Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

Yo, happy release day! I read this over the winter and blogged it in June; if you missed it the first time, check it out.

Seattle Book Mama

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read…

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The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

heartbreakhotelThis is #32 in the Alex Delaware series, and Kellerman’s writing just seems to get better with every entry. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Alex Delaware is a semi-retired child psychologist who’s also an adrenaline junkie. His nest is already well padded, his wife still happy in her career, and so he spends most of his time assisting his best friend, an LA homicide detective named Milo Sturgis. The premise is the hardest thing to swallow, but Kellerman makes it easier by letting us know how affluent Delaware is, and recently there’s the added twist that because Sturgis is gay, nobody on the force really wants to be his partner. Thus it seems more natural—for the sake of a good yarn—for Delaware to slip into that position. After all, he’s been doing it for years.

This story involves the homicide of a nearly one-hundred-years-old woman that has consulted Delaware. She paid him generously for his time but confided little about what she planned to do with the information he found for her, and so when she is found dead in her bed, he smells a rat. Sure enough; she was suffocated! Now who would do that to a sweet old lady like Thalia Mars?

Our story takes a million deft twists and clever turns, and in general shows us that what we think we see isn’t always real. We encounter some underhanded, sleazy real estate practices as well as insurance fraud along the way. The case also takes in some interesting LA history.

One aspect of Kellerman’s work that I often forget and then am happily surprised by all over again, is the humor he threads through the narrative, and I laughed out loud more than once.

Although it’s only one page in length, some readers will also want to be aware there’s one graphic, brutal rape. Consider your trigger warned.

At the end of the day, stories such as this one can be curiously comforting. It’s true that tax season is just around the corner, and my toaster just died. But after reading this novel, I can find comfort in knowing that no villains are likely to turn up in my bedroom tonight and burk me in my sleep.  Perspective! There you have it.

This fun story, which went by way too quickly, will be available to the public February 14, 2017. Highly recommended to those that love a good mystery.

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but this one wins the prize. The second story that deals with Judgment Day didn’t work for me; first there were some hyperliterate science references that zinged right over my head, and then the sick factor got the better of me, and so I skipped that one and moved on to the title story. Having read the rest, I am inclined to chalk that second one up to my own quirks rather than Hale’s skill set.

When I came to “The Fat Artist”, I could only bow in awe. I was overcome with frustration because no one else in my household enjoys literary fiction, and so I couldn’t share. In a nutshell, the protagonist, a performance artist, seeks to eat himself to death while setting a worldwide fatness record. I actually gasped several times while reading this one.

Although the writing within this collection provides outstanding examples of every imaginable literary device, those that teach high school literature would be wise not to place it on classroom shelves unless you work at an alternative school. A very alternative school. A very, very, very…well, hopefully my meaning is clear. There is so much edgy material, from language, to explicit sexual description, to sexual roles and gender ambiguity, that I can see the villagers coming with their torches, their hot tar, their feather pillows. Teachers, don’t do this to yourselves. Get a personal copy; take it home and enjoy it; then pass it on to someone that can be trusted to appreciate it. Seriously.

Four more stories follow, and they’re all strong. “Leftovers” deals with a middle aged man in the midst of an extramarital affair when his problem child unexpectedly appears, ready to ransack the family vacation home for valuables to sell in order to feed his addiction. The way this tale unfolds gives me goose bumps.

The next two tales deal with sexual roles and ambiguity. I came away from “Beautiful Boy”, which made me realize, whether by the author’s intention or not, that men that choose to cross dress only as a diversion are looking at the best of both worlds, never having to confront the glass ceiling because they’ll be at that office meeting clad in their conservative suit and tie like always; it reminds me of white actors that wore black face.

The final story of a troubled brother that lands in the basement of his brother, the MIT researcher, and is provided with a job driving squid from the docks to the laboratory, is as brilliant as all the others, and equally esoteric.

Hale is wholly original, but if I were to compare his writing to any other author, it would be to that of Michael Chabon.

Bring your literary skills to the feast that Hale has laid for you; you will need them.  It’s one hell of a banquet.

The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.