Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

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.]

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

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.

The Half-Life of Remorse, by Grant Jarrett*****

TheHalfLifeofRemorseHere is a story for our time. It’s fresh, moving, fall-down-laughing funny in places, and has the best character development I’ve seen lately. I was growing cranky from having to pan other people’s bad books, and I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Sparkpress almost as an afterthought; then it nearly knocked me off my feet with its voice and sheer creative power. It was published last week, and you should get it, read it, and then make other people do the same thing. It’s that strong.

The format is a simple one, and because there’s not a lot of plot or setting, everything boils down to the inner monologues of the three characters here. We start and conclude with a brief narrative in the third person omniscient, and in between we have the staggered monologues of two homeless men and a professional single woman confined to a wheelchair. Sam has blocked out a traumatic past, likely suffering from PTSD and who knows what else. His monologue is a literary sounding one, and indeed, he was once an academic. Now he calls himself a wizard, and at times, we nearly believe him.

The other homeless man calls himself Chick. He is not a young man either, and is running from his own misdeeds, and Sam tells us that Chick “…is a testament to life’s unrelenting desperation to continue.” Chick is not literate, but he manages to communicate brilliantly in his own tumbledown, roughshod, clumsy manner. Every now and then he tries to use a slightly larger vocabulary than he possesses, and ends up referring to “the persecuting attorney” and not wanting to “cast inspersions” upon the characters of others. Though he is thoroughly profane and limited grammatically, in his own way Chick is as eloquent as Sam.

The third character, a less developed but still important one, is Claire. Claire lost the use of her legs when her family was invaded by criminals during her childhood. Both Sam and Chick were there, but at the time, they did not know each other.

Jarrett writes in a way that is wholly original, and the juxtaposition of Sam’s monologue with Chick’s is startling and very funny. Somehow this author manages to slam tragedy and humor right up against one another without diminishing either. Most importantly, he is able to portray both Sam and Chick as men that still have purpose and a personal code of honor despite the horrors they have experienced and the bad choices they have made. Jarrett’s prose is the sort that grabs me by the hair and doesn’t release me until the story is finished. At one point, I found myself lightheaded because I had forgotten to breathe.

This novel is highly recommended to everyone that loves strong fiction.

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.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman****

beartown“You can fuck any girl you like here tonight; they’re all hockey-whores when we win.”

Fredrik Backman is a sly writer, and he has a way of spiraling around his central point so that readers are mighty close by the time they recognize where they are. He writes with philosophical grace tinged with wit, and his novels are popular because of it. And so it cheers me to see him examine what might happen to a small depressed town whose hopes are all hinged on youth sports. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Beartown is available to the public today.

In Beartown, everyone dreams of hockey, and those that don’t are stuck on the outside looking in. A man’s glory days are done before he’s 40; a woman has no glory days at all, since women cannot play on the men’s team and there is no women’s team. Everything comes second to hockey: education, social skills, and even the law are bent, sometimes to the breaking point, in order to accommodate star athletes. Hockey is the town’s only remaining business, and it seems to provide the only possible hope for young men that have grown up in the forest and don’t want to leave it to seek work.

Backman has a genius for drawing the reader in. Some of the scenes in this story actually make me laugh out loud. His respect for women is a breath of fresh air as well. In literary terms, though, the greatest success of this piece is the way a large number of characters are developed so that readers genuinely feel that we know not just a protagonist, but a whole town. We know who is related, what private baggage exists between individuals and families, which marriage is happy and which is not, and it’s delivered to us in a way that never feels gossipy or prurient. Rather, Backman makes us feel as if we are part of the town, and so everything is important to us as well.

Fans of Backman’s will be pleased once again here. My sole quibble is that I see a character at the end behave in a way that is so inconsistent with what we know of him so far that I can hear the violins play. It’s heartwarming, but if the same thing had been achieved more subtly, it would be credible as well.

Nevertheless, you won’t want to miss this book. Regardless of the ugly things that are said and done at various points, the author comes back, as he always has before, to the innate goodness of the human spirit, and it’s messages like this one that we need so badly today. Recommended to those that enjoy good fiction.

It Happens All the Time, by Amy Hatvany***

ithappensallthetimeI was invited to read and review this title in advance by Net Galley and Atria Books; it is written by a rape survivor, who tells us bravely of her own experience in the introduction. I wanted to love this book and to scream it across the internet and from the top of the Space Needle, that everyone should get it and read it, but instead, I came away feeling ambivalent. The rape passage is resonant and horrifying, and it’s written in a courageous way, and I’ll go into that in a minute. The rest of the book, however, is flat, and so in some ways this proves to be an opportunity squandered. There are spoilers, so don’t proceed if you don’t want to know how the book ends. It is available for purchase today.

