The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs, by Janet Peery*****

theexactnatureofourwrongsThe place is Amicus, Kansas; the Campbell family has come together to celebrate the birthday of their frail, ancient patriarch, Abel. Ultimately, though, their attention is drawn, unavoidably, to the youngest among them. Billy is a walking pharmacy, but he won’t be walking anywhere for much longer if something isn’t done.

I read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. If I had paid full retail price, it would have been worth every red cent. It had me at hello, and performed a miracle of sorts by rendering me temporarily speechless; I had to gather my thoughts and look at my notes before I could comment.

But back to the Campbells of Kansas. Everyone has known for some time about Billy’s dependency issues; he’s been riding the roller coaster of addiction for many years. Billy’s father wants to take a hard line with him, while his mother, Hattie, just wants to bring him home and tuck him into the guest bedroom. Brother Jesse objects, “He’s forty-fricking-seven, Mom.”

Elder daughter Doro, who is sixty and perhaps the only sane, normal person in the family, is concerned for her mother, who is past eighty and has already had a heart attack. Doro reminds her mother that “It’s Amicus. It’s your family. Where two’s company and three turns into an intervention.”

The setting of Amicus and the time period we see as we reach back into the family’s history is well rendered, but remains discreetly in the background as it should, not hijacking the story. The story itself is based on character, not just of any one person, but of the family itself. By the twenty percent mark I feel as if I have known these people all my life. The full range of emotion is in play as I immerse myself in this intimate novel, and there are many places that make me laugh out loud.

It isn’t too long before I can identify someone I know that is a Hattie, and someone that is a Billy. Given the widespread horror of opiate addiction, I will bet you a dollar that you know someone too.

But before the halfway mark is reached, a terrible sense of dread comes over me, an aha moment I would not wish on my worst enemy. I begin to sense that perhaps I am Hattie. And within a week of having read this epic story, my eldest child calls and tells me that he’s had a phone call from his younger sibling’s dealer, a man that flatly states, “I don’t want your brother on my conscience, man. I won’t sell to him anymore, but I’m telling you, there are plenty of others that do. You gotta do something, cause he’s out of control.”

Generally, I do not include personal notes in my reviews, because that’s not generally what the reader is looking for. But here I have chosen to do so because this problem is everywhere. In the case of Billy Campbell, there’s a complicating factor: Billy is HIV positive and has been since he was 21. And again, I suspect that for many others, such issues also blur the distinction between medical treatment of some sort, and addiction.

I hope that you can get this book and enjoy it for its sly humor, brilliant word-smithery, and unmatchable character development. It’s excellent fiction, just exactly right for a chilly autumn evening in your favorite chair or snuggled beneath the quilts. But for me, it is valuable as a wake-up call, and it will do the same for many other readers also—I have no doubt.

It’s the right story, at the right time.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

Happy release day to Fannie Flagg! This one is a treasure. If you’re buying Christmas or Hanukkah gifts, consider this book, which is bound to make your loved one smile…especially for those over 40.

Seattle Book Mama

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our…

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And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman****

 “When a star fades, it takes a long time for us to realize, as long as it takes for the last of its light to reach Earth…When a brain fades it takes a long time for the body to realize.”

andeverymorningthewayhome

Frederik Backman’s new novella provides us with a philosophical yet poignant glimpse of an elderly man trying to hang onto his memories, and the love of those that must say goodbye to him inch by inch. I received my DRC from Net Galley and Random House Alibi in exchange for this honest review.  This novella will be published November 1, 2016.

They say that each generation corrects for the one before it, rendering us more like our grandparents sometimes than our parents themselves. So it is with Noah and Grandpa. Grandpa calls his grandson “Noahnoah”, because he likes his grandson’s name twice as much as anyone else’s. Sometimes Noah’s father Ted comes to see Grandpa, and when he mentions Noah, Grandpa doesn’t know who that is. Sometimes Grandpa knows everyone; sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he mistakes one of them for the other.

