In On the Joke, by Shawn Levy****

Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that emerged from the vaudeville era to make history, roughly between the World War II era and Watergate.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

There are eight chapters in this book, each dedicated to a particular type of comic. He starts with Moms Mabley, whom I had never heard of, and continues down the line with Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and several others, and ends with “The Scrapper,” Joan Rivers. I confess it was Rivers’ face on the cover that drew me to this historical work.

Levy has cut no corners, and the documentation is flawless; his style of reporting is conversational and written for a general readership. All told, he’s done a fine job here.

My only sorrow—and one that isn’t the author’s fault—is seeing what horrible things these women had to do to themselves in order to meet with success. One after another, women comics have mounted the stage, day after day, night after night, to make self-deprecating jokes, many of them downright vicious. They tell about how ugly they were as children, and how ugly they are now; they tear themselves apart like Christians diving voluntarily into the colosseum pit where the lions await. I expected to laugh my way through this thing, but most of the time I wanted to sit down and sob for these artists.

As I expected, my favorite among them is Rivers. Eventually she eased up somewhat on the self-attacks and began roasting other public figures. I saw some of her work when she was still alive, and at the time, I thought some of her jokes were too mean to be funny, but as Rivers pointed out to her critics, she always “punched up.” Using her well known catch phrase, “Can we tawk,” she eviscerated the most successful celebrities, politicians, and other newsworthy public figures, and a lot of her material was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’d have finished reading and reviewing this book much sooner had I not kept setting it aside to watch old footage of her routines, as well as some of the others Levy covers.

If you are looking for a book to make you laugh your butt off, this isn’t that book, but it’s an excellent history of the women that paved the way for the likes of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Hannah Gadsby, and many others.

Recommended to feminists, and those interested in entertainment history.

Chevy in the Hole, by Kelsey Ronan***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Chevy in the Hole is Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel. I love strong working class fiction, and the title and book cover spoke to me. But while it shows a good deal of promise, it’s also a cautionary example of how, in trying to do too much, one can do too little. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale today.

The protagonists are Gus Molloy, who is Caucasian, and Monae Livingston, who is Black. The book opens as Gus is being revived with Narcan on the floor of a dirty restroom in Detroit. We follow him as he meets Monae, a student working at a farm outside of Flint. Their stories are told alternately with bits and pieces of the lives of their predecessors.  

The story is promoted as a love letter to Flint, and a tribute to the resilience of its people; it’s a story of “love and betrayal, race and family.” And we do surely see all of those things, but as soon as one aspect or another is touched on, I wink and poof, it’s gone. Gus and Monae are both sympathetic characters, and I can’t help pulling for them, but I suspect the author could have developed them more fully had we not spent so much time and detail on fragments of their parents, grandparents and so on.

If the author’s purpose is to use these characters from the past to showcase the various struggles through which Flint has gone—sit-down strikes, Civil Rights marches, and now, this horrifying industrial sludge that has polluted the town’s drinking water—it could have been done in a paragraph or two, or through some other device than shifting the point of view. The frequent changes of character and time period make it confusing as heck, particularly while listening to the audio version; that’s a shame, because Janina Edwards is a warm, convincing reader.

But we frequently shift from one protagonist to the other, even after they are married, and all of these people from the past have to be sorted by both time period, and by which protagonist they are related to.  A story like this should flow. As it is, it’s work listening to it, and had I not been granted a digital review copy as well to refer to, I might have given up.

My other frustration is that both the labor history and the Civil Rights issues—with Black people shut out of company housing in the past, and the issues with cop violence as well as the pollution that is visited most within the Black community—are huge. The pollution problem is immense, and ties back into both of the other issues. This book could be a powerhouse, a call for change to reward to the plucky souls that have stuck with this place through hell and high, toxic water. Instead they present almost like postcards; oh, look at this! Now look at that! Okay, never mind, let’s go on back to the present.