The premise is that Amber and Tyler are best friends. They dated when they were teenagers, but a lot of time has gone by, and they have agreed to be buddies, talking often. Amber does not know that Tyler’s torch is still burning for her, brighter than ever; he is waiting for her to come around. Meanwhile, she has become engaged to someone else.

Amber is also a recovering bulimic, and now she is a specialist in nutrition and fitness. The level of detail regarding Amber’s meals hijacks the narrative at times; I don’t care how many ounces of lean this, that, the other she is about to eat. If we’re going to write about diet and fitness, that should be another book, and otherwise it should stay in the background.

The rape itself is where the story shines, and of course, it is the central scene to the story. Hatvany wants us to recognize who rapists are, and who they aren’t:

 

“They’re not greasy-haired monsters who jump out from behind the bushes and tie up their victims in their basements.”

 

The story is told from alternating perspectives, so we hear from both Amber and Tyler. Amber is believable to a degree; a more richly developed character would be more convincing, but the story is one that countless girls and women have lived. It’s a date that goes badly wrong; sometimes the woman is one that expects that she will want sex, but then decides she doesn’t, and her date forces the issue. Is that rape? Unless she says yes to sex, it is. Sometimes it starts with kisses—drunken or otherwise—but when the man wants to go further, she decides she wants to keep her clothes on and not follow through. If she says stop, or wait, or fails to say she wants to do this, yes, it is rape. And so this part of the narrative is important, and once I have read it, I want more than ever to like the rest of the book so that I can promote it.

Tyler is just straight up badly written. I am sorry to say it, but I rolled my eyes when I read his portion of the narrative. The ending is way over the top, and it distracts us with morally questionable deeds done by Amber that we would never commit. If it was rendered brilliantly, it could perhaps come across heroically, like Thelma and Louise, but it isn’t, and it doesn’t.

What happens here, is that Amber kidnaps Tyler post-rape at gunpoint. She forces him to drive to her family’s vacation cabin, and she makes him say that he raped her. He won’t do it, so she shoots him. She refuses to take him to a hospital until he says what she wants him to say. Once all of this happens, he has a huge epiphany, and from then on, Tyler’s wails about what a bad thing he has done, and how he knows he deserves everything that will happen to him as a result.

Sure.

But in addition, I find myself squirming. At one point when Amber holds him hostage, Tyler points out to her that kidnapping is a felony. Having Amber muddy the waters morally by kidnapping and shooting her assailant is distracting and morally tenuous at best. He has to tell the truth; she doesn’t. He owes it to her to lose his job and career, and to serve his time; she never expresses any sort of remorse and never suffers the consequences of her actions. And whereas brilliant prose stylist could turn Amber into a vigilante folk hero, this isn’t that.

I know that the author intends to tell a story that is deeply moving and that will improve the social discourse regarding what rape is, and how we as a society deal with it, both institutionally and as individuals. Instead, the distractions and tired prose prevent this story from reaching its potential.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li**

dearfriendfrommylifei  It’s an honor to be invited to review any book by Random House and Net Galley, and so when the email came, I accepted without hesitation; I thank them for thinking of me and wish I could honestly recommend this one. Others have referred to this memoir, whose title is taken from a quote by Katharine Mansfield, as “exquisite, intimate, and lyrical”, and the author has won awards for her novels. I looked carefully to see if I could locate the genius in this book, but it eluded me completely.

The intimacy of the work is surely apparent. In essence, this is a mental health memoir, and the author writes of her fight with depression, her multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, of the expectation of others that she should continue to live when she didn’t want to. It’s brave writing, although mental health battles are now a fairly mainstream topic, but I am unable to find anything tangible to engage my interest.

My only real pleasure is in discovering that Li is already a successful writer; had it been a debut, I would have been scared silly. After all, if I say I don’t like the book, will the writer harm herself? What if I simply dodge the whole thing and let it get lost in the shuffle; will it happen then as well? But in seeing that this is someone with an established career and a wall full of accolades, probably the displeasure of one humble blogger won’t create a great deal of trauma.

The whole thing is bleak. The writer reminds us repeatedly that her life is private, that no one has the right to know any of its details and all I can think is, so what are we doing here, exactly?

Those that have read and enjoyed Li’s novels may find more to hang their hats on than I have found. All I know is that it is painful to read, has no beginning, middle or end that I can find, and is devoid of the literary qualities that can sometimes make a sad book enjoyable. I can’t recommend it.