Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder****

“All art is appropriation.”

Sue Ellen Wright is a professor of Greek classics; she’s headed for Greece to deliver lectures and reminisce about the experiences of her youth. At the last minute, her philandering husband Dean and the couple’s lovesick son Will decide to tag along. Grant Ginder has made a career of writing hilarious prose about disastrous families, and Honestly, We Meant Well made me laugh out loud more than once.  Thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The book opens as Sue Ellen is conferring with a freshman who’s come to her office to challenge his midterm exam score:

“’I’m pretty sure I got this one right.’

“Connor points to a picture on his midterm…it’s an artifact that he was meant to identify.

“’That’s not a bong, Connor. That’s a Corinthian urn from the fifth century B.C.E…’

“But can’t you see how it could have been a bong?’

“’No,’ Sue Ellen says, ‘Actually, I can’t.’”

Teachers, are you experiencing flashbacks here? And those of you that aren’t teachers can appreciate that Sue Ellen needs a break, one that takes her as far away as possible. Her bags are packed.

Dean is a professor as well, and he’s a celebrated one. As the writer of a bestselling novel, The Light of Our Shadows, he is permitted to cherry-pick which students may enroll in his seminars. He knows he ought not to have sex with any of them, but they’re so insistent; and why shouldn’t they be? He’s a genius. At the moment, though, he’s a genius with writer’s block, and he thinks a Grecian holiday might just be what he needs; it will strengthen his marriage and get his creative juices flowing as well.

Will is a student, but who can chart a course, academic or otherwise, when his heart has been shattered? His boyfriend broke up with him and has instantly turned up on Instagram with kissy-face photos of himself with his new squeeze. It’s humiliating. It’s horrifying. Worse: everyone is liking those photos. Meanwhile, he has committed an unforgivable academic sin, one he’s desperate to keep his parents from learning.

Ginny Polonsky works at the university, and she knows where the bodies are buried. Readers know what Ginny knows—well, most of it anyway—and as the family unknits itself and copes with one unforeseen event after another, we are waiting for Ginny’s other shoe to drop on them. It’s immensely satisfying when it does.

There’s not a lot of character development here, but not much is needed. I believe each of these characters, which are written with admirable consistency. The prose is tight and the resolution surprises me. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The Wrights are Caucasian and middle class, and this is the demographic most likely to enjoy this book. It’s just the thing to toss into your suitcase or carry on when you’re headed on a trip of your own.

Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera*****

Deb Spera is a force; small wonder that Call Your Daughter Home is the book that bloggers have been talking about. This barn burner of a debut goes on sale today.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Harlequin for the review copy.  It curled its fingers around me on page one, and by page ten I knew it wouldn’t let me go till it was done with me. It ended as powerfully as it began.

The year is 1924. Gertrude Pardee lives with her four little girls in a shack in the swamp in Third World conditions; they are nearly feral. A storm is coming, but Gert has a job to do. Her brutal ass hat of a husband lies dead in the swamp, dispatched by the bullet she blasted into his brainpan. As the storm bears down, she peels off her only dress and strides naked into the muck to deal with his corpse:

“Alligators feed once a week, and sometimes, if the prey is big enough, they don’t need to eat for almost a year. But I don’t know how long it takes a gator to eat big prey. Daddy never said nothing ‘bout that and I never asked.”

Our other two main characters are Retta, the first free woman in her family, and Annie, Retta’s employer. Retta cares for Mary, Gert’s youngest, when Gert is too sick and injured from the broken face she sustained the last time Alvin beat her; Retta’s husband Odell and her neighbors all tell her that it’s trouble to bring a white child into Shake Rag. “Don’t get messed up with that white family. No good can come of it,” and she knows it’s true. What if the girl dies? But Gert coaxed her into it, telling her it would be the Christian thing to do, and Retta is moved by this sick, helpless five year old. She assures everyone it’s just for three days.

Miss Annie is a Caucasian small businesswoman and wife of a farmer, yet she has trouble of her own; there’s some dark family baggage she’s been avoiding for a good, long while. As the storm bears down, evidence comes to light and she is forced to see it. Not one of us would want to be Miss Annie; believe it.

