Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti*****

thetwelvelivesofs “Everything breaks if you hit it hard enough.”

What would you do to protect those you love the most? Tinti’s epic father-daughter tale has already drawn accolades far and wide. What can I add to it all? There are only so many ways to say that someone is a genius and that her work deserves the highest praise and honors. I received my copy free and in advance, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, in exchange for this honest review, and I’ve spent the last month trying to decide what I can add to the discussion. Although 2017 is clearly an outstanding year for literature, this title stands head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen. It will likely be the best fiction published this year.

Our two protagonists are Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo. The story is arranged with alternate points of view, and also moves from present tense to the past, when Lily, Loo’s mother, was alive. Hawley is a career criminal, a man that has robbed and killed as part of a business transaction, but his tenderness for his daughter and his wife keep us connected to him.

As a parent, though, Hawley is kind of a mess. He does his best, teaching his daughter useful tasks like how to file the serial number off of a weapon and how to use it, but at the same time, he keeps his criminal business quiet and low, and she is nearly grown before she realizes what he actually does for a living. The two of them move around the country frequently, and they have a routine that gets them gone in a hurry when it’s necessary, but as she gets older he takes her to the Massachusetts town where her maternal grandmother lives. And I have to say, Mabel Ridge, Lily’s mother, is one of the most arresting side characters I have seen in a very long time.

For Loo’s sake, Hawley works as a fisherman and sets down roots. His participation in the Greasy Pole event, a cherished local tradition, wins him a place in the community. But he’s left enemies in his wake, and Hawley is constantly alert to the threat others pose. Who’s in prison, and who’s out? Who’s alive, and who isn’t anymore? Sooner or later, someone he doesn’t want to see is bound to rock the life he has established for himself and his daughter.

This is the sort of literary fiction that lets the reader forget that it’s art, because it reads a lot like a thriller. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; my favorite involves a car thief named Charlie.

Samuel Hawley seems to me to be a character for our time. Fifty years ago, a novel like this would have been controversial—and it may still be, who knows? Great literature often is. But today with the stratospheric growth of the American prison population, many more members of the book buying public either have done time, know someone that has, or know someone that barely escaped having to do so. It’s no longer unthinkable that a person that has done some truly reprehensible things, may also be a human being.

One way or the other, you have to read this book. The buzz it’s created is only the beginning. If you read one novel this year, let this be it. It’s available now.

Silence, by Anthony Quinn*****

silenceSilence is the third in the Inspector Celcius Daly series, but I read it alone and didn’t realize I had missed anything until I got online and looked. I received my copy free from Net Galley and Open Road Media in exchange for this honest review. It’s been for sale for almost a year and I apologize for my tardiness; the book had been out for several months before I received my DRC, and so I kept setting this review aside in order to write about stories that were about to be published immediately.  None of this should keep you from rushing out to order a copy; as you can see I rated it five stars, and I am picky these days.

I am immediately drawn to this book because of the setting; it takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s. Although I am impatient with the trite expression used by the journalist in the story—“sectarian violence”—I find the setting resonant and the characters credible. The entire thing is wholly original, but it’s complex, so it’s not something you can read while you’re trying to do something else.

Our protagonist is the Inspector Daly, a lonely man with kind intentions and deteriorating mental health. We have a dead man in the priest’s hotel room, but then we learn the dead man isn’t Father Walsh. If that’s not Father Walsh, where has he gotten to, and who is our victim? Last is our villain, Daniel Hegarty, an IRA man captured and turned by the Special Branch.

I particularly appreciate the moment with the sheep.

The field of mysteries, thrillers, and others of this ilk are thick with mechanisms that make me want to throw things. I think everyone that’s read many books in this genre has a private list. I am simply ecstatic to find that no one here is trying to solve the mystery either because they themselves are framed for something they didn’t do, or because a loved one has been threatened; no one in our tale is kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged, and tossed into the trunk—er, boot—of a car.  It’s refreshing.

