Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

The Melody, by Jim Crace****

“We are the animals that dream.”

TheMelodyJim Crace is an award-winning author with an established readership, but he is new to me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Those that love literary fiction should take note.

Alfred Busi is a singer, and he was famous during his prime, but now he’s old, living alone in his villa with just his piano to keep him company. At the story’s outset he hears a noise below late at night and goes down to run the animals or the whoever out of his garbage bins, but instead he is attacked. Something or someone flies out and bites him a good one; he thinks it was a boy, a half-feral child:

“Busi could not say what it was, something fierce and dangerous, for sure…before the creature’s teeth sank into right side of his hand, and, flesh on flesh, the grip of something wet and warm began its pressure on his throat, Busi knew enough to be quite sure that this creature was a child. A snarling, vicious one, which wanted only to disable him and then escape.”

The problem—beyond the injury itself—is that Busi is elderly, forgetful, and occasionally confused. His wife is dead, and he’s grieving hard. The only people remaining in his life are his sister-in-law and her son, his nephew, and they aren’t sure he isn’t delusional. Medical staff question his reliability as well; soon, a truly nasty journalist writes a smear piece making fun of him, and it comes out just as he is scheduled to perform for the last time at a concert where he’s to receive a prestigious award. It’s all downhill from there.

Concurrently there’s discussion among the locals about the homeless people living in the Mendicant Gardens—a place entirely devoid of foliage, where makeshift shacks are erected from cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else is on hand—as well as the fate of the bosc. I find myself searching Google here because I am confused. I have never heard of a bosc, which turns out to be a wooded area of sorts, and my disorientation is compounded by not knowing where in the world this whole thing is unfolding. If our protagonist lives in a villa, and if we’re not in Mexico, then are we in Southern Europe somewhere? I am following language cues; the names of things and places sound like they could be Italian, or maybe French. Or in Spain. The heck? I go to the author bio, but that’s no help, since Crace lives in the U.S. I try to brush this off and live with the ambiguity, but I continue wishing that I could orient myself. It’s distracting. There’s a social justice angle here involving society’s obligation to its poorest members, but I am busy enough trying to establish setting that the effect is diluted.

Nevertheless, the prose here is sumptuous and inviting. Adding to the appeal is the clever second person narrative; we don’t know who is talking to us about Mr. Busi, and we don’t know whether the narrator is speaking to a readership or to someone specific. For long stretches we are caught up in the plight of our protagonist and forget about the narrator, and then he pops back in later to remind us and pique our curiosity.

I am surprised to see this title receive such negative reviews on Goodreads. To be sure, GR reviewers are a tough lot, but there are some angry-sounding readers out there. What they seem to share in common is that they are Crace’s faithful fans, and if this title is a letdown for them, I can only imagine what his best work looks like; after a brief search I added one of his most successful titles to my to-read list, because I want to see what this author could do in his prime.

And there it is. Many people won’t want to read this, because we don’t like thinking about old age and death. Busi’s whole story is about the slow spiral that occurs for most people that live long enough to be truly old. It’s depressing. Those of us that are of retirement age don’t want to think about it because it’s too near; those that are far from it are likely to wrinkle their noses and move on to merrier things. It’s a hard sell, reading about aging, physical decay, and dementia. And there are specific passages that talk about Busi’s injuries and physical maladies that caused me to close the book and read something else when I was eating. It’s not a good mealtime companion.

Crace is known as a word smith, and rightly so. If you seek a page-turner, this is not your book, but for those that admire well-turned phrases and descriptions as art, this book is recommended.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li*****

NumberOneChineseLillian Li’s debut novel , a tale of intra-family rivalry, intrigue, and torn loyalties is a barn burner; it captured my attention at the beginning, made me laugh out loud in the first chapter, and it never flagged. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company, from whom I received a review copy in exchange for this honest review.  Don’t let yourself miss this one. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

The book opens with bitter scheming on the part of Jimmy, one of two brothers that fall heir to the family restaurant after their father passes away.  Jimmy has waited for the old man to die so that he could run the restaurant his own way. The Duck House serves greasy, cheap Chinese food, and he is sure he can do better. He craves elegance, a superior menu with superior ingredients. He wants renown, and he doesn’t want his brother Johnny to have one thing to do with it.