But Grandpa—who has no other name in this book, having taken on the generic persona that Western society tends to give us as we grow very old—shares a special bond with his grandson, and it is his grandson that comes to him, still, with questions about life and the universe.

Grandma is no longer living, but theirs was a happy marriage despite their dispute about God and the afterlife.  Noah says to his grandfather, “’Grandma believed in God, but you don’t. Do you still get to go to Heaven if you die?’”

Grandpa tells him, “’Only if I’m wrong.’”

The years pass. As usual, Grandpa wants to know about school, but he has forgotten that Noahnoah isn’t a student anymore; he’s become the teacher. On the other hand, school is better than ever now. And so it goes.

This story is brief, and I read it in just a couple of sittings. Despite the cover art, it isn’t necessarily a book for children.  It’s a wonderful story in that it shows us a gentle way of dealing with aging—which can be so hard to do, particularly if Alzheimer’s makes the elderly sufferer angry with no reason—and it also helps us learn to let go. For some, this might be a good grief story. For others that had to let go without being able to be with the beloved family member much in their final years, it might be painful, because the grandson and father both spend time with this man as he declines.

I can see ways in which this story might help a YA reader with not only a strong literacy level, but the ability to think abstractly, cope with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia in an elderly relative that means a lot to them, but I would advise the parent or guardian to read it first, and then decide. There’s no sex, no profanity; just pleasure, love, joy, and aching sorrow.

Blanche Passes Go: A Blanche White Mystery, by Barbara Neely*****

blanchepassesgo“Blanche’s mind rang with remembered slights and taunts, and echoes of that awful, heartbreaking instant of fear that was a part of every trip into the white world—a fear of being refused or given poor service because she was black, stopped by a cop because she was black.”

I finished reading Blanche Passes Go on the second anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a cop for jaywalking. Bernie Sanders, the candidate who fancies himself the liberal savior for all progressive-minded Americans, spoke here in Seattle that day. The purpose of his talk, apart from campaigning and fundraising, was to celebrate the birthday of Social Security. The speech was disrupted by a pair of African-American women who took exception to his myopia.

So I guess you could say that everyone, even those that don’t generally enjoy mysteries, ought to be reading this book right about now. In particular, if the reader is still trying to figure out why so many people, particularly people of color, get upset with the clueless slogan “All lives matter”, this book is here, just for you. Neely approaches issues of race, class, and gender in a way that is clear but not unkind. It’s her best work to date, and could not have been published by Brash Books at a more appropriate time. My great thanks go to them and the people at Net Galley for providing me with a DRC, and to Neely for laying it all out so that anybody who has a willing heart can get the picture.

In this fourth Blanche White mystery, Blanche has gone home to Farleigh, North Carolina for a vacation, and to try partnering a catering business with her best friend, Ardell. But Farleigh is a small place, and she can’t avoid running up against David Palmer, a Caucasian man that raped her. She never reported it, of course; were they really going to haul the well-heeled, powerful white man for a sperm sample, given the long history of Caucasian men raping Black women with impunity? Not likely! So when her long-simmering rage is ignited by the sight of him, she vows to not only get mad, but to get even as well.

Blanche White novels always have multiple threads that weave in and out of the plot line, but this is the most complex and impressive yet. Not only does Blanche have to grapple with Farleigh and Palmer, she is back in her home town, and her mama is still here. Like many women, Blanche has hit middle age and menopause with a renewed, powerful yearning to know more about her mama, who never stops talking but never gives away the personal information Blanche is almost begging for, and about her father, about whom virtually nothing has been told her. Blanche decides that once a person has children, their privacy is no longer as sacred as it was before, and a lot of personal information becomes family property. I loved that.

Well into the book, Ardell accuses Blanche of sounding exactly like her mother, and Blanche is dumbfounded to realize it’s true. I threw back my head and laughed out loud. It’s the rare woman that doesn’t hear her own mother coming out of her mouth sooner or later, and the moment was built so deftly and executed so well that it landed hard on my funny-bone.

