sense, where we are going, but when I try to predict how we’ll get there, I see three possibilities, and Luna always comes up with a fourth at the most unexpected of times.  Vega’s “roofless rage” gives her a no-holds-barred, Dirty-Harry-Lite kind of approach; she’s never killed anyone, but if she’s always as off the wall as she is here, it’s a miracle. But the other miracle? The fact that I am wondering what she is like at other times demonstrates how well Luna has developed her characters. Cap is a well of timeworn chivalrous decency, but Vega wants to take the kind of people that would deliberately hurt a child and “put them in the fucking earth.”

Luna uses lots of crackling dialogue and a spare prose style that makes this book accessible to anyone that finished the eighth grade, and possibly some that didn’t. Although there’s no indication that this will become a series, one has to wonder if such a thing might happen.  My own preference would be to see Vega act independently of romantic entanglements, because she has the potential to be a feminist hero, and we need one of those right now.

One way or another, this is a read you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

 

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White****

nothing with stringsWith Christmas around the corner, I bought this slender volume for less than five bucks. It brightened my days (and my bathroom) until I finished it.

White has a droll sense of humor, quirky, eccentric, and at times understated enough that if my mind strays to other things even slightly, I find I have missed something funny. My favorites are the title story, which is fall-down-laughing funny, and “What Would They Say in Birmingham”. Here I have to add that White’s protagonists tend to be Caucasian Southerners, and the humor she employs will most likely appeal to the typical NPR audience, which is mostly white liberal Boomers from all over the United States.

Although it’s billed as a collection of Christmas stories, the holiday influence here is minimal. It’s the sort of collection one could read at any time of year without feeling out of place. I like short story collections because they can be tucked into the guest room, where visitors can read a story or two even if they won’t be around long enough to go through the whole book, but this time I dropped it into a Christmas box I was mailing to relatives as a happy extra little surprise.

Recommended to fans of this writer, and to older white folks that like short stories.