Spera weaves a captivating tale, and we see the world from the disparate points of view of all three women, each of them told alternately in a first person narrative, and we’re also told how they see each other. The setting is dead accurate, brooding and thick with dread, and it scaffolds the development of each character more capably than anything I have read recently.

It is Retta that tells us that as we give birth, we must call out to our child so that “whichever soul is at the gate will come through.” She called out to her girl as she birthed her, but now she is gone. In fact, each of these three women has lost a daughter, and this provides the central theme of the story.

Feminists and those that love Southern fiction have to get this book and read it. There’s nothing like it. Do it.

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

Your Life is Mine, by Nathan Ridley***-****

Last spring, author Nathan Ripley set the world on fire with his sinister debut novel, Find You in the Dark, and so I could hardly wait to read his new release. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the review copy.  Although this psychological thriller is a solid effort, there is an unevenness of quality that holds it back.

The opening is strong, both urgent and original:

Before a shooter is a shooter, he’s just a man in a room. It’s what follows that brings the background to the scene, to the way we remember it. The domestic dispute reports, the spotty employment record, the legal and illegal firearms history, the I-always-knew neighbors. Before all of that, he comes into the room with his gun, hidden or not, and he is a just a man. Chuck Varner was holding his daughter’s hand when he walked into the mall. My hand. He took me up that escalator and told me that he loved me. He told me to walk away from the mall and go back to my mom once he was done…I was seven years old.

Blanche Potter is a journalist, and she tells us that she is fine now. She has shed her horrifying past and her psycho parents like a ratty old coat, and her way of processing the experience that marked her childhood is by creating a documentary about it. The only person in her life now that knows who is she is, is her childhood friend Jaya. Jaya’s mother took Blanche in, introduced her to normal life. Jaya means everything to Blanche.

Unfortunately, another journalist has uncovered her past and is making demands. Emil Chadwick is the son of the biographer that spilled her family’s private details to the world back when Blanche was still a child; he threatens to out Blanche if she doesn’t cooperate with the work he is doing now.

The story is told in the first person primarily by Blanche, but it’s punctuated by Emil’s narrative and that of his mother Jill. We learn that Varner left followers that are still intent on fulfilling the mandate of chaos that Varner named “Your Life is Mine,” and at least one more mass shooting is in the offing. As Blanche untangles the truth, she reveals the secrets that she has withheld from her colleagues as well as her loved ones for all these years.

Blanche’s character is expertly handled, and of course she isn’t fine at all; she’s just good at compartmentalization. Ripley is deft as he introduces elements that tug at one fragile string and then another that are holding Blanche together emotionally. No one can read this story without believing Blanche and cheering for her, the plucky, bright young woman determined to proceed with her life despite a desperate, harrowing childhood.

But a thriller like this has to have a powerful resolution, and this one doesn’t. Within the last fifteen percent of the book, Blanche makes errors that don’t characterize her as we know her, and that cannot be accounted for by her development. The ending is more fizzle than boom, and to add insult to injury, Ripley moves to a third person narrative at the ninety percent mark; it’s awkward and jarring.

I like this author’s work and will continue to read it. As for you, I recommend you get it free or cheap, unless your pockets are deep ones.

The Lazarus Files, by Matthew McGough*

It’s almost as if two crimes are committed inside these pages: the first is the premeditated murder of Sherri Rasmussen, and the second is this atrocious book.  How many writers can take a compelling story—that of a cop killing her romantic rival, and her arrest and conviction—and make it this dull? So I still thank Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy, but nothing and nobody can make me read anything written by this author again. It appears that very few reviewers even forced themselves to finish it; those of us that soldiered on till the end either deserve commendations for our determination, or a mental health referral for not cutting our losses.

The book’s beginning comes the closest to competent writing as any part of this thing. We get background information about Sherri and John’s courtship and marriage, as well as John’s relationship with the murdering woman he scorned, Stephanie Lazarus. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying this part is well written. Even here, there are serious issues with organization and focus, yet I continue, believing that when we get to the meat of the story where the truth is revealed and the killer arrested, tried and convicted, it will be worth the wait. In that, I am mistaken.