That being said, the author’s mission is an ambitious one, and her word smithery is of high caliber. I look forward to seeing what else she publishes.

If you choose to read this book, I recommend using the printed word, whether digitally or as a physical copy.

Enough Already! by Valerie Bertinelli***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Valerie Bertinelli rose to fame as a child actor, and as a child I watched her show, “One Day at a Time,” together with my parents. I admired and envied her, and when my mother enthused how darling, how pretty, how adorable she was, I also resented her just a teeny bit, the way we tended to resent the homecoming queen or student body president. When I saw, recently, that she’d written a memoir, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

For me, this is more of a three star read, but I choose to bump the rating up to four stars because there were several barn-sized hints that I should have noticed before I began reading, yet blew obliviously past. First, I didn’t get the memo that Bertinelli has written diet books and cookbooks, and has won Emmy Awards for a cooking show on the Food Network. All of these things should have given me pause, because although I do like Bertinelli’s earlier work, I never watch food programs on television. If I want to learn more about food, I’ll buy a cookbook or a diet book, but I don’t need it on my TV or any other streaming devices, and I also (giant clue number two) hate mixing recipes and cooking tips into a novel or memoir.

Yikes!

So, whereas I believed I would be reading a memoir suffused with feminist mojo that makes the author ready to turn the page on body shaming and chronic dieting, instead, I got a recipe, right up front. Pffft.  And as a woman who’s lived in plus-sized fashions for decades, I find it hard to get excited about Bertinelli’s brave decision to stop losing the same ten pounds, over and over. Ten pounds? Oh please. I guess maybe actors and models go into crisis over ten extra pounds, and feel tremendously brave about deciding to own them, but where I live, ten pounds is nothing.

When I was in third grade, my teacher said that those of us that roll our eyes stand in danger of having them get stuck up there. Since there’s no way not to do that while reading this thing, we’ll call mine a case study. If they get stuck, I’ll report back. In Braille.

As the memoir continues, I find that more than anything, this is Bertinelli’s grief book. She and her ex-husband, Eddie Van Halen, have remained unusually close in the years since their divorce, and this book is almost more about him and their son Wolfie than it is about her. I never enjoyed Van Halen’s music, which I found to contain more heavy metal than I am geared for; since I have this memoir, I figure I should take myself to cyberspace and find out whether growing older has changed my tastes. As it turns out, nope, it hasn’t. Still not a Van Halen fan.

And lastly, the narrative comes with all sorts of red flags when she talks about the warm relationship she and Eddie have continued to share—because, you know, they are both (full grown) Wolfie’s parents. When it becomes clear that he will lose his fight with cancer, she and he nip out of whatever family party they are attending to go sit in someone’s car and confess their love to one another—despite the fact that they have both remarried. (Imagine I’ve written that last bit in 24 point font, bolded, red.) The hell? I know that Hollywood types sometimes do things a bit differently, but…? And so, once more I travel through cyberspace to track down Bertinelli’s current husband, who is scarcely even mentioned in this emo memoir. I find an image; oh, so that’s him! And yup, at just about the same time the book was in the publication pipeline, the marriage crashed to a halt, with Bertinelli fuming about how she refuses to be “shamed” for how she grieves. Uh, okay. Her grief is her grief, but if I was that fellow, I’d feel as if my marriage was a party to which I hadn’t been invited. And if it was hard to play second fiddle to the famed guitarist when he was alive, I can’t even imagine how anybody can compete with him now that he’s dead. So. For those diehard fans of hers, of Van Halen’s, or of the food programming to which her career has been directed in recent years, this might be a great read for you. As for me, I came away feeling awkward and uncomfortable. If, knowing all these things, you are still interested, then go for it; but if you’re not so sure, either give it a miss, or read it cheap or free.

The Santa Suit, by Mary Kay Andrews***-****

3.75 rounded up.

