Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin***

I received this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It will be available to the public February 26, 2019.

The cover grabbed my attention right away since I like sassy working class fiction. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but this one doesn’t rely on back story, so that is no problem.

The promotional blurb says this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it did make me laugh out loud right away. The protagonist Mona is a housecleaner, and as she is wiping down the various surfaces in the bathroom, she comes across a human turd on a soap dish. The hell? But she resolves not to say anything about it, because she tells us once you mention it, they win. I howled with laughter. This is great stuff. Every now and then she tosses in a cleaning tip, and for some reason it works with the narrative. Maybe it’s because she already uses such an eccentric style that it seems consistent with the rest of the story.

As the first of the book’s four sections moves forward, she recollects the oddball things that she’s found while cleaning other people’s homes, and then we see the reward she gives herself at the end, after several hours of cleaning a large, expensive home: she paws through the residents’ clothing, selects some, and tries it on. She photographs herself in their clothes, and she also photographs herself mostly nude with their more remarkable possessions.

But one day she is interrupted in this ritual by the homeowner, and a truly bizarre relationship develops which includes his wife as well, and just like that we moved out of my comfort zone, but I promised to read and review this thing, so I forged onward.

I knew this would be edgy humor when I requested the galley, and perhaps I should have read between the lines a little more thoroughly. The narrative contains a goodly amount of explicit sexual content—much of it twisted–not to mention a rape that Mona recounts, a scarring episode from her past. But in all of it, I don’t see any character development to speak of.  The plot seems like more of a framework that’s been constructed in order to contain the various bits of humor that the author wants to include. And here, I also have to wonder why, why, why would anyone include the horrific suicide of a family member in an otherwise raunchily funny book? It was unexpected and made my gut flip over, the snide things she thinks about how the couple has dealt with the death of their daughter, the disposition of the ashes. Once you have read something you can’t unread it, and in all honesty I won’t read anything by this writer again.

At the same time, there are readers that loved her first book and I’ll bet you a dollar that they will love this one too. It bears the hallmark of a cult classic. I have no doubt that many readers will love it, but I do not.

Recommended to readers that read and enjoyed the author’s first book.

The Wedding Guest, by Jonathan Kellerman****

The wedding guest is dead, slumped on the toilet, strangled. Is she someone invited by the bride’s family, or the groom’s? Neither one. Total stranger…or so they say. The thirty-fourth book in the Alex Delaware series comes out tomorrow, February 5, 2019. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. 

Kellerman is a child psychiatrist, and his knowledge and experience dealing with children and their families provides him with a rare ability to invent quirky but believable characters. Here we find a wedding reception unfolding in a seedy building that used to be a strip club, and this provides the world’s tackiest wedding theme. All the women—including the bride—are supposed to dress to look “hot.” The groom’s family, a more conservative, scholarly bunch, are less than delighted, but they bear it stoically, till someone finds a dead guest in the loo. The bride—already turned bridezilla–is just undone. How could someone ruin her big day like this? How thoughtless. They should have killed that woman somewhere else. Or maybe on a different day. 

This series never fails to delight me. Once again, Detective Milo Sturgis gets the call; once again, his best pal Alex is tapped to analyze a young guest, and from there he becomes further involved in the case. 

There have been other books in the series that pushed this improbable situation too far, with Alex the doctor donning a Kevlar vest to go chase and apprehend bad guys with Milo. This time I find Alex’s involvement much more believable. On the one hand, he still does things that doctors advising cops never do, but limiting Alex’s participation to interviews held either in his office or at the police station wouldn’t make for good fiction. All we want is to believe. Kellerman helps us along by creating a strong friendship bond that makes Milo and Alex want to work together, and that’s coupled with Milo’s unpopularity among his colleagues due to the fact that he’s gay. Nobody else wants to get in the car and go places with Milo, and Alex does; and after all, the police do employ him, so it’s not like some random civilian is partnered with Milo. I thought this was finessed nicely this time around. 

