Best Science Fiction of 2019: The Dreamers

Best Humorous Book of 2019: The Grammarians, by Cathleen Schine*****

Honorable Mentions:

The Swallows, by Lisa Lutz**-***

2.5 rounded up.

Alexandra Witt is desperate for work and to get out from under parental pressure, and so she accepts a job teaching at Stonebridge Academy, a third tier boarding school. She uncovers a dark tradition that victimizes female students, and she helps them fight back. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As the story opens, Witt discovers that a sick sext of a girl in her first class is circulating; students are commenting on it with their phones during her class. For no reason that I can discern, Witt doesn’t take this problem to counseling or administration, but decides to deal with it, and with the larger problem it represents, by becoming an unofficial advisor to an unofficial revenge club. This turns out to be the better idea, because at Stonebridge, the faculty are either complicit, in denial, or too caught up in their own private woes to care.  At any rate, this hip new teacher is dubbed “the Pied Piper of Stonebridge Academy,” and students—mainly girls–begin confiding in her.

My response to this book mirrors Lutz’s earlier novel, The Passenger. The beginning grabs me immediately, and the author’s crackling wit and swift pacing make me certain I am going to love this book. As the story develops, I occasionally doubt the credibility of a detail here or there, and as a teacher, I wince at the willingness Witt shows in tossing colleagues under the bus, but the story on the whole is still entertaining enough that I set my doubts aside. You can never enjoy a thriller without buying the premise, and so I continue, thinking now that maybe this is a four star read rather than five, but it’s still absorbing, and I want to see where it goes. But when I reach 66%, cracks start to form and so at the climax, instead of being riveted, I feel as if I’ve been had.

The tipping point for me is the amount of prurient detail given to the various sexual acts, most of them either sexual assaults or sex as payback. It is as if the reader is expected to get a charge out of this material, but since there’s obviously something seriously wrong with it, Lutz casts it as a call to arms so that readers won’t feel guilty about immersing themselves in sleaze.  I was ready to toss it aside at 66 percent; that’s enough for me, friends. I don’t care how it ends anymore.  But at the same time I was on the hook for a review and I could tell the rest would be a fast read, so I gritted my teeth and finished it.

And there’s the other problem, a common one in this genre: it’s always so much easier to set a thriller up than it is to resolve it. The way this story plays out has no feminist spark whatsoever—thus nullifying even the faint murmur of MeToo that could be found earlier if you squinted a little and didn’t think too hard—and is also preposterous.

A lot of other people have read this book and loved it; call me a hard-ass if you will. But I always call them as I see them, and I see this as dross. Don’t pay full freight unless your pockets are deep and your tolerance phenomenal. Or you could just buy a better book instead.

Summer Reading

When it’s too hot to get much done, you’ll need a tall, frosty drink; a fan to flop in front of; and one of these. Reviews for all will be on this site soon!

Spring Is When Fiction Blooms

Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s corny. But this year, many of the best titles are being saved for spring. I’m stoked for all of these!

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, by Anissa Gray****

Anissa Gray’s debut novel doesn’t politely tiptoe into the literary world; it kicks the door in. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is about a dysfunctional family, and about the way society has failed some of its most vulnerable members. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is available to the public today.

Althea and her husband Proctor are the heads of the family, owners of a local restaurant, and the organizers of a local charity to help those impacted by the Great Flood. The community has rallied round them. New River Junction is down on its luck, what with the layoffs at the mill and the decline in tourism; but the people of Southern Michigan are the salt of the Earth, and so when the Cochrans ask them to pitch in for the cause, they do. It’s a warm feeling. 

But when an informer calls the police and the Cochrans are arrested for fraud and embezzlement, hell hath no greater fury than the citizens that have been bilked. It’s a small town. There aren’t a lot of places to hide. 

Reader, I once had a glass dish that broke into a zillion pieces with no apparent provocation; perhaps it was a vibration, or a change in temperature in the room. One minute I was reading my newspaper, and the next, there was the sound of breaking glass. It was so sudden. And in the same way, Althea’s family is shattered; Althea is arrested, and her sisters and daughters are undone. The private burdens that each carries, traumas left unspoken and injuries long buried now grow and loom, and with each angry phone call, each hate letter, each act of vandalism committed against them—the family members presumed to have benefited from Althea’s ill-gotten gains—their mental health issues fatten and swell. Lillian’s anxiety issues ramp up and Viola’s eating disorder spirals out of control. And the twins, adolescents that have to face the taunts of their classmates and the side-eye glances of the faculty, have no healthy adult in their lives to help them. Kim, Lillian notes, has become “full-on feral now.”

The story is almost entirely character based, and even so, Gray does a lot here. It’s a complex story and at times I wonder if she’s tried to do too much. But she brings it all together at the conclusion in a way that is consistent and believable. 

At one point I reflect that no family has this many mental health disorders among a handful of people, but the minute I consider it, I know that’s not true. I feel as if I might have taught some version of the Cochran girls. Families like this tumble down together in just this way, like a pile of heavy dishes stacked on a flimsy cardboard box. When there is no strong foundation, the whole structure collapses. 

For that reason, this story may most appeal to those that work in the helping professions: teachers, counselors and other mental health professionals, nurses and social workers will see this family and recognize it. And feminists will appreciate the resolution, which does not devolve around some handsome knight rushing in to save the day. 

This story is one of a kind. If you need to know what the buzz is about, you had better get a copy for yourself before they’re gone. 

The Creole Debate, by John H. McWhorter****

thecreoledeThanks go to Net Galley and Cambridge University Press for the review copy. I am reviewing this title because accepting the galley created an obligation on my part, but these are deep waters, and I found myself thrashing around in them searching for the shoreline.

Since retirement, I have sought to stretch myself by stepping out of my own comfort zone, veering away from the types of fiction that I have always enjoyed, and from the historical and other nonfiction titles that dovetailed with my work. In doing so, I have often been rewarded. Sometimes I learn things, and a couple of times I have discovered that I enjoy a genre that I had never even explored before. Taking risks can be a good thing.

Then there are situations like this one. This one is just embarrassing. Take my rating with a grain of salt, readers, because for the most part, I have no clue what is in here or whether McWhorter has proven his point. I was able to figure out what the debate is about: some linguists claim that Creole speech is a dialect created from other languages (and if I’m wrong about that–it occurs to me that my review may attract the attention of actual linguists–tell me so, but be gentle here, because I am doing my best.) The thesis presented is that Creole is a legitimate language unto itself, and the writer delves into the history of its evolution in order to prove its independent development.

Is he right? Is he incorrect? Hell if I know.

Generally I appreciate reading specialized texts (in the humanities, where I am usually at ease) that don’t dumb things down for the reader and that assume some facts are understood in order to move forward. And one might expect nothing less from a Cambridge publication. But there are enough terms used that are technical and specialized for use by linguists, and there is enough prior knowledge assumed here as well, that I soon realize I am in over my head. A Google search isn’t going to cut it here.

What I did pick up by noting the descriptive terms and phrasing is that this is a red-hot debate, one that excites a certain amount of passion and perhaps even creates lifelong grudges among scholars in the field.

So forgive me, linguists, because I know not what I do here. This may be a five star book, at least for linguists that can understand what’s being said; or perhaps the case is poorly made and it’s less than the four stars given here. Four stars is my default for a book that is good but not stellar, and since I don’t understand enough of the argument the author makes here to provide a valid, fair rating and am nevertheless required to rate the book, my default of 4 stars is the port in which I will rest, in my lifeboat, until I can find the courage to wobble onto the shore.

Recommended for those that are confident as linguists, and that are interested in the discussion.

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.


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.