Of course, to get a five star rating takes more than just a lack of irritating features. The setting, in the dark, in the muck, and sweating past police checkpoints, is both visceral and at times, scary. It’s the sort of story that makes a reader snuggle under the covers and be grateful for a safe, warm place to lie down. The characters are not always lovable, but they are entirely believable. That’s what counts with me. And the ending is a complete surprise, yet also makes sense.

For those that like literate, complex mysteries, it’s hard to beat. Highly recommended.

Everything Belongs to Us, by Yoojin Grace Wuertz****

everythingbelongstousI was invited to read this novel by Random House and Net Galley, and although I read multiple books at a time, this was the one I saved for bedtime, after the lights were out, the hound snoring at the foot of the bed, and everyone else was asleep. This is prime reading time, and this was the story I wanted to follow uninterrupted. You can get a copy for yourself this Tuesday, February 28, 2017.

This story is set in 1978 in Seoul, South Korea, and features the political demonstrations by workers and students against the notoriously repressive Park regime. The main characters are all involved briefly with these protests, either as participants or as witnesses. While the setting is handled competently, the success of this novel is owed to character, character, and character.

We are introduced to three young adults. First is Jisun, a bright young daughter of a ruling scion. Jisun harbors tremendous anger toward her father, and as the story unspools, we find out why, little by little. One hint I’ll offer that doesn’t spoil the ending is that it isn’t about rape or sexual abuse of any kind, and I was glad not to see this overused device employed here. Everything in this story is fresh and original.

Our story comes to us from multiple viewpoints. My favorite character by far is Namin, a striving member of the working class battling to rise through hard work and intellectual talent. An unlikely but wholly believable friendship develops between Jisun, who is trying to grasp what ordinary people experience day to day, and Namin. Namin’s parents labor nearly every waking hour running a food truck, and her sister works in an auto plant so that Namin can attend the university. The choices that are made in order to fuel Namin’s success, and by extension that of her family, are hard ones, and this is just one aspect of the book that would make for excellent discussion in a literature class or book club.

The third main character is Sunam, a young man from a middle class family who finds himself in a love triangle with these two young women. At one point I feared the book would turn melodramatic, but in the author’s capable hands it is deftly maneuvered and is made believable. In fact, while I didn’t always like these characters, by the halfway point I absolutely believed all three of them.

The only weakness here is the way in which the protestors are depicted; they seem addled and the struggle appears to have no political platform whatsoever. Liberal Christian missionaries appear and vanish with no clear role, and although a purpose becomes apparent eventually, I felt they were more of a distraction than a worthwhile component.

The struggle against the Park government was a more worthy one than Wuertz’s narrative suggests. Had this been given firmer contours, this would be a five star read.

For those looking to broaden their literary horizons or just looking for a good story, this novel is recommended.

The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson****

themercyofthe The Mercy of the Tide is Keith Rosson’s debut novel, and it’s a strong one. Set in a tiny, depressed town on the Oregon Coast during the Reagan Administration, things start out dark, and they’re about to get a whole lot darker. Thank you, Net Galley and Meerkat Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge for this honest review. This book will be for sale February 21, 2017, and those that love good fiction with a working class perspective will want a copy.

The tiny town of Riptide, Oregon is knee deep in grief. A recent head-on collision claimed the lives of Melissa Finster, mother of Sam and Trina, and June Dobbs, the town’s beloved librarian and wife of Sheriff Dave Dobbs. The blow has left everyone reeling and on edge.

Someone else is missing Melissa too, though he can’t say so. Deputy Nick Hayslip–a Vietnam veteran who has no patience for the madness associated with that category, a vet who figures that you go home when the war is over, you put on your clothes and go to work and therapy is for losers–is coming unstuck. Nobody knows about his past with Melissa, and he finds terrible ways to keep her memory alive.

The teaser for this novel tells us that the story centers around Sam and Trina, and since the author generally writes the teaser, that must be his intention. However, I found Trina to be the weakest element here, and it was the other characters that made this story work for me. Part of this is just pure fickle bad luck for the author; I actually taught deaf kids of the same age as Trina, as well as gifted kids that age; and in one instance, a gifted deaf kid that age. It’s true that the gifts of highly capable children vary widely in scope and range, and that every child is unique, but the vocabulary and abstract concepts Rosson bestows on this kid are just not within the realm of the possible, and so Trina isn’t real to me until later in the book, when things other than her obsession with nuclear holocaust are used in the development of her character.

