Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T. Kira Madden***-****

3.5 rounded up. I received this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury in exchange for this honest review, and I am sorry to be late providing it. The truth is, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of buzz in advance, and indeed, Madden is a talented word smith. This is also one of the strangest books I have ever read.

In a series of essays, Madden discusses her childhood and adolescence, growing up as an heir to the Madden shoe empire, provided with every material advantage, but also strangely unwelcome in her own home. It’s the ultimate story of alienation, one in which her father’s primary goal as a parent seems to be to pretend she isn’t there—until he goes to jail, anyway. 

Kids that are ignored by their parents act out to get their attention. This is true across all social classes, though the form of the acting out varies. Kira isn’t invited to accompany her father anywhere, and he doesn’t talk to her when he’s home. He and her mother have frightening drug and alcohol addictions that increase the lack of contact and the dearth of affection their daughter receives. She can’t make friends and bring them home. So here’s this rich girl with money, unlimited time to burn, a house full of drugs and booze, internet access, and a head full of resentment. What could possibly go wrong? 

In many ways, Kira’s writing breaks up stereotypes right and left, and her prose is crystalline and heartbreakingly, brutally frank. There’s so much that is good here. At the same time, I have to say that being neglected while rich is nowhere near as bad as being neglected while poor. It sounds cold, but there it is. 

T. Kira Madden has lit up the literary world with her debut, and it will be interesting to see what comes next. 

Holy Lands, by Amanda Sthers*****

HolyLands

 

“Does keeping the memory fresh prevent history from repeating itself? Surely not. Memories are meant to be forgotten. History is meant to be repeated. That of Jews, of women, of Arabs, of people who suffer, of Little Red Riding Hood. And the grandmother always, always has sharp teeth.”

Seldom do I make a decision to read a galley based almost entirely on the book’s cover, but really. A dancing pig in the Holy Land? How can that story not be interesting? Big thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury. This book will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The whole book is a series of letters and emails sent between five characters. We have four family members: Harry and Monique are divorced, yet it’s one of those complicated divorces where there’s no clean break; David and Annabelle are their adult children.

Harry is an American expatriate who has moved to Israel, but instead of embracing his culture and homeland in a more conventional way, he has opted to become a pig farmer in Nazareth, one of the few places in this Jewish nation where the animals are not straight up illegal. And so the fifth character is the rabbi, who entreats Harry to give up the pork business. He’s upsetting people, and he should respect his roots a little more. Jews have been through enough, nu? And before we know it, there’s mention of the Holocaust.

Harry wants to keep his pigs, and he thinks it is time for Jews to lighten up about the Holocaust, maybe tell a joke about it now and then. The rabbi is floored. Joke? About the Holocaust? And so it’s on.

You would think that with such edgy subject matter the story would veer over the boundary of good taste, but Sthers—who has many bestsellers to her credit, though this is her American debut—is deft, insightful and very, very funny. The prose is angry, hilarious, and aching all in turns, not unlike our feelings for our kin.

Families are such fertile territory, and this one is among the best fictional families in literature. David, Harry and Monique’s son, is a gay playwright whose father has not come to grips with David’s sexuality. David writes him endless letters; Harry won’t respond. We see how Harry thinks and feels about David through his correspondence with the rabbi, and with the things Annabelle learns when she comes for a visit. Meanwhile, David’s new play is about to open, and it’s titled “Kosher Pig.” It’s about his father. Oh, how he wants Harry to be there for the opening! But Harry remains incommunicado.

This is a slender little book, just 176 pages, and so I expected a casual romp, but it’s more than that. It’s a quick read, not because it’s lightweight literature but because it’s impossible to put down. I recommend you should get it and read it, and then…maybe you should call your parents. Better yet, go visit them.

The Future Never Lasts, by Phillip Gardner****

ThefutureneverlastsI do enjoy a good short story collection, and make no mistake, this collection is a good one. The marketing blurb says that these tales are “the finger on the pulse of collective secrecy”, but they could just as easily be tagged as stories of alienation. Almost all of them feature protagonists in dysfunctional marriages; some could easily land in an anthology of horror stories, or of crime fiction. But when all is said and done, if you like good writing, you should buy this book when it goes up for sale January 4, 2016. Thank you to Net Galley, Biting Duck Press, and Boson Books for the DRC, which I was given in exchange for an honest review.

Usually a collection like this one features its best work first and last, but this time I don’t see it that way. The first one is decent, but there are occasional moments when the dialogue goes awry, becoming at times either awkward and pretentious, or like a mouthful of mashed potatoes. The story itself wasn’t bad, it was specifically the dialogue that didn’t sit quite right.

The second story made the entire collection worth having. “This Time Comes From That Time” is a story of a Vietnam veteran who’s gone to pieces and commenced digging his own tunneled command center beneath his grandmother’s home. The jumbled trauma of that time—the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Junior; the war; demonstrations and riots that burned in cities across the nation—combine with the protagonist’s combat experience to leave him disoriented and seriously off kilter. Toss in some strangely comforting TV shows of the 1960’s, and the stew that Gardner makes of it is fascinating indeed. The prose is lean, the words well chosen. The man knows how to use figurative language like a champion; in particular, the use of repetition to drive the plot forward, to create a sense of urgency that is both visceral and memorable, is hard not to notice. At times it creates a take-me-to-church cadence that leaves the reader helplessly enthralled.

The titled selection was my second favorite, a story in which stone cold murder and every day irritations are juxtaposed in such a way as to leave a trail of shivers down even the most hardened reader’s spine. Yet there is also a place—I don’t want to give anything away, so I will refrain from being specific—in which a particularly obnoxious character’s comeuppance made me laugh out loud. This was made all the more amusing by the rapid way the author led us from the chamber of horrors to this brief, comedic moment, entirely unanticipated. And from there, things gradually chilled—even froze—not unlike the corpse in the story.

Gardner’s use of foreshadowing is sometimes predictable or mechanical, but at other times, it is used in the best way possible, building tension and suspense to the point where the reader has no option when the phone rings or a family member beckons, but to ignore them and keep on reading. “A Crime of Opportunity” is particularly strong in this respect, and was another favorite of mine.

Every single story in this anthology is hip-deep in booze. If you’re on the wagon right now and struggling, get yourself a different book.