The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

The Accomplished Guest, by Ann Beattie*****

theaccomplishedguest Ann Beattie is a seasoned writer with a list of accolades as long as your arm, and this is why I requested a DRC of her soon-to-be-published short story collection, whose theme is visitors and travel. I was not disappointed. Thank you Net Galley and Scribner for letting me read it free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 13.

The first selection is droll; our protagonist is going to see an older man, and so we wonder…is this a boyfriend? Is it an ex? And as we move down the checklist, I love what she does with it. The next couple of selections are good but not as striking, but then the wind catches in Beattie’s sails and she is unstoppable.  Other favorites here are “Other People’s Birthdays”, “The Debt”, and “The Cloud”. I found myself highlighting most of the text, which is wasted effort, since I can’t quote most of the book to you, but it’s something that happens to me when I read top-drawer fiction. The story I loved best is “The Caterer”, which made me laugh out loud and woke Mr. Computer, who was slumbering next to me and had to get up the next day for work.

Short stories are wonderful bedtime material, because there isn’t the wrenching sensation in tearing oneself loose from the book. When the story is over, it’s time to bookmark one’s place and turn out the light. I’ve read over a hundred short story collections, and this one is among the best.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent prose, and in particular to Boomers.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby*****

wearenevermeetingGet out your plastic and go use the restroom, because this book will leave you holding your sides. Samantha Irby mines what ought to be old material but isn’t, at least not by the time she is done with it, and her edgy, plain-truth humor may leave you breathless by the time the last page is turned. My thanks go to Net Galley and Knopf Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book has just been released and is available for purchase.

Much of the base level subject matter is eternal and well worn: needing to use the bathroom while stuck in traffic; dating; racism; attempting to lose weight. But Irby has a fresh take on everything. She refers to herself as “old”, and since at 36 she is the age of this blogger’s eldest child, I suspect that I am not her target audience. But so much of what she says is eternal, and her take on current social concerns such as cop violence and the horror of stumbling upon a bunch of white people in the hinterland performing a Civil War reenactment complete with Confederate flags is welcome and resonant. The thread in which she voices the horror of being away from a major urban center is one I share. I have not laughed at potty humor since I was twelve, but the essay containing the traffic jam bathroom emergency on the way home from the dorm made me laugh hard enough to shake the bed, and my husband—a silver-haired Japanese gentleman old enough for Social Security—laughed hard enough that he was doubled over. The passage where she discusses having squandered money on things she doesn’t need just to prove she can do it is just one instance where I laugh because I am surprised. What writer ever admits this? Irby does.

Other aspects of this wonderful collection of essays were more educational than resonant, but also good to read. Can Black women admit they have mental health issues and still be Black?

Her cover model represents the cat from hell, Helen Keller:

“’I know where they keep the euthanasia solution,’ I whispered into the downy fur on top of her head.”

Every book blogger knows the pressured feeling that comes with scooping up a galley right before publication. When I begin the book, all I want is to read it fast so I can review it in a timely manner; yet by the time I turn the final page, I am disappointed that we are done here.

Highly recommended to strong women with an offbeat sense of humor, and those that love them.

Watching the Detectives, by Julie Mulhern*****

“’There’s been an incident…Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

watchingthedetectives
Mulhern is on a roll. This is the fifth book in the Country Club Murders series, but I plunged in without having seen the first four, and it was still a treat. Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I snagged free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It is now available to everyone.

The story is set among the Caucasian upper middle class of the 1970s, and Mulhern renders the period—when this reviewer was a mere, blushing wisp of a girl—so well that I checked twice to see whether it was an older title being re-released.

Ellison Russell is our protagonist, and people keep dying at her domicile. It’s become a nuisance, and there’s a cop that thinks it’s too great a coincidence. Ellison’s in a jam, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Grace isn’t helping. She sulks when they are told they must leave the house for a few days because it’s a crime scene, exclaiming that people have died at their house before and they didn’t have to leave. It’s just not fair!

Ellison is a widow, and a merry one at that; she has a flirtation going with a local cop whose name is Anarchy—a guy who believes in rules– but her main man is Mr. Coffee. He’s always there for her.

I moan when Ellison’s mother is introduced—yet one more overbearing mother, I thought, and authors always blame everything on mothers, just like everyone else does—but then I am surprised by where she takes it. I won’t say more lest I ruin it for you. But I will say this: every overused or overworked plot element is here for a reason, either to take it apart, or to make fun of it. Mulhern considers every word in this dandy novel carefully, and the result is splendid.

As the story unfolds there are other witty tidbits tucked in here and there, such as a character named Margaret Hamilton who is such a witch. But the frippery and snarky humor aren’t the whole package; while the mystery is a romp, serving up the snobbery of the petit bourgeoisie with a sharp skewer, this excellent novel is also a nicely turned feminist manifesto. While the mystery is a fine 4-star beach read, the author’s purpose is a strong one that’s delivered well. It is for this aspect that the fifth star is given.
Highly recommended for strong women and those that love them.

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 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.

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.

Himself, by Jess Kidd*****

himselfbyjesskiddAh, feck me blind now, Jess Kidd’s written herself a novel, and it’s good enough for any ten others. It comes out March 14, 2017, and although I read it free via Net Galley and Atria, there’s surely a chance I will buy one or more copies to give to those I love anyway. You should, too. It’s too clever to miss, and if you don’t mind a bit of irreverence, if you have a heart at all for Ireland and for ordinary working folk just trying to get along as best they’re able, this book is your book. Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny, it will put a spring in your step for a goodly while thereafter. That it will!

Mahony has come to the tiny Irish town of Mulderrig, looking to find out what happened to his mammy, who left him orphaned when he was small. The townsfolk aren’t happy to see anyone related to Orla Sweeney, but Mahony is undeniable in his charm, with:

“A face that women can love on sight and men will smile upon. Mahony has the right tone in his voice and the right words to go with it. Mahony has a hand that people want to shake and a back they want to pat.”

But beneath the charm, the voice, and the handsome face, “He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks.”

You see, like Orla before him, Mahony sees the dead, and they’re thick as flies here. They’re sitting on the rafters knitting; they’re smoking a pipe in the roll-top bath; they’re sitting on the cistern, just watching. Because “The dead are drawn to those with shattered hearts.”

But his mother isn’t among them; how can that be so?

As we follow Mahony on his quest, we get to know a number of the townspeople. Shauna runs the only decent boarding house in town, and since Mahony is staying there, we get to know her and her father, Desmond. We get to know Mrs. Cauley, the wealthy senior citizen that keeps the town afloat, ancient, wheelchair bound, and surrounded in her quarters by a “literary labyrinth” that’s positively magical. In her, Mahony finds an unexpected confederate. Though elderly enough to be fragile, when the chips are down Mrs. Cauley is at the ready, declaring that “I’m Miss Marple, with balls.”

We also get to know one of my favorite characters, Bridget Doosey, as well as the “crocodilian” parish priest, Father Quinn.

The lyricism of the text is owed to no small skill on the part of the author, partly with the use of figurative language—and here I tell my readers that are teachers, you’ll find no better passages for teaching the effective use of repetition anywhere, but select carefully, because the text is very spicy—but a certain amount of it is due to the intangible talent that some of us have, and that some of us don’t. I note that every chapter is ended brilliantly and the next also begun as much so.
I could reach into my notes all day long and find more passages that are lyrical, moving, or funny enough to make you wish you’d been to the bathroom first. But in the end I’d be doing you a disservice, because what you really need is the book itself. With a little planning, you can have a copy in your hands before St. Patrick’s Day. And you should do so.