Kellerman always writes strong dialogue that includes some very funny bits here and there, and the pages turn rapidly. It’s a lot of fun to read, and if I hadn’t been able to get the galley for this one, I’d have hunted it down later at the library rather than miss out. 

Highly recommended for fans of the genre. 

Holy Lands, by Amanda Sthers*****

HolyLands

 

“Does keeping the memory fresh prevent history from repeating itself? Surely not. Memories are meant to be forgotten. History is meant to be repeated. That of Jews, of women, of Arabs, of people who suffer, of Little Red Riding Hood. And the grandmother always, always has sharp teeth.”

Seldom do I make a decision to read a galley based almost entirely on the book’s cover, but really. A dancing pig in the Holy Land? How can that story not be interesting? Big thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury. This book will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The whole book is a series of letters and emails sent between five characters. We have four family members: Harry and Monique are divorced, yet it’s one of those complicated divorces where there’s no clean break; David and Annabelle are their adult children.

Harry is an American expatriate who has moved to Israel, but instead of embracing his culture and homeland in a more conventional way, he has opted to become a pig farmer in Nazareth, one of the few places in this Jewish nation where the animals are not straight up illegal. And so the fifth character is the rabbi, who entreats Harry to give up the pork business. He’s upsetting people, and he should respect his roots a little more. Jews have been through enough, nu? And before we know it, there’s mention of the Holocaust.

Harry wants to keep his pigs, and he thinks it is time for Jews to lighten up about the Holocaust, maybe tell a joke about it now and then. The rabbi is floored. Joke? About the Holocaust? And so it’s on.

You would think that with such edgy subject matter the story would veer over the boundary of good taste, but Sthers—who has many bestsellers to her credit, though this is her American debut—is deft, insightful and very, very funny. The prose is angry, hilarious, and aching all in turns, not unlike our feelings for our kin.

Families are such fertile territory, and this one is among the best fictional families in literature. David, Harry and Monique’s son, is a gay playwright whose father has not come to grips with David’s sexuality. David writes him endless letters; Harry won’t respond. We see how Harry thinks and feels about David through his correspondence with the rabbi, and with the things Annabelle learns when she comes for a visit. Meanwhile, David’s new play is about to open, and it’s titled “Kosher Pig.” It’s about his father. Oh, how he wants Harry to be there for the opening! But Harry remains incommunicado.

This is a slender little book, just 176 pages, and so I expected a casual romp, but it’s more than that. It’s a quick read, not because it’s lightweight literature but because it’s impossible to put down. I recommend you should get it and read it, and then…maybe you should call your parents. Better yet, go visit them.

A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

The Island Dwellers, by Jen Silverman*****

TheIslandDwellersJen Silverman is a playwright with a list of awards as long as your arm. With this impressive collection of short stories, she steps into the world of prose with guns a-blazing. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book is now for sale.

Silverman’s contemporary fiction is themed, as the title suggests, around people that live on islands in various parts of the world. Everything here is edgy and a little bit dark. Her characters are melancholy, naïve, neurotic, bent, and at times laugh-out-loud funny; she doesn’t leave her endings—or her readers—hanging, and I didn’t successfully predict the way any of her stories would turn out. We have destructive relationships; relationships that are hellishly unequal; artists that aren’t really; strange, strange animals—oh, hell, that Japanese pit viper! But the thing that ties these tales together, apart from the theme, is deft, tight writing.

Anyone planning a vacation should pack this title, whether in paper or digitally. Short stories are terrific for bed time and when traveling, because the end of each story gives the reader a reasonable place to pause even when the prose is masterfully rendered, as it is here. This volume was released May 1, 2018 and is highly recommended.

The Bathwater Conspiracy, by Janet Kellough*****

TheBathwaterConFeminists rejoice! Janet Kellough, known for the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, has cut loose with a genre-bending science fiction mystery novel that’s cleverly conceived, brilliantly written, and funny as hell. I was invited to read it free of charge, courtesy of Edge Publishing and the author.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. Women have inherited the Earth, emerging victorious from the Testosterone War, but that was a long time ago. About the only time anyone even thinks about them is in an academic setting, and it wouldn’t even come up now, except that a student from the Men’s Studies field of history has been murdered. Even stranger, the Darmes—the future equivalent of the FBI, perhaps—are hushing it up.