The most interesting character and unlikely hero here is Hayslip. Also beautifully developed are Sheriff Dodds and Sam’s closest friend, Todd, known familiarly as “Toad”. Alternating points of view from the third person omniscient give us ready access to their thoughts, impulses, and feelings.

An interesting side character is zealous Christian wingnut Joe Lyley, who says in a somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, “These are unlovely times.” I also liked Leon Davies, whose role I will let the reader discover, because it’s such a fun surprise.

The setting is almost an anti-tourist brochure. The Oregon Coast is well known for its wild, rugged beauty, but Rosson chooses to introduce the other reality, that of the many local denizens that endure a hardscrabble working class existence in small, chilly, damp coastal communities that rarely see the sun. The moldering smell of rotting wood, porches and floors with a sponge-like give under foot are dead accurate, although the town of Riptide is fictitious; the recession of the 80’s plunged small beach towns into a depression from which there has never been a moment’s relief.

This is a strong story with a tight, tense climax and a powerful resolution. This darkly delicious novel shows that Rosson is a force to be reckoned with; I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Setting Free the Kites, by Alex George*****

settingfreethekites“Hope is a curious thing. It emerges in the most unexpected places.”

Robert Carter is an introverted boy with few friends and loving but preoccupied parents. His life changes forever when he is befriended by a new kid at school. Nathan stands up for him when he is being assaulted by a bully, and a friendship is forged that will last for life. Thank you Net Galley and Penguin Putnam for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Our story is set in a small Maine town in 1976. Nathan’s parents are creative people, sculpting, writing, building one-of-a-kind kites, but tragedy strikes early in the story and Nathan’s mother retreats into herself, and is not available to her only child. Robert’s parents are fond of Nathan, who also befriends Robert’s terminally ill brother Liam, and soon Nathan has found a second home.

Most reviewers describe Setting Free the Kites as a tragic tale, and they’re right, but what few people mention is how many really funny scenes lie in between the somber stuff. George’s writing has tremendous voice, one that brings these adolescent boys to life as few others do. I actually laughed out loud more than once, and this not only makes this a more enjoyable read, but also underscores the tragedy, taking the reader through a whole wide range of emotions.

The genre crosses between adult and young adult fiction. If I were still teaching highly capable language arts students, I’d want half a dozen copies of this book to use in a reading circle; that said, the sexual content would also force me to send home permission slips, because conservative parents would otherwise rampage into the district office with torches, hot tar and feathers. However, I consider this an outstanding enough read that I’d jump through some hoops to use it.

In some ways, however, it is more suited to literate adults. George uses a high vocabulary and uses it well. It’s certainly not a story I’d recommend to someone whose mother tongue is not English, because there’s too much cultural nuance and subtlety for that audience, and likewise, most adolescents won’t benefit from such a novel.

There are a couple off odd extraneous reveals toward the end of the story that startled me, and that did nothing to enrich the story or develop its characters. However, the rest of the book is so outstanding that it’s a five star read regardless.

This book is available to the public February 21, 2017. Highly recommended to those that love great literary fiction.

The Animators, by Kayla Rae Whitaker*****

 “I always heered that art was for ugly girls and queers.”

theanimators

The Animators is the right story at the right time, outstanding fiction that is too impossibly good to be debut fiction, and yet here it is. I nearly let the DRC pass me by, because apart from its female main characters, there is nothing here that would ordinarily hook me. I am too old, too straight, and too un-artistic to be part of the target demographic. But I had been in a rut lately, reading too many mysteries, and so I decided to step out of my comfort zone; in doing so, I hit the jackpot. Sometimes rewards come when we aren’t expecting them, and it would be a sad thing to let a golden moment pass by unmet. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the advance copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our story revolves around the lives of two women that meet at art school. Sharon Kisses is a shy kid from Kentucky, self-conscious but ambitious. Mel Vaught is hilarious, outrageous, and riotously extroverted, a noncomforming thrill-seeker from Florida.  Mel appreciates Sharon’s art in a way that no one else does, and Sharon is grateful to finally have someone understand her. Together they form a team that will become famous.

