The Guncle, by Steven Rowley*****

How do you spell instant parenthood? It’s the last thing GUP—the appellation bestowed on Gay Uncle Patrick—expected, and the transition is hilariously rocky. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Patrick’s whole life appears to be on hold. He was on television for a good long while, and so both fame and fortune are his. He doesn’t actually have to do anything, and since the demise of his beloved partner, he hasn’t wanted to. Then one of his closest friends, Sarah, who had been his college roommate, dies, and everything changes.

Grant and Maisie, Sarah’s children, are six and nine years old respectively. When the memorial service concludes, Patrick is blindsided by Joe, Sarah’s husband. While she was on her deathbed, she made Joe promise that when she was gone, he’d go into rehab—but of course, someone has to take the children. Joe wants that someone to be Patrick.

The humor is ribald at times, but never over-the-top. Patrick knows nothing about children. Nothing! In a daze, he returns home with his charges in tow, and he has to learn on the job. Maisie is at a somewhat bossy age and is only too happy to tell him what to do and how to do it, and oh is it fun to watch. As the fog lifts, Patrick begins making small changes to create a more child-friendly space, but mostly, he embraces his unconventional situation. There’s a Christmas celebration in the middle of summer; there’s a party. And as he steps up to his new role, he realizes that he should return to work; he has heirs now, after all.

Aunt Clara arrives, and she demands the children return with her. She knows how to do this. She frowns on nearly every aspect of Patrick’s life. But Patrick is amazed to realize he is willing to fight to hang onto them.

Some may be surprised to find a book like this earning a five star rating; it’s not serious literature. It’s fun; it’s fluffy. But this reviewer rates each book on its excellence compared to others of its genre. As a humorous novel, it shines. As a feel-good book, it’s terrific. As beach reads go, what can be better?

Perhaps it’s indicative of Rowley’s skill that I have found myself writing review notes in his voice. This doesn’t happen often. But as for you? You should get this book and read it, because all of us need a mood elevator, and in that respect, it’s a bargain. Highly recommended!

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.

The Recent East, by Thomas Grattan*****

The Recent East introduces novelist Thomas Grattan, and it’s an impressive debut. It follows a family of German-Americans from 1965, when the eldest emigrates from East Germany with her parents, to the present. I initially decide to read it because of the setting; it’s the first fiction I’ve read set in the former Soviet satellite country. However, it is the characters that keep me engaged to the last page.

My thanks go to Net Galley and McMillan for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The story opens in 1965 as Beate and her parents are defecting:

Everyone talked about the West as if it were a secret. They leaned in to share stories of its grocery stores that carried fresh oranges, its cars with bult-in radios. Covered their mouths to mention a Dusseldorf boulevard that catered to movie stars and dictators, whole Eastern month’s salaries spent on face cream. There were entire, whispered conversations about its large houses and overstuffed stores, its borders crossed with a smile and a flick of one’s passport. Some talked about it as if it were the most boring thing. Others like it was an uppity friend. But everyone talked about it…

The first chapter makes me laugh out loud. Teenage Beate is mocked when she enrolls in school in Cologne, because her clothing is nowhere near as nice as what the kids in West Germany wear. Since her parents cannot afford to upgrade her wardrobe just yet, Beate comes up with the genius idea to alter the clothes she owns to make them look as Soviet as possible, and she “put on her Moscow face, worked on her Leningrad walk.” Sure enough, the kids at school are terrified of her now. She still doesn’t have friends, but she isn’t bullied anymore.

Morph forward in time. Beate is a mother now, living in upstate New York with her two adolescent children and unhappy husband. When the Berlin Wall falls, so does her marriage. Soon afterward, she is notified that her late parents’ house now belongs to her. She packs up her belongings and her children, then buys tickets to Germany.

Adela and Michael have always been close, but the move shakes their relationship. Their usual routines are shattered, and their mother, reeling from the divorce, becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative. What a terrible time to disengage from parenting! Both Michael and Adela roam the city of Kritzhagen at will, at all hours of the night. Michael is just 13 years old and gay; sometimes he doesn’t come home at all at night. I read these passages, written without obvious judgment or commentary, with horror. A new house, new city, new country, new continent, and it’s now that their mother forgets to set boundaries? I want to find this woman and slap her upside the head (though I guess that’s a different sort of boundary violation.) Half the houses in town stand empty, and since they have no furniture of their own and their mother is doing nothing to acquire it, Michael breaks into houses and steals furnishings. Look, Ma, I found us some chairs.