Johnny’s in China. Johnny runs the business end of the restaurant, and he takes care of the front of the house. He’ll come back to Maryland in a heartbeat, though, when the Duck House burns down.

Li does a masterful job of introducing a large cast of characters and developing several of them; although at the outset the story appears to be primarily about the brothers, the camera pans out and we meet a host of others involved in one way or another with the restaurant. There are the Honduran workers that are referred to by the Chinese restaurant owners and their children as ‘the amigos’, and we see the way they are dismissed by those higher up, even when it is they that pull Jimmy from a burning building. There’s a bittersweet love triangle involving Nan and Ah-Jack, who work in the restaurant, and Michelle, Ah-Jack’s estranged wife, but it’s handled deftly and with such swift pacing and sterling character development that it never becomes a soap opera. Meanwhile Nan’s unhappy teenage son, Pat, pulls at her loyalties, and she is torn between him and Ah-Jack in a way that has to look familiar to almost every mother that sees it in one way or another. But the most fascinating character by far, hidden in the recesses of her home, is the sons’ widowed mother, Feng Fui, who serves as a powerful reminder not to underestimate senior citizens.

Li is one of the most exciting, entertaining new voices in fiction since the Y2K, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Gan bei!

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton*****

socialcreature“Chop chop, Cinderella.”

Here it is, a story of our time.  Lavinia is spoiled and wealthy; Louise is newly arrived in New York City, and apart from her rent-stabilized apartment and a handful of part time jobs, she has nothing. Wealth and want collide and as Louise is swept up into Lavinia’s world—not to mention her Facebook and Instagram pages—the tension mounts. We know that Lavinia is going to die soon, but we don’t know how or why, and of course we wonder what will become of Louise once that happens. Burton’s story unfolds with sass and swagger, and you want to read this book, which is for sale today.  Get it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

More than anything, Louise wants to become a writer. She has tremendous talent, but between three part time jobs and Lavinia’s endless and unreasonable demands, she has no time for it. Lavinia wants to party, and she’s generous at times, furnishing Louise with expensive dresses, high-end trips to the beauty salon, and eventually, housing. In exchange, she more or less owns Louise.

Louise moves in with Lavinia, but Lavinia has the only key.

Perhaps even more alluring to Louise are Lavinia’s seemingly endless connections to the literary movers and shakers in New York.  Lavinia, you see, has had time to write a book, and she’s done it. It’s terrible, but Louise cannot say as much. She has too damn much to lose.

Burton’s voice is like no one I have ever read, and in some ways the comparisons that have been made to well known writers are unfortunate, because her work is wholly original. The thing I love best about this story is that nothing is overstated. The narrative takes off hell-bent-for-leather, and the reader has to follow closely to find out the basic ground-level information about both both women. It’s as if we have landed as invisible companions in the middle of a party, and we have to hit the ground running, exactly as Louise has had to do.

This is risky writing. The first half has very little plot and little action; its success hinges entirely upon its characters. Burton carries it off brilliantly, with genius pacing and the disciplined use of repetition as a literary device.  This is a novel that should take all of us by storm, but failing that, it has all the makings of an amazing cult classic.

This is cutting edge fiction, written by the most unlikely of theologians. I highly recommend it, even if you have to pay full jacket price.

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.