This presents a problem for city police detective Carson MacHenry, who gets the call initially. First she’s told to solve the case; then she’s told not to. And while most of us, in a similar situation, would yield fairly quickly, Carson is disturbed by the skullduggery involved in this whole thing. Who the hell wants a cop to NOT solve a crime, especially a murder? Add to this Carson’s workaholic tendencies since her split with Georgie; home is too damn lonely, and a meaty case like this one is far more alluring than returning to her cat and her empty home.

Given the setting, which is more disorienting than it seems on the surface, it’s helpful that Kellough soft-pedals the invented language and coding that many science fiction and fantasy writers favor, keeping it minimal so that we are not scrambling to catch up with a complex plot.

Carson is assigned a rookie partner, an annoying, punctilious young cop named Susan Nguyen. In order to pursue the investigation she’s been warned away from, Carson sends her hapless partner off on one snipe hunt after another, and from about the halfway mark I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s no way that’s all there is to Nguyen. And of course I am not going to tell you how this aspect plays out, but it’s hilarious.

There are deeper issues lurking beneath the surface here, issues of philosophy and ethics related to genetics, research, and science. In addition, even the most die-hard feminist readers will catch themselves assuming, at some point, that one or more characters are male, even though we have been told everyone is female. Back in the day we called this consciousness raising; you can call it anything you want to now, but it is bound to make you think harder.

At bottom, though, the voice is what makes this a terrific read rather than merely a good one. The wry humor and side bits are so engaging that I was sorry to see the story end.  I laughed out loud more than once.

Those that love strong fiction and lean to the left should get this book. Fans of police procedurals, science fiction, LGTB fiction and above all, smart stories written with great, droll humor have to read it too. It’s for sale now at about the price you’d ordinarily pay for a used book. Go get it.

Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher*****

“There’s nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.”

SadnessisaJonathan grew up in the United States, but now his family is in Israel, the land of his mother’s birth. He’s visited Auschwitz where much of his family died, and he can’t wait to turn eighteen so that he can train to be an Israeli paratrooper. Enough with being ‘people of word’, he figures; he wants to be a Jewish warrior, the ‘people of the sword,’ and exact some payback.  A friendship with two Palestinian teenagers complicates his life in ways he didn’t expect. I received an advance review copy of this exquisitely rendered story free, courtesy of Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review.

Twin siblings Laith and Nimreen are Palestinians, but long days at the beach and twilit evenings spent with Jonathan, getting high and telling ridiculous jokes, blur the social boundaries observed by most Jews, and by most Palestinians. With the absurd idealism peculiar to young people that haven’t run up hard against life’s limitations, Jonathan thinks that he can have both, that he can become an Israeli soldier and keep his friendships separate from his new career. His friends know better, but still they love him.

There’s only one way to tell a story like this one, and that’s as a tragedy; that’s exactly what Rothman-Zecher does, but he does it better than anyone else I can imagine.  This doomed friendship becomes more deeply intimate the closer the day comes when Jonathan must report for duty. Ultimately it becomes a bizarre love triangle in which our young protagonist has a sexual relationship with both of them—though fortunately not simultaneously.  For a good long while this lodges in my craw, and as the story continues, I am too revolted to focus. As brilliantly written as this story is, I was headed in the direction of a four star review in protest; that was true, anyway, until I recognized the allegory. Then I was over it.

Nimreen is a teenager too, but she lives with the partitioned state every damn day of her life. She knows that Jonathan can’t have it both ways, but she hopes against hope that he’ll change his mind, that he won’t go into the service. And as Jonathan and his friends try to do anything, go anywhere where there are other people, we see exactly how polarized this place has become. They can’t hitchhike together; there are so many places where either Jonathan isn’t safe, or Laith and Nimreen are not permitted. He goes through a checkpoint where, without his suspicious-looking friends, he would simply have been waved through, and he finds out what it’s like to have one’s homeland invaded.

