Holding, by Graham Norton*****

August 1 is a huge release day; I have two more I’ve yet to write about, but I want to draw this one to your attention. Happy release day–a must-read for fans of dark humor.

Seattle Book Mama

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…

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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.]

Grit, by Gillian French**

gritSometimes there is so much in a novelist’s heart that their debut novel tries to do too much. Perhaps that is what happened here. I expected to enjoy Grit, and I tried to engage with the story, but every time I thought we were on our way, it turned out we were going somewhere else. Regardless, my thanks go to Edelweiss, Above the Treeline, and Harper Teen for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It is scheduled for release May 16, 2017.

The novel starts out strong. Darcy Prentiss is a rebellious teenager, and the voice of the rural working class of Maine is a resonant one, and it’s what keeps this from becoming a one-star review. The teens of the small town of Sasanoa rake blueberries for summer spending money. The story devolves around the disappearance of Darcy’s best friend, Rhiannon; there are so many side stories and diversions here that I feel as if Rhiannon gets lost in the muddle.

The mores of this tale are to some degree set to the values of the Caucasian middle and working classes of 1950. All teenagers are assumed to be heterosexual by the default of the story line, but there are a lot of novels that still do this, and if it were the only issue here I would have smiled, nodded, and moved on. The plot, however, is partly teen romance, with girls that have crushes on this boy, that one, and the other, and the plot is also partly about our protagonist’s obsession with—wait for it—the local beauty pageant.

Seriously.

I keep turning the pages, waiting for this story to either become a real mystery, or to take us somewhere important. There are some tense moments in which the local kids are forbidden to mix with the migrant workers; immigration is a huge issue right now in the USA, and so my pulse beat a bit quicker as I waited to see where French would take this thread. I could happily forget all about the missing-or-dead ex-pal Rhiannon if some sort of social justice theme was in the offing. Instead, this aspect of the story leads nowhere and is abandoned. I am sad.

During a conversation that Darcy overhears between her mother and aunt another red-hot issue is raised and again, my heart beats quicker. The aunt refers to Darcy’s clothing and says,

“‘She’s asking for it. Every time she walks out that door in those skimpy little shorts with her shirt cut way down to here, she’s asking for it.'”

I think perhaps this is where things will start to move, perhaps using the narrative to explore body image issues among teenagers along with stereotypes and the slut-shaming that sometimes causes girls to hate themselves and sometimes hurt themselves, or perhaps to look at sexual assault and the way that society enables sexual violence by blaming the victims. But once again, the opportunity is squandered.

Add to this strange, wandering plot some nasty stereotypes about fat women and we end up with a story more likely to do harm than good, although there is really no message here powerful enough to do much of anything. We find our way back to Rhiannon eventually, but it’s a waste because the momentum has been lost. When the story is finally over, I am delighted to be finished with it.

In the end, we have a resonant setting with dubious characters to populate it and a plot that has too many dead ends to gain momentum. Clear focus and assistance from a high profile editor might make this story a winner, but as it stands now, I cannot recommend it.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

Oh hey, congratulations, Mr. Desmond! I read this and reviewed it a little over a year ago; it’s been riding the best seller list for a long, long time and now…the Pulitzer! If you haven’t checked this one out, do it now.

Seattle Book Mama

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why…

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The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Myers*****

Happy release day! I signed up for the blog tour before I had read the book, so I am really glad I like it. There are so many layers to this one.

Seattle Book Mama

thewidowofwallI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. What, Wall Street? What does that have to do with the real lives most of us lead? But when I noted that the story involves an enormous tumble off that golden pedestal, I was intrigued. I am really glad I accepted the offer to read, because it contains a feminist subtext that I had no idea would be here. This story will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

I had to read the reviews of others to learn that this is a fictionalized version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but if you approach it as straight fiction it’s just as good. The premise is that Phoebe marries Jake when she is very young, and she’s grateful to him, because she’s in the…

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The Devil’s Country, by Harry Hunsicker****

Happy release day! This is one of the better mysteries newly released in 2017, and you can get a copy now.

Seattle Book Mama

thedevilscountryHarry Hunsicker is the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America as well as a successful author. Reading this suspenseful and at times almost surreal tale makes it easy to understand why so many people want to read his work. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger, is on the road when it all unfolds; he’s stopped at the tiny town of Piedra Springs, traveling from one place to another by Greyhound Bus, and he doesn’t intend to stay. He finds a place to get some food, sticks his nose in a copy of Gibbon, and tries to ignore everyone around him. Friendly conversation? Thank you, but no.

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1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

Coming Around the Corner: October Reads to Be Reviewed Soon

I pride myself on timely reviews, but once in awhile life gets in the way. Over the past month, every household thing that could break has done so…almost, anyway. I don’t want to invite further calamity by suggesting it’s all happened already. And so, though nobody is dead or dying, I am behind. Here are the titles you can look forward to seeing reviewed soon, soon, soon:

fireloveratruestory      thebirthdayboys       theeducationofdixiedu  eventhewicked    fidelity missionjimmystewart thevanishingyear.png   doubtinthesecond  beingadog

murderindragon.png     thegirlfromv.png    americangothic

thegraveyardapar.png   silence.png    usgrantthecivilwary

The Goldfish Bowl, by Laurence Gough***

thegoldfishbowlIt’s seldom that I find myself so ambivalent about a galley; I read this free thanks to Net Galley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review.  The writing skill is probably closer to a five; the respect level for women, people of color, and anyone that isn’t oriented straight as a bullet’s path is closer to a one. So those that are constantly inveighing about how tired they are of trying to be PC, here. This is for you. For those of us that have moved along, I am not so sure. This book was released digitally in January, 2016 and is now for sale.