I love a good Christmas story, but so many of them are cloying or insipid. A friend recommended this one to me, and she wasn’t wrong. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.

Ivy is newly divorced, and she comes away from it with bruised feelings, but also money. Since she works from home, she has the choice to go anywhere, so she buys a farmhouse in a tiny town in North Carolina. She pays for it without ever seeing it in person, and it comes “as is.” At this point, I say, Welp, you’re in for it now, hon. And she is, sort of.

The realtor, Ezra, known locally as “The House Hunk,” has taken a shine to Ivy. He helps her with the heat; when she discovers that the old furniture is still there in the house, he and a friend cart it off for her, and when there’s a problem with her own furniture, he helps bring it all back in. And initially, she regards his attention as a nuisance, maybe even a stalker; but between the fine reputation he enjoys locally, and the number of times he helps her out of difficult situations, she gradually warms to him.

Ivy is a likable protagonist. She’s self-sufficient, but she isn’t cold. She sets about making friends right away. Her new bud, Phoebe, is in a state because she’s fallen in love with someone she met online, and has used a picture of someone else. Now the man Is coming to see her, and she’s panic-stricken. Other new friends include a local business person for whom she does some free, and very good, advertising, and a 96 year old man. Her dog, Punkin, goes everywhere with her, and she talks to him all the time, the way that some of us also do. When she needs assistance it’s because she doesn’t know the area, or because a job requires an extra set of hands, not because she is some helpless airhead. An engaging character indeed.

My rating reflects a couple of sloppy bits that the author and editor should have caught and dealt with immediately. They’re small, but they interrupt the magic, because they cause me to think about the two slackers rather than the story and characters. The first is when she offers Ezra coffee, but warns him that all she has is instant. Two paragraphs later, she is brewing the coffee. Oh, come on! Clean it up. A bit later, after Ezra and a friend have schlepped furniture in from the truck, he asks if she’s been out to play in the snow, and she tells him she doesn’t want to spoil its beauty. “It’s so beautiful, all that clean, untouched white.” And so I wonder: did they teleport the furniture indoors? Because otherwise, surely that snow would have been touched in a whole lot of places.

There are a couple of other inconsistencies, albeit smaller ones, and I am using a fair amount of ink to discuss problems that may seem trivial, but this is no debut author, this is a successful writer with a host of books in her repertoire, and she should know better.

The plot, on the other hand, is excellent. There was one development that I thought was obvious, but when I finished my eyeroll, I was surprised to see that she didn’t take it where I expected, and instead did something much better. I particularly like the way the romance unfolds, and the way that Ivy helps Phoebe out of her dilemma. There are other threads—involving a Santa suit, of course—that are equally delightful.

So, in spite of my complaints, I do recommend this charming, fluffy tale to you. It’s a mood elevator, and we can all use some of that. It’s for sale now.

The Ride of Her Life, by Elizabeth Letts*****

Elizabeth Letts has become one of my drop-everything authors. Instead of writing about the same historical figures that everybody else writes about, she finds noteworthy women that have fallen through the cracks of history. The Ride of Her Life chronicles the latter years of Annie Wilkins, a senior citizen that given not long to live, and not much to lose, decides to embark on a cross-country journey on horseback so that she can see the Pacific Ocean before she dies. I was invited to read and review this remarkable novel by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It’s for sale now.

Annie Wilkins lives in rural Maine, and is endeavoring to continue to run the family farm. It hasn’t gone well. Between a series of events beyond her control and an aging body, she falls behind, and then more so, until the bank gives notice of foreclosure. At the same time her lungs aren’t doing well; the doctor gives her two or three years to live, but only if she does so restfully. She is offered a place at the county home, which is essentially a charity lodging for the indigent.

Under similar circumstances and with no family to fall back on, most of us would have sold the farm and gone to rest in the county poorhouse, but Annie is not like most people. She sells up, and she plans her next move carefully. She packs up the things she and her dog will need for their trip, and since the purchase and maintenance of a car are beyond her means, she buys a good horse. That’s it. She packs up her maps and gets on the horse. (The dog alternates between walking and riding.)