The entire story hinges on development of our two characters and the relationship that unfolds between them. The plot is original and interesting, but it wouldn’t go anywhere if I didn’t believe Sharon and Mel. I buy both of them immediately, and before we’re even halfway through the story I am making predictions—mostly unsuccessful ones, and it’s the chewy ambiguity that makes the whole thing so fascinating—about what one or the other of them will do. I made one accurate prediction midway through, but nothing else went where I expected it to. That being said, however, everything here made complete sense, and these are two such viscerally relatable characters that I carry them in my head still, though I’ve read at least half a dozen other books since I finished this one. In fact, a hallmark of the very best fiction is that I have to let what I have read cook in my head for awhile before I am ready to describe it. I take notes, but they aren’t enough.

Mel is gay, but Sharon isn’t. On the other hand, Mel is also about ninety percent of everything that Sharon has in this world, once the partnership develops. Sharon always introduces Mel as “my business partner,” and this is both true and safe, but here I wrestle with my own thoughts. Is there anyone else alive that Sharon can love the way she loves Mel, whether she recognizes it or not?

How many women of days gone by—let’s say the early twentieth century—lived with another woman their entire adult lives, never even considered touching one another sexually for fear of their mortal souls, and maybe propagated a myth to the neighbors that they were related? I think there were a lot of them. Being a lesbian was on a par, back then, with having barnyard sex with Old Bessie. No decent person was; no decent person did. So instead, they labeled themselves ‘spinsters’ and invented a story, and just lived together, decade after decade. And when I look at the community from which Sharon has sprung, I can understand how this mindset carries over to some people even today.

Yet there’s another reality, too. Sharon really likes having sex with men. When she isn’t doing it, it’s on her mind.  How many women have pledged their lives to someone that does not physically attract them, because they find the person good company and don’t want to break their heart? And so when I think of Sharon, I remind myself that perhaps Sharon really isn’t gay. Maybe she will never want Mel sexually, and maybe that’s a fair thing to recognize.

The story contains so much life, so much sorrow, and it’s so damn funny at times.  And the rage! Both women carry a tremendous amount of anger, and it provides fuel for their creativity. Hearing their stories is like peeling an artichoke, one layer after another to get to the best part, which is way deep inside.

As the story progresses, we come face to face with the pasts both women carry with them. Mel’s tortured upbringing is the subject of their first animated film, and it’s clearly therapeutic; yet good therapy can only do so much. And as we see the world through Mel’s eyes, the depth of analysis is both brainy as hell and absolutely riveting.

Sharon is the introvert, and so it makes sense that her own story comes out more slowly, and it may never have done so without Mel’s assertive nature insisting that they stop by Sharon’s home town on the way back to New York.

The critical thinking here is deep and dark. Those that have regarded art as a soft discipline will have to sit up and take notice.

This story is for geeks, artists, and anybody burdened by at least one dark secret. It’s a story for strong, unapologetic women and those that love them.  And it’s for sale Tuesday, January 31, 2017. Get a copy. You can’t miss this one!

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

Happy release day to Andrew Krivak! This one is head and shoulders above the rest. If you are ready to get lost in a book, it’s for sale now.

Seattle Book Mama

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and…

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The Famished Road, by Ben Okri**

thefamishedroadI surrender! Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review; however, try though I have, I cannot push past the molasses-like allegory and other figurative language to locate a plot. After painfully forcing my way through the first 20% of the book, I went to Goodreads to see what other reviewers had to say about it. Some felt as I did, but others swore that if the reader could endure the first two-thirds of the story, the last third would not only be so amazing, it would also enlighten us as to why the earlier part was necessary. Seeing this, I vowed to persevere. By the 25% mark, I found I was avoiding this DRC, because just about every other galley in my possession was either more enjoyable to read, or more rewarding, or both.

