Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder****

“All art is appropriation.”

Sue Ellen Wright is a professor of Greek classics; she’s headed for Greece to deliver lectures and reminisce about the experiences of her youth. At the last minute, her philandering husband Dean and the couple’s lovesick son Will decide to tag along. Grant Ginder has made a career of writing hilarious prose about disastrous families, and Honestly, We Meant Well made me laugh out loud more than once.  Thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The book opens as Sue Ellen is conferring with a freshman who’s come to her office to challenge his midterm exam score:

“’I’m pretty sure I got this one right.’

“Connor points to a picture on his midterm…it’s an artifact that he was meant to identify.

“’That’s not a bong, Connor. That’s a Corinthian urn from the fifth century B.C.E…’

“But can’t you see how it could have been a bong?’

“’No,’ Sue Ellen says, ‘Actually, I can’t.’”

Teachers, are you experiencing flashbacks here? And those of you that aren’t teachers can appreciate that Sue Ellen needs a break, one that takes her as far away as possible. Her bags are packed.

Dean is a professor as well, and he’s a celebrated one. As the writer of a bestselling novel, The Light of Our Shadows, he is permitted to cherry-pick which students may enroll in his seminars. He knows he ought not to have sex with any of them, but they’re so insistent; and why shouldn’t they be? He’s a genius. At the moment, though, he’s a genius with writer’s block, and he thinks a Grecian holiday might just be what he needs; it will strengthen his marriage and get his creative juices flowing as well.

Will is a student, but who can chart a course, academic or otherwise, when his heart has been shattered? His boyfriend broke up with him and has instantly turned up on Instagram with kissy-face photos of himself with his new squeeze. It’s humiliating. It’s horrifying. Worse: everyone is liking those photos. Meanwhile, he has committed an unforgivable academic sin, one he’s desperate to keep his parents from learning.

Ginny Polonsky works at the university, and she knows where the bodies are buried. Readers know what Ginny knows—well, most of it anyway—and as the family unknits itself and copes with one unforeseen event after another, we are waiting for Ginny’s other shoe to drop on them. It’s immensely satisfying when it does.

There’s not a lot of character development here, but not much is needed. I believe each of these characters, which are written with admirable consistency. The prose is tight and the resolution surprises me. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The Wrights are Caucasian and middle class, and this is the demographic most likely to enjoy this book. It’s just the thing to toss into your suitcase or carry on when you’re headed on a trip of your own.

Your Life is Mine, by Nathan Ridley***-****

Last spring, author Nathan Ripley set the world on fire with his sinister debut novel, Find You in the Dark, and so I could hardly wait to read his new release. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the review copy.  Although this psychological thriller is a solid effort, there is an unevenness of quality that holds it back.

The opening is strong, both urgent and original:

Before a shooter is a shooter, he’s just a man in a room. It’s what follows that brings the background to the scene, to the way we remember it. The domestic dispute reports, the spotty employment record, the legal and illegal firearms history, the I-always-knew neighbors. Before all of that, he comes into the room with his gun, hidden or not, and he is a just a man. Chuck Varner was holding his daughter’s hand when he walked into the mall. My hand. He took me up that escalator and told me that he loved me. He told me to walk away from the mall and go back to my mom once he was done…I was seven years old.

Blanche Potter is a journalist, and she tells us that she is fine now. She has shed her horrifying past and her psycho parents like a ratty old coat, and her way of processing the experience that marked her childhood is by creating a documentary about it. The only person in her life now that knows who is she is, is her childhood friend Jaya. Jaya’s mother took Blanche in, introduced her to normal life. Jaya means everything to Blanche.

Unfortunately, another journalist has uncovered her past and is making demands. Emil Chadwick is the son of the biographer that spilled her family’s private details to the world back when Blanche was still a child; he threatens to out Blanche if she doesn’t cooperate with the work he is doing now.

The story is told in the first person primarily by Blanche, but it’s punctuated by Emil’s narrative and that of his mother Jill. We learn that Varner left followers that are still intent on fulfilling the mandate of chaos that Varner named “Your Life is Mine,” and at least one more mass shooting is in the offing. As Blanche untangles the truth, she reveals the secrets that she has withheld from her colleagues as well as her loved ones for all these years.

Blanche’s character is expertly handled, and of course she isn’t fine at all; she’s just good at compartmentalization. Ripley is deft as he introduces elements that tug at one fragile string and then another that are holding Blanche together emotionally. No one can read this story without believing Blanche and cheering for her, the plucky, bright young woman determined to proceed with her life despite a desperate, harrowing childhood.

But a thriller like this has to have a powerful resolution, and this one doesn’t. Within the last fifteen percent of the book, Blanche makes errors that don’t characterize her as we know her, and that cannot be accounted for by her development. The ending is more fizzle than boom, and to add insult to injury, Ripley moves to a third person narrative at the ninety percent mark; it’s awkward and jarring.

I like this author’s work and will continue to read it. As for you, I recommend you get it free or cheap, unless your pockets are deep ones.

Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

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. 

Best Historical Fiction 2018

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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.