Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford****

“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”loveandotherconsolation

Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.

The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.

But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:

He had never once been near the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way, a street better known as the Deadline. His teachers had talked for years about sewer rats that plagued the area, and rattlesnakes, and about the wolves that prowled the White Chapel District, waiting to sink their teeth into the good people of Seattle, which a local song had dubbed the Peerless City. Ernest had imagined lanky, sinuous creatures with sharp claws and tangles of mangy fur, but as he looked out at the avenue, all he saw were signs for dance halls and saloons.


Ernest’s years at the brothel prove to be the best of his young life, primarily because the rest of it was so much worse. Every time a rosy glow starts to form around the brothel and the condition of the women that work there, Ford injects an incident that is stark and horrible to remind us that trafficking in human beings and their most intimate acts is criminal and should never be condoned. Miss Flora is a relatively benign madam because it is better for business, not because of any sentimentality toward the women she employs. This comes to us all the more starkly when her own daughter’s virginity is raffled off to the highest bidder.

All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.

I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today. 

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Amish Guys Don’t Call, by Debby Dodds****

AmishGuysDon't Amish Guys Don’t Call is funny, absorbing, and ultimately lifting. Dodds has a great heart for teenagers, and this title is one that should grace every high school and middle school library, and will also attract parents and teachers of adolescents. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blue Moon Publishers. This book will be available to everyone June 13, 2017.

Samantha is still smarting from her parents’ divorce and her father’s inattention when her mother moves them to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Amish country. Samantha has been in trouble for shoplifting, and the urge increases when she is in stressful situations. To her surprise and delight, she strikes up a friendship with Madison, who in turn pulls her into the most popular circle at school.  The one thing that gets in Sam’s way is her wholesomeness. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or use street drugs; not only is she still a virgin, but she’s never had a boyfriend. Madison tells Sam that all of this can end, with some careful time and grooming. Thus is “Project P” launched.

Despite the name of the boyfriend project, this book is free of explicit sexual situations. We see drug use, and sexual situations arise, so those considering whether this title is right for your teen or group of teens should bear this in mind. If in doubt, buy a copy for yourself and read it first.

At a big party held at night in a cornfield by Amish boys during their Rumspringa, a period in which some Amish groups permit their adolescents a taste of what the outside world is like and tolerate sometimes-extreme behaviors as a rite of passage, Samantha meets a young man named Zach. He’s handsome, and he’s drawn to her. We can tell from his behaviors (as well as the book’s title) that he is Amish, but it takes quite awhile for Sam to catch on. She is obsessed with his failure to provide her with his cell number. Is there another girl in the picture?

This story was a fun read, but I don’t recommend it to general audiences apart from those that really enjoy a wide variety of YA novels. Every nuance is explained thoroughly, and so whereas the text is accessible to students—with vocabulary at about the 9th grade level—most adults will want something more nuanced.  That said, if I were still in the classroom, I would purchase this title. Because the subject matter might provoke conservative parents, I would not use it as assigned reading or use it as a classroom read-aloud, but I know that a lot of students will want to read it.

Recommended for teens that are not from highly conservative backgrounds.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.

Before the Rain Falls, by Camille Di Maio***

beforetherainfallsThose looking for a sweet, light romance will find it here and come away happy. It was just published, and you can get it now. Thanks go to Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

The story is divided between three protagonists, and the narrative alternates to include each of their points of view. Two of the characters are Della Lee, a very elderly woman recently paroled from a life term in prison for the murder of her sister, and Paloma Vega, a young doctor that’s returned to her hometown on the Texas border to take care of family business.

One thing that drew me to the title is that the most important characters are both women, and it is they that prove to be the most dynamic. Our third character, Mick Anders, is a journalist seeking Della’s story. He is changed by it, and yet really his character exists as a foil for the two women. So far, so good.