Part of the joy in reading of her adventures is the window it provides into the United States in 1954, before most of us were born. For those outside of cities, horseback travel is still not unusual; Annie’s greatest challenge, of course, is her lack of awareness about highway safety. Her initial plan is to ride alongside the road when possible, and on the shoulder when it isn’t, but there are a host of dangers out there, and almost everything that can happen to her, does. But people are essentially goodhearted, and in every instance, someone kind and decent comes along and does right by her and her critters.

In the polarized time in which we live, this is exactly the story we need. I suspect that if Annie were to do the same thing today, there would still be people that would come along, and without inquiring who she voted for in the most recent election or whether she has received a vaccine, would feed her, or offer up their guest room for a night or two, or would drive her to the hospital. Those people were there then; their descendants are here still. We have not changed all that much.

Letts has told an engaging story, but part of my mad respect for her has to do with her attention to detail. The very best historical fiction is essentially true, with dialogue added for interest, and Letts writes the best, no doubt about it. Her endnotes are impressive, and she tells us that she drove more than 10,000 miles while researching her book.

Because I had fallen behind with my reviews, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and alternated it with my digital galley. Both are outstanding; you can’t go wrong either way. Highly recommended!

The Incredible Winston Browne, by Sean Dietrich****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

The time is the 1950s; the place is Moab, Florida, a tiny town where everyone knows everyone else. Winston Browne is the sheriff; Eleanor Hughes is a frustrated single woman that fears she is headed for spinsterhood; and a small girl, Jessie, is on the lam from a creepy cult that considers her to be “a little abomination.”

I read this book free, courtesy of Net Galley and Thomas Nelson Publishers. It’s for sale now.

The story begins with Winston in his doctor’s office. There’s bad news about his chronic cough. Tests show it’s not only malignant; it’s metastatic. In other words, Winston should put his affairs in order.

Winston is a friendly guy, but he’s also an introvert. He tells no one of his condition. He’s single, and there’s no family to warn, so he goes about his life about the same as before he learned his diagnosis.

Jessie is awakened in the middle of the night by one of the Sisters, who hustles her into a waiting vehicle. She’s being busted out of the Temple compound by softhearted women that know the girl is doomed if she remains. Jessie has an independent spirit, and so when she is dropped off at the train station with instructions of where to go and who to trust, she follows her instincts instead. Her instincts take her to Moab, Florida.

Eleanor—you can call her Ellie—is fed up with Jimmy. They’ve dated for year upon year, and she is so frustrated by his inaction that she can scarcely stand the sight of him. If he is so crazy about her, then why doesn’t he propose? She’ll never have a husband or a family, and it’s all his fault. But then Winston comes along, and the birds sing in the trees.

For the first half of this book, I thought it would be a four star read. It was a good enough tale, but I had my reservations. For starters, where are the Black people in Moab? If we’re meeting the townsfolk—and we surely are—how is it that all of them are Caucasian? A visit from Jackie Robinson is all well and good, but this is Florida, for heaven’s sake. Is Moab a sundowner town?

I run a quick search, knowing that the African-American population during this mid-1900s was much lower than it is now, and I am grudgingly convinced that there might well be a little town in the boondocks with only white residents. Back then, it could have happened, so…okay.

It is during the second half that everything falls together and I am swept away by the characters. No more consulting the Google oracle; the intimacy has become too strong for me to step back.

It’s difficult for me to find a feel-good book without schmaltz. Most books that are billed as heartwarming tend to make me roll my eyes or retch a little. Dietrich works magic, though, and although it takes a minute or two to reel me in, ultimately I am captivated. The droll, understated humor that drops in and out at just the right moments is a key element. The captions that appear regularly make me guffaw more than once; don’t skip over them! They’re terrific. The text is punctuated now and then by contributions from the Moab newsletter, whose minutiae underscores just what a dull place this town usually is.  