My jaw drops.

Adela goes in the other direction, becoming a conscientious student and social justice advocate. But their mother pays her no attention, either.

For the first half of this story, it seems like a four star novel to me; well written, competent, but nothing to merit great accolades. This changes in the second half, because all three of these characters are dynamic, and the changes in them are absolutely believable and deeply absorbing.

I have friends that do social work, and what they have told me is this: children that are forced to become the adults in the family, taking on responsibilities they’re too young for when a parent abdicates them, often appear to miraculously mature, competent beyond their years. Everything is organized. They may do the jobs as well as any adult, and sometimes better than most. How wonderful!

But because they aren’t developmentally ready for these things yet, what happens is that later, when they are grown, they fall apart and become breathtakingly immature, because they have to go back and live their adolescent years that were stolen from them. (As a teacher, I saw this in action a couple of times.)  And so I am awestruck by how consistently our Grattan’s characters follow this pattern.

As the second half progresses, I make a couple of predictions, one of which is sort of formulaic, but Grattan does other things, and they’re far better than what I’d guessed. We follow these characters for several decades, and at the end, we see the relationship that blooms between Beate and her grandson. When it’s over, I miss them.

Because Michael is gay and is one of our three protagonists, this novel is easily slotted into the LGTB genre, but it is much more than this. Instead, one should regard it as a well-written story in which one character is gay.

But whatever you choose to call this book, you should get it and read it if you love excellent fiction.

The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, by Pamela Terry*****

Pamela Terry’s debut novel, The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, had me at hello. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. You can buy it now.

Lila Bruce Breedlove (I even love the characters’ names) hasn’t gone home to Georgia in a good long while, and it’s not accidental, either. Her home in Maine with her dogs and fond memories of her late husband are the furthest thing from her mama’s censorious gaze and the smallminded thinking of the people of Wesleyan, Georgia. But now Mama has been found facedown in the Muscadine arbor, and Lila knows there’s nothing else to do. She packs her bag, gets a friend to look after the dogs, and buys a ticket. Her brother Henry, who has also made a permanent home up north, does the same, but he advises his life partner, Andrew, to stay put. Their sister, Abigail, is the lone family member that didn’t flee. She and Mama were best friends, as they told everyone  constantly, including Lila and Henry. Still,  duty calls. It wouldn’t be fair to leave Abigail to do this on her own.

The whole story is told by Lila in the first person limited. I find this refreshing. The tone is intimate, confidential at times, and downright conspiratorial at others. Lila lets us know that “Growing up in the South is not for the faint of heart…When you’re the slightest bit different, you stand out like a monkey in a chorus line.”

Before they’ve even touched down, Lila and Henry have questions. For example, why was Mama in the Muscadines at all? The arbor is nowhere near the house, and she never chose to visit it when she was a younger woman. It had been Lila’s special place. Once they arrive in Georgia, they confront more questions, and though not all of them are answered, a plethora of surprises greet them, some of them hilarious, others shocking. Lila tells us that

Secrets are spilled at southern funerals. Death, particularly when its inevitability has been ignored for generations, possesses a power to snap diffidence and dignity right in two, causing those left behind to be overcome with the need to unburden their consciences before they themselves are found sleeping in a slick, shiny coffin in their best Sunday suit.

The first surprise, it turns out, is that Geneva Bruce left an advance directive specifying no funeral at all upon her demise, which she had known to be imminent. For the widow of a Southern Baptist Georgia preacher to bail from her own funeral is unheard of! However, the lack of a proper funeral does not, cannot prevent family secrets from unspooling, and some of them are bombshells, too.

Terry is a gifted wordsmith, and her figurative language is original and at times, drop dead funny. The pacing never flags, and the transitions that take us from raucous levity, to bittersweet reflection, to aching sorrow, and then back again are buttery smooth. It was like hearing from my best friend. I generally read several books at a time, but this one proved to be the one I read when I would not be interrupted, and I was sorry to see it end.

It was only at about the eighty percent mark that I realized that one of my least favorite elements was included here, that of the Bad Mama. This is a trend right now, and I’m ready to be done with it. Novelists far and wide have enjoyed crafting stories centered around unworthy mothers, and when I see one coming in advance, I consider it a deal-breaker. But almost any device, character, or plot point can be forgiven when a novel is of exceptional quality, and that is what I see here.

Highly recommended.

Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

It’s the best of books, but it’s the worst of books. K-Ming Chang has made her mark on modern literature, and her debut novel, Bestiary, has already made a number of prestigious lists. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review; sadly, its twisted edginess is too intense for me.

This much-buzzed-about book is for sale now.

How many triggers are packed into this one little book? All of them. Every trigger you can possibly think of, plus she may have made a few more up on the spot. There is violence a-plenty here, and the graphic child abuse and elder abuse provide such visceral imagery that I may never get it out of my head. I abandoned this book faster than just about any I can recall, and although I was certain it was the right thing to do for myself, I nevertheless experienced a twinge of regret along with it, because it is obvious from the first page that this author can write.

My gut hunch is that younger adult readers with cast-iron stomachs and level dispositions will be the most appreciative demographic for this one, but wimps like me will need to give it a pass. It is to the former that this book is recommended.

Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

Firewatching, by Russ Thomas***

Firewatching is the first in the Adam Tyler detective series, and also the first novel written by Russ Thomas. It’s been praised by Lee Child, and published by Putnam Penguin, an auspicious sign. Thanks go to the publisher and Net Galley for the review copy.

All of the right elements are here for a rip roaringly great tale, but the execution fell short. When I found myself drifting off while reading the digital review copy, I went to Seattle Bibliocommons and checked out the audio book. Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to all of it, either. I kept with it to the 45 percent mark; skipped to 75 percent in hopes there would be something tantalizing that would reel me back in; and when that didn’t work out, I listened to snippets from there to the end.

Here’s what I like. Conceptually, it sounds promising. Tales of crazed arsonists are generally irresistible, and there haven’t been a lot of them published lately. Fiction writing is as prone to fad and whim as is anything else, as any reviewer can see. This story steers clear of dead, sick, or disabled siblings; Paris; alternate past and present narratives, and struggling alcoholic detectives. Detective Tyler resists his boss’s impulse toward stereotypes. There are two elderly women side characters, one of whom struggles with dementia, and Tyler is told that old women in small towns always love gossip; he refers to them often as “the old dears.” I know I am not the only Boomer that wants to smack that obnoxious character, and so Tyler endears himself to me by not going there. And actually, I like the two older women in this story a great deal. I also like the brief—maybe too brief—passages where we are inside the head of the firebug.

But alas, the story’s protagonist isn’t the arsonist, and it isn’t either of the elderly women. It’s Tyler, and Tyler just bores the snot out of me. I want him to just do something. I don’t need to know what he is wearing, what he is thinking, what he is feeling, wearing, feeling some more, thinking….

During my teaching career, I recall one impatient girl that was sent home for a few days because of her tendency to walk up to a teacher that was standing in her way—tutoring, or speaking to another student—and barking at him, “MOVE!” And I found myself channeling this student as I read and/or listened to this story. I don’t care about your damn wardrobe, Tyler, just move! Move it! Do something, for the love of…

Fine. Whatever.

A possible silver lining occurs to me, and that is that with this first in a series, all of the personal details of wardrobe and emotion may be emphasized in order to introduce the protagonist, and perhaps with the second in the series, the pace will pick up and we’ll be on our way. I surely hope so.

But for now, I can only write about what I know, and I know it would be wrong of me to urge you to purchase this book at full jacket price. If you’re going to read it, get it cheap or free, because most of the joy I see here is in potential, and future maybe-joy makes a thin soup indeed.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg***

Ortberg wrote The Merry Spinster, a work of dark humor that convinced me that he is a genius. This book is a lot different, although at times the same voice peeks through. My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Many of the essays in this book are recycled from Ortberg’s blog, but since I never saw the blog, all of it is new to me. The essays describe his experience as a trans man, and though it is funny in places, most of the pieces ooze pain and bitterness. And to be fair, a trans man brought up female in an evangelical Christian home, taught to consider the Rapture in every choice made, every road followed, is bound to have these things in spades. However, there is a good deal of redundancy here. After awhile I found my attention wandering, and by thirty percent of the way in, I was watching the page numbers crawl by. How much longer…?

Some of the chapter titles are full of promise, but then the chapter itself disappoints. What, this again? I did enjoy the passage on parallel parking, and the chapter on Columbo (the only man Ortberg has ever loved) cracked me up.

I have rated this title three stars for general audiences, but I suspect that for those transitioning to manhood, or for those close to someone doing so, the rating will be higher.

Recommended to those transitioning, considering transitioning, and their loved ones.