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, by Jess Kidd*****

MrFloodsLastWho do I enjoy reading more than Jess Kidd? Nobody.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book, which was also published in UK as The Hoarder, is available today in the US.  And I have to tell you also that although her work is billed as similar to Fredrik Backman, I find it to be better—and that’s saying a good deal.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver, which in the USA would translate as a combination social worker and home health provider. She’s been sent to the large, rambling home of Cathal Flood, a tall, fierce old man who has driven his previous caregiver to a nervous breakdown. Speculation abounds: is he an innocuous old fellow in need of some organization, treatment, and TLC, or is he dangerous—perhaps a murderer, even? What about the missing girl that was last seen at this address?  It’s enough to make even Maud’s staunch heart tremble:

“In the musty depths of Cathal’s lair, one eye flicks open. Noise has pulled on the strings of his web, setting his long limbs twitching. He’ll be slinking out of his trapdoor and threading through the rubbish. Crawling up the staircase with a knife clampled between his dentures and a lasso of fuse wire in his hand, ready to garrot me and hack me to pieces.”

The suspense builds as Kidd moves our point of view from Maud’s by day, to her frightening, confused dreams at night, to those of the missing and the dead. Because Maud is gifted in her ability to see those that have gone before, particularly saints, she receives their cautions and advice in ways that are often truly hilarious. The result is a story so enjoyable that it became the dessert book that I held out to myself as a reward for having finished less enjoyable galleys. Had I no other obligations, I would have gobbled this deliciously dark tale up in a weekend.

As it is, I found myself going back and rereading passages twice, partly for fun and partly to try to pick apart what makes this writing so effective. But although I can point to several components—brilliant development of Maud, Cathal, and friend Renata; some of the finest figurative language in contemporary fiction; a hugely original voice and concept; a soaring climax in which the weight of Western society’s failure to care adequately for its elders comes crashing down before us—ultimately the book is much more than the sum of its parts, an alchemy that is spun magic with a few naughty bits of raunchy humor sprinkled in, and a social justice issue nailed to the wall where we cannot help seeing it.

Should you purchase this title for your magnificent, outrageous mother on her special day, for which there are just 12 remaining days to shop? Should you order a copy for your own fabulous, fierce father, whose day is about a month later? Well of course you can, and you should, assuming you aren’t going to try to force them into a home. But it isn’t nice to break the binding open, and so they’ll be able to tell if you have fudged a free read before gifting it. Better to get a copy for yourself as well, fair and square. You’ll want to read it more than once anyway.

Warm and clever, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort is the most entertaining novel of 2018 to date, hands down.

This I Know, by Eldonna Edwards*****

“Sometimes I wish I could catch Mama’s voice in a jar and keep it beside my bed at night, let each note light the darkness like a captured firefly.”

ThisIKnow Eldonna Edwards makes her debut with the best written child protagonist since Scout Finch appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the digital review copy.

Grace Carter is eleven years old, one of several daughters of a strict evangelical preacher.  Her mother has come undone, slowly unraveling from grief that began with the death of Grace’s twin brother, Isaac. Grace misses Isaac, too, but she has the comfort of his counsel; she hears and knows things that most other people do not. Her mother and Aunt Pearl call it “the knowing”, but her father calls it the work of the devil. Grace grows up understanding that she must keep her head down and avoid getting into trouble. It’s a treacherous path, and now and then things pop out, as they will with adolescents.

Edwards is a gifted writer, and she’s tackled an ambitious project in writing a first person narrative. It’s hard to voice a child in a way that is developmentally appropriate and consistent, and she’s nailed it spot on. Many writers would try to dodge this literary obligation by creating a precocious, academically gifted character, which is so common that it’s clichéd, and as I read this story and see that Grace is just an average kid, apart from her supernatural talent, I hold my breath to see if she can carry it off all the way through, and she does it masterfully. The way Edwards develops Grace, adding layers to her personality and melding it with the dead-accurate setting—the Midwest during the 1960s—makes her one of the most exciting new voices to emerge this generation.  The plot never slows, but with a character and setting this resonant, Edwards could send Grace to sit in her closet for the whole book and her readers would be captivated regardless.

I would have preferred a more nuanced ending, but it’s a small concern. Everyone that loves strong fiction will want this book. Order yours while you can get it on the first printing.

Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen*****

alternateside“If nobody can tell the difference between real and fake, who cares if fake is what you’re showing?”