Tonight I decided it was time to put up or shut up. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when one should read a book out of sequence. I skipped to the 70% mark and found it was pretty much more of the same. The allegory pointed toward the horrific debt load that cripples African nations, but I already knew that, and if that is actually where this story is supposed to lead me–because really, I am still not sure–then it’s a disappointment. I already knew about the impact of colonial overlords on African nations, and this did nothing to improve either my knowledge or my appreciation for that, or for literature.

I will add, however, that I have also never liked magical realism. Either write fiction or nonfiction, don’t try to do both at once. Even the work of literary goddess Isabel Allende makes me crazy this way: we are in the midst of what feels like a genuine memoir, and then someone turns bottle-green and levitates. No, no, and no.

Those that have a great love of magical realism and thirst for African fiction may find joy here. This book has won prestigious awards, and I had anticipated that reading it would be rewarding. Just because it didn’t happen for me doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you; but if you come to feast at Okri’s table, bring a high literacy level with you, or you’ll find yourself leaving it still hungry.

This title is available for purchase now.

The Signal Flame, by Andrew Krivak*****

thesignalflameThere are good writers, excellent writers, and of course, indifferent writers, but once in a rare while there’s a writer that makes me sit up straight and take notice, someone with that special spark of genius that no money can buy nor school can teach. Krivak’s work is exquisite, the product of both power and restraint. If you love historical fiction, you have to read this book, which comes out January 24, 2107.

I was lucky and read it free in exchange for an honest review, thanks to Scribner and Net Galley. If you read my last review of a DRC, you know I call them as I see them; I see this one as standing, at the end of 2017, as one of perhaps a dozen that will still shine after I’ve read between one and two hundred others.

Bo, our protagonist, is the grandson of Slovakian immigrants, and has been steeped in the tradition of those that came before him. His grandfather, Jozef, served in the trenches during World War I; Jozef’s son, Bo’s father, was imprisoned for desertion during World War II and then died in a hunting accident upon his return home. Bo’s grandparents and mother have raised him and his brother Sam, who is missing in action in Vietnam. When Jozef dies, Bo is the last man left to carry on the family business and the traditions with which he was raised.

The title of the book refers to the sign for which Agamemnon was to watch for news from Troy; the book is begun with the relevant quote from Aeschylus, an old friend in literature that I hadn’t visited in nearly 40 years. I tell you this not to intimidate you, because I think this text is accessible to most high school graduates that love good literature. No, I just want you to understand that this is a work of depth and quality…and also unending sorrow.

Hannah, Bo’s mother, has been writing to the Navy twice each month for updates about the status of her missing son. Without a body, she doesn’t feel free to mourn; without a notification of death, she holds on to a tiny filament of hope that Sam may come marching home and surprise them all, any day now. Foremost in everyone’s minds is that Sam must not also be considered a deserter.

Now President Nixon speaks of ending the war with honorable peace, but there can be no real peace for Hannah; the Navy sends the same response every time she writes, “informing her that Sam was still carried in a missing status. Like he’s in a box somewhere, she would say, and the marines just haven’t gotten around to opening it yet.”

Father Rovnavaha is their parish priest, but he is also an old, dear family friend, and as he lays to rest two generations of a local family that are killed in a terrible flood, he seeks to comfort those present, perhaps himself included, by speaking of a kingdom, but Hannah has trouble believing as she once did:

 

“Her faith was once that strong, but she doubted it now, doubted not that there was a promise but that the promise claimed was a gift to hold, a joy that could assuage all sadness. No, she had come to believe that the only thing one could be certain of was loss. The loss of others as one lived on.  Loss as the last thing one left behind.”

 

Bo’s inheritance takes him in directions no one could have foreseen, and so although Krivak’s novel is indeed full of loss, it also shows us that hope can come from a direction never anticipated.

The characters here are beautifully rendered, developed so subtly that we aren’t aware of it occurring until it’s accomplished. There are no heavy-handed devices such as diaries or extensive local gossip; we see who each person is by the things that they do, and just as in life, we know who they are not only by their words, but by their actions. Krivak never lets a stereotype embrace his characters or plot; the result is so genuine that I feel I am following a dear old friend through the narrative.

Highly recommended for those that love historical fiction, as well as for anyone that needs an excuse to sit down and have a good cry.