I spent a good portion of this book confused, because it is billed as a new release, yet it really reads like a novel from the 1980s might.  A little digging revealed that it was initially published in 1988, and this explains a good deal. Mainstream attitudes have come a long way since then, and so some re-released novels stand the test of time, whereas others should perhaps be consigned, as Trotsky put it, to “the dustbin of history”.

The story is set in Vancouver, British Columbia, and this is part of what made me want to read this mystery. I don’t see a lot of fiction set there, and I know the area, so I thought this would be fun. And setting is done well.

Then we have our sniper:

“The sniper sat in the orange plastic chair, hunched over a Lyman ‘All American’ turret press. His hands were large and strong. The thick blunt fingers, nails carefully painted with a glossy red polish, moved with precision and grace as he assembled the shiny brass cartridges, primers, powder and fat 500-grain copper-jacketed slugs.”

Our sniper, who must surely be a baddy if twisted enough to put on women’s clothing and makeup, is referred to as clown-faced and is always designated as “he”. In the 1980s that boat would float with most of book-buying North America. Now, not so much.

There is one victim after another, and the beginning is paced at breakneck speed, relaxing readers only to suddenly shock us repeatedly, so there’s a sort of emotional whiplash. There are two detectives in charge of the sniper shootings, and one is a woman. That’s unusual in the department, where women are routinely referred to in demeaning ways and where hard core porn kept in a file cabinet is just a thing the boys in blue do. None of this appears to be there to make a point about what women put up with, however; it seems to be injected for realism and urban grit. And though none of the cops is particularly brilliant, Parker, the female cop, is particularly incompetent, emptying an entire gun at close range without hitting the target even once.

Okay.

Bright spots come with particular scenes. The climax is brilliant, and I love the detail of the guard horse in front of the evidence room. The author is clearly talented, but every time I found myself engaging with the text and not thinking about anything that had offended me, something else would come to the forefront, popping up like a turd in the punch bowl. Those that visit psychiatrists are all ‘fruitcakes’, and at one point, “a huge black” stands in the doorway. At this point my temper flared and I tapped into my tablet, “Huge Black WHAT, motherfucker?”

Yes, I know. Amazon won’t print that quote. It’s worth editing to have it in my blog, because that’s exactly how I feel about it.

There are good moments with figurative language, but then once in awhile a glaring fact that nobody checked pops up. Do people in Vancouver genuinely believe that the West Coast goes from British Columbia, to Washington, to California? Didn’t think so. Someone needs to apologize to Oregon, which is larger than some European nations.  The denouement, social justice issues aside, was a mighty long reach.

If you are already a tried and true fan of Laurence Gough—and he is an established writer with over a dozen published novels—then you will probably enjoy this one too.

As for me, I’ll pass.

 

I Will Send Rain, by Rae Meadows****

iwillsendrainAnnie Bell could have chosen to marry a well-to-do member of the gentry in her home town, a man with fine china and a full time kitchen servant. Young and buoyant, she chooses love instead, and moves to Oklahoma with Samuel Bell to start a brand new life on the free land that’s been provided. What could go wrong when two young people are strong and dedicated to one another? Oh, it’s an old, old story in so many ways, but Meadows makes it brand new. Thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers, I read it free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public August 9, 2016.

When we join the Bells they are no longer newlyweds; a lot of water has gone under the bridge. They have Birdie, a teenager determined to find a way out of Mulehead, and their younger child Fred, a child beset with heavy health issues. He’s sturdier, however, than the baby that didn’t make it. So Annie and Samuel have had success, some fine fertile years on their farm when the wheat was tall and the rain came when it was needed, but they’ve also endured some heartache. Regardless, every Sunday they gather at the only house of worship in town and send up their thanks and prayers for the blessings of nature, and perhaps to ward off its curses as well.

But then, things deteriorate in a horrifying way. Without the sturdy prairie grasses to hold down the topsoil, it is depleted and finally just blown away in the horrible wind storms that come in terrifying intensity, a veritable hurricane of dust instead of water. There is no insulation that withstands the fierce and immeasurable storms, ones that turn day dark as night and fill every crevice in every home, barn, and public building with a layer of grit. Dust isn’t just on the bed, it’s in it. Dust is everywhere, including inside the lungs of little children. And so it is that Fred is stricken with dust pneumonia, an ailment akin to Black Lung disease but without even a paycheck to show for it.

In the midst of it all, Samuel has a message from God: the rain will come, and Samuel must build a boat. And so as the wheat dies beneath the remorseless sun, as the water is rationed and the cattle grow thin, Samuel goes to the barn and commences planning and building the ark that will save his family from the flood.

Everyone in town is laughing at him, but that doesn’t matter to Samuel; he has heard from God.

Meadows is a clever wordsmith, and her capacity to spin setting and develop character are impressive. Young Birdie is in so many ways her mother all over again, and yet Annie is unable to breach the abyss that separates her from her teenage daughter. Annie has learned a lot and she’s learned it the hard way, through experience; Birdie wants nothing to do with any of it, or with Annie. At times I longed to grab that girl by the shoulders and send her into the kitchen for a chat with her mother, but if I could have done so, she wouldn’t have listened anyway. Hopefully this gives the reader a glimpse of how real these characters became to me.

Most of the way through this compelling novel I was sure it would merit five stars, yet the ending left me dissatisfied. Even if I could explain this without spoiling it for you, I’m not sure what the writer should have done instead, but the denouement felt contrived to me even though in many ways it seemed like a reasonable ending. Perhaps you will feel differently.

You may have read other historical fiction set in the Dust Bowl, but you haven’t read anything like this. Check it out and see what you think. I’d hate for you to miss it.