Score another one for Anna Quindlen. Often prodigious writers lapse into formulas, becoming predictable, but not Quindlen, who brings a snappy, original tale to the reader every time. She makes us think, and she makes us like it. Big thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

The story is built around a controversy that develops around that most prized acquisition among financially successful New Yorkers: a parking place. Local ordinances have a Byzantine set of rules involving parking on alternate sides of the street, and the neighborhood’s homeowners are sick to death of going out to move the car. A privately owned parking lot leases spaces, but there aren’t enough to go around, and a seniority system makes some residents intense; think of the rent-controlled apartments that get passed down like family heirlooms, and then you’ll have the general idea.

Ultimately, however, the parking place is metaphor, and perhaps allegory, for other aspects of life that go much deeper, and the way Quindlen unspools it is not only deft, but also funny as hell in places.

New Yorkers will appreciate this novel, but others will too. This reviewer is one of those visitors that Quindlen’s characters regard with scorn, the people that pop into town, gawk, buy things, and then leave again. But I’m telling you that despite the title, this is not just—or even mainly—a book for New Yorkers.

The audience that will love this book hardest is bound to be people like the main characters: white middle-class readers old enough to have grown children. But the take-down of petite bourgeois assumptions and attitudes is sly, incisive, and clever as hell.

At one point I began highlighting, for example, the many ways in which the phrases “you people” and “these people” are wielded.

Here is a final word of caution: if you are contemplating divorce, this may tip you over the brink. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what you need.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction and occasionally are visited by that “crazy liberal guilt thing.”

The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Gods of Howl Mountain*****

GodsofHowl“Christ’s father let him die on that cross,” she said. “I understand why he done it.” She leaned closer, whispering, “But Christ never had no granny like me.”

Rory Docherty has come home from overseas “with war in his blood”; he’s come home to the mountains of North Carolina, and home to Granny May, the local herbalist—some also say she’s the local witch. His mother Bonni is in a mental institution, which was even a worse place to have to go in the 1950s than it is now.  Rory doesn’t know for sure what broke her, because she hasn’t said one word in the years between then and now; Granny May knows, and withholds this powerful secret for reasons of her own. The life of the Docherty family is seldom easy, having Bonni erased from their midst has hit them hardest of all.

I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I’m not permitted to share my galley with anyone else, but I can do this: I can read it as many times as I damn want to. And although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done that, out of the five or six hundred free novels that I’ve received in the last few years, I’ll do it with this one.

But back to Rory, to Granny May, and to Eustace, the wily, ruthless old bootlegger that owns Howl Mountain and almost everyone on it. And back to the sweet-faced preacher’s daughter that has lit a fire under Rory’s troubled heart. Granny May would have him stay away from those snake-handling holy rollers, but Rory is utterly bewitched, and when the lights are on at the storefront church, he finds himself there too.

The characters and the setting are what drive this novel, but what also drives it are the cars, most specifically Maybelline, the custom-made vehicle that can outrun Federal revenue agents.  I’m generally not interested in cars; if they run, that’s good, and if I will be comfortable inside them, that’s better. But Brown has some magic of his own, and the way he crafts this ride, which is the family’s main source of income and their most valuable piece of property apart from the mountain itself, is magnetic. It is almost a character itself.

The balance of power is shifting on Howl Mountain now. Rival Cooley Muldoon seeks to unseat the Docherty clan; threats to Granny May have taken ominous forms, and she waits on the porch with her pipe and her gun late into the night. She storms into the brush to find what, exactly, has made the cry like a panther on her roof.

“Death, which walked ever through these mountains, knew she would not go down easy.”

This is likely the go-to novel of 2018. I cannot help but think that Rory Docherty, Eustace, and Granny May will join the ranks of beloved literary characters whose names are recognized by a wide swath of the English-speaking world.

If nothing else, Brown has taken the hillbilly stereotype that some still cling to and in its place leaves believable characters with nuance, ambiguity, and heart.  It’s a showstopper, and you won’t want to miss it.