Who Killed the Fonz? By James Boice***

I was invited to read and review this strange little book by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, and I thank them. It’s for sale now.

Fonzie is the eternally cool lone-wolf character in the television sitcom “Happy Days,” which was aired during the 1970s and early 1980s, back before the internet and the digital era gave us choices. The show is set in the 1950s, with malt shops, sock hops, and so forth. Richie Cunningham was the main character, an ordinary small town teen who was befriended by the Fonz.  This book morphs forward to the 1980s, which places Richie—er, Richard—in middle age. He’s a Hollywood producer but is called back home by the death of Fonzie.

When I saw this book in my email, I wasn’t sure what to think. How does anyone write this book? Neither Richie nor the Fonz was anything more than a stock character during the series itself. Every problem encountered by any character had to be resolved with humor and warmth within thirty minutes—more like twenty once advertising is figured in. So my first assumption was that this must be some sort of dark satire. But that would be very edgy and risky, and I wasn’t sure Simon would touch something like that. But, it’s an invitation and a quick read, so let’s have a look.

Satire it isn’t. It’s promoted as noir, and it isn’t that either.  I can go sit in the garage. I can say I am a car. I can get my children to all say I am a car. I still won’t be a car, or for that matter a motorcycle. And so I’m telling you right now that this is, in spite of its quirky title and book cover, a cozy mystery, period. It is what it is.

Now, that’s not a bad thing. There are a lot of readers that enjoy a good cozy, and it seems likely that a lot of those readers will fall into the demographic to which this story appeals, namely the Boomer generation, the readers that watched Happy Days when they were young and (hopefully) happy.

So here we are, back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Potsie and Ralph Malph distrust Richard because he has become some sort of Hollywood big shot. His career is on the rocks, but they don’t know that; all they know is that he’s come back to the Midwest wearing designer clothes, and when he calls himself “Richard,” they snicker. But ultimately they all work together to unsnarl issues of local corruption as well as the mystery about Fonzie, and Richard realizes he is really still Richie.

So we have corn; we have cheese; and we have cheese corn. But it’s an accessible story that will provide a pleasant level of distraction that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of concentration or analysis. If your gram is undergoing chemo, she can take this into treatment and it will help keep her warm.

I recommend this book to those that primarily read cozy mysteries and are familiar with the series.

Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

Happy Release Day! This exceptionally engaging YA title is available today, and you should read it.

Seattle Book Mama

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so…

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The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so tantalizing that I know I want to read it anyway; this was one of those times. It’s a book you can read in a weekend, and once you have it, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

First I’d like to reassure readers that are most comfortable in the liberal arts realm that the programming jokes here are very shallow, and you can easily read this without missing anything even if you aren’t a tech type. I wrinkled my brow at the chapter headings and called my spouse, a network engineer, in to see them. He told me it’s just the chapter numbers written in code. So for those of you that hyperventilate around complicated math and science, it’s okay. Breathe.

Moving on to the story itself, here’s the set-up: it’s 1987, and Vanna White, America’s girl next door who’s seen every weeknight on television’s Wheel of Fortune, has posed nude for Playboy, and no one under the age of 18 can buy that magazine. The only place it’s even for sale in our depressed rustbelt neighborhood is in Zelinsky’s shop, and the man is unhinged when it comes to kids in his store. He’s had problems with crime, and on top of that, he’s grieving his wife’s death, and right at this moment, he’s in the anger, anger, anger stage.

Our 15 year old protagonist is Billy, a ninth grader whose mother works long hours and can’t supervise him effectively. His two longtime friends are Alf and Clark. The threesome is determined to get that Playboy from Zelinsky’s store. Since they can’t buy it from him, and since it’s kept behind the counter which the owner watches feverishly during all store hours, they’re going to have to steal a copy when the store is closed. Sort of steal it. They’ll sneak in; leave money on the counter; then leave with their magazines. They’ll want three, of course, so that each can have his personal copy.

When his hormones aren’t in overdrive, Billy loves computers more than anything. He sneaks a programming manual inside his textbook during class time, because it’s what he wants to learn about. His mother is beside herself when she sees his grades—“You’re failing Rocks and Streams!”—but she has no idea what to do about it. The only thing she can take away that Billy really cares about is his computer, and she does it, telling him he can have it back once his grades are up.

As it happens, our store owner has a daughter that’s about the same age as Billy, and she has a computer too. Billy is better with computers than any of his public school classmates, but Mary, a student at St. Agatha, is brilliant. He talks to her initially as part of the scheme to get into the store at night and filch the magazine, but once he sees what she can do online, he is transfixed, and he spends more and more time in the back of Zelinsky’s store watching what Mary can do on her computer. He notes that his own technical finesse next to Mary’s is “like finger painting next to Picasso.” As the friendship between them develops, Billy is torn between Mary and computers, versus Alf, Clark, and the magazine. He tries to back out of the plan they’ve agreed upon because he doesn’t want to hurt Mary’s feelings, but complications emerge.

Although Rekulak does a fine job developing Billy, the best developed character in this story is unquestionably Mr. Zelinsky.  As to setting, I am impressed with how much minutiae is absolutely accurate here. But it’s not the character development, setting, or plot that drives this novel; it’s the voice, which is as authentic in adolescent reasoning , planning, and oh dear heaven, in its impulsiveness as anything I have ever seen.

Whether you are a teen, a parent, a teacher, or a reader that’s just looking for a good laugh, you’ll find it here. Highly recommended.