Other Blanche novels have accentuated the protagonist’s tightly held independence. Here, she meets a fine man named Thelvin on the Amtrak coming into Farleigh, and at some point, she has to decide just how flexible (or inflexible) she is going to be.

Another component is Mumsfield, an acquaintance that has Down’s Syndrome and is about to be married to someone who may be after his money. This aspect of the story, like the others, is skillfully crafted. Mumsfield is not completely helpless, and the fact that he has Down’s does not make him Blanche’s friend, as he claims to be. There is still that division of white privilege. It’s not that Blanche could not have a white friend, but it would have to be someone with ownership of what that means.

Because all of these components are told in the third person omniscient, and because the writer is a complete badass, we are privy to all the intricacies involved here. Add a problem with domestic abuse next door to the Miz Alice where Blanche is staying, and you have an interesting stew indeedy.

Highly recommended.

Mot, by Sarah Einstein*****

Einstein_Mot.inddSarah is forty, and she’s floundering. Her life’s work, like her mother’s, has been to try to make the world a better place, and so she works at a homeless shelter as its director. But things are falling apart there; whereas once upon a time most of the mentally ill homeless were passive, now meth and other addictions have created so much anger and violence that she isn’t even safe there. She’s been physically attacked three times, one of which was sexual, and her life has been threatened on an ongoing basis. Too often she is the only staff member present, and it’s getting scary out there.

Many thanks to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for the DRC. This title goes up for sale September 15.

In addition, her marriage, which was predicated upon a mutual dedication to social justice issues and the understanding that neither she nor her new husband would be around much because of the time and attention their work demanded, is coming undone as well. Her husband Scotti has at times sided with the population she is supposed to be managing at the shelter against her.

Think of it!

So maybe it isn’t so very strange that she has decided to load herself into her vehicle and drive 1400 miles to Texas to visit a homeless friend who has moved there. “Mot”, who used to be “Thomas”, is living in a beat-up car in a Walmart parking lot. And whereas most of us would regard her mission as either an immense personal sacrifice or even a little bit bizarre, the fact is that she needed to get away from West Virginia, that shelter (where she has given notice and is using up every possible minute of vacation time), and Scotti. She has rented a little cabin—the closest thing Mot will accept even temporarily in terms of living indoors—with two beds, one for herself, and one for him. And as the book opens, she is reflecting that even if he never shows up, a whole week in this primitive little yurt, all by herself, sounds positively wonderful.

Right away her spouse is ringing her cell to complain of how much inconvenience he is experiencing while she is gone. He sends unhappy e-mails constantly, but he also doesn’t want her to use her smart phone because that data costs money. So although she hasn’t explained to us yet about the state of her marriage, which should still be in its honeymoon phase but really, really isn’t, we start to get the picture.

Mot is a complicated fellow. Immediately, when she quotes him, I start asking myself whether this is schizophrenia, a dissociative disorder, both or neither? I’m not a professional by a long shot, but when a guy routinely refers to the other folks with whom he is sharing a body and that control his behavior, it’s pretty clear all is not well. And my jaw dropped on the floor later in the book when he commented, in a moment of total lucidity, that it was probably the latter.

Mot is a veteran, and Sarah’s documentation of the unconscionable way the USA treats its veterans is noteworthy. Advocates for veterans’ health care should be plugging this book all the time, everywhere.

Sarah’s time with Mot mixes with some odd bits of philosophy, most of them his, and so although plot wise there aren’t a lot of parallels, the overall flavor to this book is similar to that of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (I have never compared any other book to that book before, and don’t expect to!)

I should also add that I came to this galley after having read a couple of Pulitzer winners and some books by my favorite bestselling authors. I dove into Mot not because I thought it would be my favorite of the remaining DRC’s I had to review, but because I had snagged it right before it was due to be archived, and I felt an obligation to the author and the publisher. In other words, although it looked interesting, I didn’t expect to give it five stars. But the sum of the book is so much more than its parts, and to get it, you really just have to read it.