Rothman-Zecher does a splendid job of depicting exactly how difficult this question is. If I ask myself, have Jews been systematically robbed of their possessions, their homes, and sometimes their lives across not just hundreds of years, but across centuries? I know the answer is yes. I knew it before, but this story drives it home in a way that is visceral. And do Jews deserve to have a home that nobody can ever, ever take from them again? Again, the answer is absolutely yes.

But then we look at the Palestinians, indigenous people living in the Third World at a bare subsistence level. Their homes are almost all they possess, and does anyone have the right to march in, evict them from this place and chase them away from their homes, their families, their livelihoods? Oh hell no, of course not.

In this epic story, Rothman-Zecher bridges the scholarly with the deeply personal, fulfilling a task that can only be achieved by excellent fiction. This searing debut has put this writer on the map definitively and marked him as a new voice in literature.

Highly recommended.

White Houses, by Amy Bloom*****

 

“Lorena Alice Hickock, you are the surprise of my life. I love you. I love your nerve. I love your laugh. I love your way with a sentence. I love your beautiful eyes and your beautiful skin and I will love you till the day I die.”

I pushed out the words before she could change her mind.

“Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, you amazing, perfect, imperfect woman, you have knocked me sideways. I love you. I love your kindness and your brilliance and your soft heart. I love how you dance and I love your beautiful hands and I will love you till the day I die.”

I took off my sapphire ring and slipped it onto her pinkie. She unpinned the gold watch from her lapel and pinned it on my shirt. She put her arms around my waist. We kissed as if we were in the middle of a cheering crowd, with rice and rose petals raining down on us.”

 

WhiteHouses

A sea change has occurred in the way mainstream Americans regard lesbian relationships. This book proves it. We would have laughed at the possibility in the 1980s, that a major publishing house would one day publish this novel depicting a revered  First Lady in such a (covert) relationship—while she was in the White House, no less. But Amy Bloom tells it, square and proud, and she lets us know that this is only fiction by an inch or two. Many thanks go to Random House (I will love you till the day I die) and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.  This novel is now for sale.

Nobody can tell a story the way that Bloom does it, and this is her best work yet. The story is told us by Lorena Hickok, a journalist known as “Hick”, an outcast from a starving, dysfunctional family, the type that were legion during America’s Great Depression. The voice is clear, engaging, and so real that it had me at hello, but the story’s greatest success is in embracing the ambiguity at the heart of the First couple, Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So many great things done for the nation; so many entitled, thoughtless acts toward the unwashed minions they knew. A new friend, a favorite visitor brought from cold hard poverty, here and there, to occupy a White House spare bedroom and provide stimulating conversation, a new viewpoint, and to demonstrate the administration’s care for the common folk; then dumped unceremoniously, often without a place to go or money to get there, when they became tiresome or ill or inconvenient. The very wealthy, privileged backgrounds from which the Roosevelts sprung provided them with myopia that comes with living their whole lives in a rarefied environment. It is fascinating to see history unspool as Eleanor visits coal camps and picket lines, visits textile mills where children labor; but then of course, she repairs to the best lodging available before her journey home commences. And Hick is welcome when she is convenient, but she is banished for a time when there’s too much talk.

And yet—oh, how Lorena loved Eleanor, and the reverse was true, but not necessarily in the same measure, with the same fealty, or the same need.

Social class, the dirty secret America has tried to whitewash across the generations, is the monster in the Roosevelt closet. And FDR, perhaps the greatest womanizer to grace the Oval Office, has his PR people tell everyone that he has no manly function what with the paralysis, and that all those pretty girls that come and go are just there to cheer him up. He makes JFK look like a monk in comparison.  Yet we cannot hate him entirely, because of the New Deal:

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day…He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?”

I have a dozen more meaty quotes I’d like to use here, but it’s much better if you get this book, by hook or by crook, and find all of them for yourself.  It’s impressive work by any standard, and I defy you to put it down once you’ve begun.

Highly recommended.