Because the premise starts with the woman who’s spent her entire adult life in prison, I was expecting something grittier. Women in prison haven’t really made it into a lot of fiction, and so my interest was piqued. I was also hoping for a social justice angle, and to be fair, the teaser promises no such thing, and so to an extent, this disappointment is one I brought on myself. Though Della’s reminiscences as she unspools her memories for Anders recount some of what she went through, it really isn’t a prison story, but the story of Della’s own life and the sacrifice she has made.
The parallels between Della’s life and Paloma’s intrigued me and I was hoping the novel would veer in the direction of literary fiction, some allegory perhaps; something subtle and open to the reader’s interpretation. This isn’t that either. Soon the parallels feed into a tidy package, and the coincidences are just too many. I had reconciled myself to the likelihood that this really would, in fact, be a straight up historical romance, and if the end had been crafted in a more nuanced way I could have given it four stars, but instead it is predictable, and when that happens there can’t be magic, because the Great-And-Powerful-Wizard’s curtain has been pulled away by the unlikeliness of the story. Toto has the curtain in his mouth, and instead of looking at Della, at Paloma, and Nick I am looking Di Maio and saying, Oh come on. Seriously?

Some of the better moments in the story are the side elements, the interaction between Paloma and her sister Mercedes, an adolescent smarting from Paloma’s abandonment when she moved away. Paloma is wooing her back into a sisterly relationship, and her clumsy missteps and the ways in which she corrects herself are resonant and absolutely believable.

Although Della’s back story feels over-the-top to me, her present, the return to her home after seven decades away, the changes in the home and the strangeness of being back in the world and at liberty are also well done. The author does a nice job in crafting Della’s present-day setting and wedding it to her story.

Those looking for a traditional romance, something to pack for a vacation that will leave a warm, fuzzy afterglow will enjoy this novel, and to them I recommend it.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell****

ifoundyouAlice has found a good looking man on the beach, and she’s brought him home. See what I’ve found! With just this much information, I am immediately engaged, wanting to have a conversation with this woman about risks, about dangers. For heaven’s sake, what about your kids? Friends, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Lisa Jewell’s hot new novel goes on sale April 25, 2017. I read mine free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.

The level of suspense is heightened by shifting points of view. We have the man himself, who has amnesia and doesn’t know his name. Alice has her children name him, and they decide to call him Frank. Her teenage daughter Jasmine rolls her eyes, and I want to grab Alice and say, “Oh no you didn’t!” But since I can’t do that, I read on instead.

Frank has nightmares and we are privy to them, as well as the fragments of memory that come home to him in shards and fragments, bit by bit.

We also have two other, separate story lines. One is that of Lily Monrose, whose husband Carl has vanished. She is just twenty-one years old and came with him to UK from Kiev. He showered her with affection and gifts, found them a home, set up housekeeping, and one day, he failed to return from work. What the heck?

And then we have a vacationing family with a narrative set in the past, featuring teenage siblings Kirsty and Gray, who fall into bad company one summer.

Naturally we wonder from the get-go how these disparate elements will come together at the end of the book. Is Frank really Carl? Is Carl really Gray? Is Frank…well, you see what I mean.

The thing that I love about Jewell’s work is that her dynamic characters are always women, and she develops them well. Alice isn’t always a lovable character; her impulse control and judgment are less than stellar. She tells Frank at the outset:

“I’m not the most together person in the world and it doesn’t take much to make all the wheels fall off.”

She promises her friend Derry, who has seen her through some dark times that were partly due to her own terrible instincts, that she is letting Frank stay in the mother-in-law apartment in back of her home. It has a separate entrance; she will lock the door to her home, and it will just be for one night. But then, the dog likes Frank, and so she takes down the safeguards—the locked door, the one night, the keeping him in a separate place from her family—in breathtakingly swift succession, and I am with Derry, who asks Alice to remember what happened before.

Before what? I turn the pages a little faster.

Meanwhile, the police are way too slow in trying to help Lily, who is isolated in her exurban apartment; she is frantic. Her mother wants her to stop looking for Carl and come home, and it sounds like a smart idea to me, but then I have never lived in Kiev, so who knows? The longer Carl is gone, and the more we learn about him, the more I want to take Lily to the airport. Fly away little bird, there’s nothing that is good for you here!

The hardest buy-in for me is at the beginning, because really, people don’t just get amnesia. Not from car accidents, not from shocking experiences, not from anything. It’s almost unheard of, the stuff of bad old movies. But a good author can sell anybody anything, and I want to know what happens next, so I tell myself, fine then. Amnesia it is. And the way the rest of it unfurls is fascinating. Flawed but appealing, believable characters combined with strong pacing make this addictive novel the one you want at the vacation cabin, the beach, or just for a rainy weekend curled up in your favorite chair.

Recommended to those that love good fiction.