Highly recommended to anyone and everyone.

I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50, by Annabelle Gurwitch ***-****

ISeeYouMadeanEffortGurwitch is entering the downhill slope of middle age, and she isn’t going to go gently. In this enjoyable collection of essays, she is sometimes hilarious, and at other moments more philosophical. But she is never dull. Thank you to Penguin Random House for sending me an ARC.

Middle age means a deluge of mail order catalogs that sell products for the incontinent, the arthritic, the retired. Gurwitch doesn’t want them. What she might want is a few intimate moments with her hot yoga instructor—ah, so young!—or maybe even the young man who’s fixing her computer.

Alas, middle age also means caring for parents that are in declining health, and some of us get to raise teenagers at the same time. If you can’t laugh, you might have to cry! And sometimes, being middle aged means a precipitate end to a career, when your old employer sends you packing and those that are hiring want someone younger than you. They don’t say it, but it’s obvious.

And so middle age means you need to buy some really good concealer, because if you have been a sturdy feminist whose self-esteem used to mean that no cosmetics were necessary, guess what? Once you’re old enough, just picking those chin hairs out with tweezers isn’t going to do it. Lose the unibrow; trowel on the concealer and redraw the brows you just removed; cross your fingers that it works. “Facial hair,” she reminds us, “is an equal opportunity offender.”

Gurwitch is an actress, for those that didn’t already know that, and she has some stories to tell that will either make you howl with laughter or moan with pain, depending upon your perspective. Perspective? She has it here in spades. My personal favorite was her piece on petty theft. I hope she can still get a hotel room in her own name!

At times her tone becomes more philosophical, because there’s not much that’s funny about having people close to you die, and unfortunately, that’s one more unwanted surprise Mother Nature pushes at us when we edge our way toward 50 and beyond. And she wants you to remember that you can’t die without telling someone your password. You just can’t.

Many of us swore we wouldn’t sit around and bitch about our physical complaints when we grew old, the way our parents did…but now there’s Google. There’s WEB MD. For every symptom we have, there are at least twenty dread diagnoses possible! Get off the computer! Are you listening?

If you are under 40 and still reading this review, you ought to know by now that this book is not for you. If your mother is still alive, however, you should get this for her. Mother’s Day is coming. And for heaven’s sake get her a dozen red roses to keep it company.

Because you just never know. It could be her last. And really, that’s not so funny.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg *****

friedgreentomatoesIf I had to whittle several decades of reading down to thirty favorite books, this one would make the cut. It is wonderful on so many levels. Flagg has published a number of glorious, whimsical yet not shallow novels, always set in the deep South. This one is the jewel in her literary crown.

Have you seen the movie? If you have, this book may be easier for you to read. I read it, and absolutely (as you can see) loved it. The issue for other readers I’ve talked to is that the book hops back and forth in terms of setting, including time period, and it doesn’t provide an obvious heads-up that this is what is happening.

There are two stories being told, one that of a contemporary woman who is unhappy with her life, menopausal and fearful that she is losing her husband’s attention, bored and feeling worthless. She is spending part of her weekend at a nursing home where her husband’s wife resides, but the woman hates her and won’t let her in the room. It is in the lobby where she is faithfully stationed, downing the candy stash from her purse for comfort, that she meets one of the home’s residents, who tells her pieces of her life story, a little more each visit. But in the book, we are taken back in time in other ways. Suddenly we are reading a small town newspaper, and if you are a person who skips chapter headings, you’re likely to find yourself entirely confused.

I won’t give away more of the plot, but for the time in which it was written, this novel bravely took up one progressive (IMHO) cause about which not much was being written. It’s very subtle. Other parts of the story will leave you laughing so hard that you either can’t catch your breath, or if you are old enough, you may not hang onto…something else.

Highly recommended.