However, let me also say a quick word here about the audio version. I began reading this book close to the publication date, and so when I was partway into it, I checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. By doing so, I could extend my reading sessions, switching over to the audio when I had to do something else with my eyes and hands. The author reads his own narrative, and he has a wonderful voice, warm with just the right amount of drawl. The best way to enjoy this book is to access both the print version and the audio; if you must choose one or the other, it’s a toss-up, perhaps with a slight edge toward the audio.

Some readers will be pleased to know that there is no off color language or sex involved. If a movie were made based on this book, it would most likely show a General Audiences rating.

Highly recommended to those that love a feel good story, historical fiction, or Southern fiction.

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.

Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman**-***

2.5 stars rounded upward. I was invited to read and review this novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

World War II fiction is a crowded place, and I have left it, for the most part, having had more than my fill. I am initially interested in this story because it takes place in 1950s New York, and that’s a setting I haven’t seen much. However, this setting alternates with the protagonist’s memories of Paris during the war, and so there I am again, back in Europe during the war.

Charlotte is a young widow, working in a bookstore to make ends meet. Her infant daughter, Vivi, is often with her. A German soldier is drawn to her, and she snubs him repeatedly, but when he brings food and milk for her starving child, she caves. When Vivi becomes sick, he smuggles in medication. Yes, this is one of those I-hate-you-but-I-love-you stories. This isn’t new; I’ve seen plenty of forbidden love stories, especially with regard to German soldiers. I’ve also seen plenty of love-hate romances.

But what strength I see in this one is in the grey areas. Is it all right to fraternize with the soldiers that are responsible for the deaths of loved ones, if those you’re befriended by can save other loved ones, particularly children? Is it all right to let someone think you’re Jewish, once the war is over, if that means they will save you? Is it acceptable to be Jewish, whether inobservant or otherwise, but pretend you are not, if it increases your odds of survival? What if that means taking other Jews prisoner, serving your enemy?

I’ve said this before in other reviews, and I’ll say it again here. It irritates the bejesus out of me, this World War II forbidden-romance storyline that is always, always, always between a Caucasian European, or Euro-American, and a German. Maybe someone has been wildly creative and included an Italian, but I haven’t seen it if they have. What do we never, never see? Ever? Never? (I could go on all night like this, and don’t provoke me or I’ll do it!) We never, ever see a WWII relationship between a Caucasian civilian from an Allied nation and a Japanese soldier. Or civilian. Or anything. It’s almost as if there’s a whispered subtext that insists, “It’s okay. After all, we’re both white, and that’s what really matters.” And authors that are far too progressive, too modern, too civilized to use any of the zillion ugly epithets that were common usage at the time by Allied service people and citizens toward Germans and Italians, nevertheless decide it’s somehow acceptably authentic to use the J word for Japanese. You know the one I mean. And Feldman is a serious offender here.

Because I was having trouble plodding through this story’s text, I visited Seattle Bibliocommons and borrowed the audio version. (Laurie Catherine Winkel does a fine job as the reader.)  I had listened to about seventy percent of this story when Charlotte has a conversation with her landlord, sponsor, etcetera about his own war experience, and boy does he pour it on. I think I must have found the J word on damn near every page, sometimes more than once. I nearly stopped reading, and I nearly gave this book a single star. I fast-forwarded a bit, and when the passage involving this veteran’s way-too-long speech ends, I don’t hear the word again, so I take a deep breath and forge onward to see how it ends.

The ending is bittersweet, and it’s not formulaic.

So there it is. This book is for sale now, but my advice is to either give it a miss, or read it for free or cheap. And if another forbidden WWII white-on-white romance turns up in my inbox, it’s going straight to my round file. Stick a fork in me, cause I am done.

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.

The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.