The author wanders anywhere and everywhere, apparently unwilling or unable to exclude one single fact about anyone, even those tangentially involved. Why do we need pages and more pages devoted to the life and times of people the victim barely knew? To add insult to injury, many of the facts he’s uncovered are inserted into multiple places in the narrative in a way that emphasis doesn’t justify.  It appears as if he is attempting to reveal a cop cover-up, but his inner attorney forces him to equivocate, hinting throughout without ever reaching the punchline. He infers that maybe Sherri’s husband John knows more than he’s saying, but again we see innuendo everywhere without an accusation being made outright. The writing is riddled with clichés. In many places he tells us how one character or another feels, or what they are thinking, and yet there are no citations anywhere for anything; this is a cardinal sin in writing nonfiction. I go to check the notes at the end of the book and there are none. The copious gushing over Sherri’s excellent character and intelligence, while it sounds warranted, is salted so liberally over 597 interminable pages makes me wonder if there is a connection between the author and the victim’s family, but again, if it’s true, he doesn’t say so. All told, it’s a very unprofessional piece of…writing.

By the time I consider abandoning this thing, I have put in the time required to read over a hundred pages, and so I see it through. I skip the section about the murder of someone else; had it shown up before I was completely disgusted, I’d read it in case it provides strong evidence to back up what the author is inferring but not saying, but as it is, I just want to get to the meat of the matter and be done with this thing.

Imagine my surprise when the Rasmussen murder case is not reopened, and Lazarus is not investigated, arrested, tried and convicted until…the epilogue.

There is not one redeeming feature of this book. It’s a train wreck from the start to the blessed ending. If I feel this way after reading it free, how might you feel if you paid money for it?

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

Waisted, by Randy Susan Meyers*****

Randy Susan Meyers wrote The Murderer’s Daughters and The Widow of Wall Street. Her new novel, Waisted is a fiercely feminist story that skewers the weight loss industry and a society that “treats fat people like out-of-control horrors” and the war against women with its “intersectionality of misogyny, fat shaming, [and] faux health concerns.”  Thanks go to Atria and Net Galley for the review copy. You should read this book.

Alice married Clancy when she was “break-up skinny,” not knowing that he isn’t attracted to any woman that isn’t thin. Daphne is tormented by her 108 pound mother, whose toxic monitoring and obsession with Daphne’s eating have nearly driven her daughter over the edge.  Alice and Daphne meet at Privation,  a live-in weight loss program in rural Vermont. They and five other women sign on because they are promised rapid weight loss free of charge, with the caveat that they must agree to be filmed 24 hours a day for a documentary. The program is not only extreme; it is cruel and dangerous.

“Welcome to hell, ladies, where we recognize that life is unfair, and you pay the price for every action you take…You’ve eaten your way through pain, through loss, through happiness, and just for the plain pleasure of crunching calories between your teeth. Not one of you knows how to live with privation. So you landed here. The last stop.”

The women don’t know that there are no doctors here, or that they are part of a nasty experiment to see what women will tolerate in order to become thinner, even when it is obvious that such a program cannot be sustained. Each time one or another of them considers decamping, there’s a weigh-in that shows them to be even lighter than they were earlier in the week, and with dreams of a new, sleek, lovable body ever nearer realization, they persevere.

The readers that will relate to this story best are also the ones that will have a hard time getting through the first half of it. Meyers drives home so many uncomfortable truths that overweight women like me have trained ourselves not to think about most of the time because they are painful. Do it anyway. It’s high time someone wrote this book.

Apart from its very real underpinnings, the story is far-fetched and features an unlikely outcome, but that doesn’t matter. A more nuanced or realistic version would fail to deliver the message in as brilliant a fashion.

This is urgent, angry, and at times darkly funny prose. It will be available Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Highly recommended.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson***-****

3.5 rounded up.

Cussy Mary Carter delivers books to the rural poor folk of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky during the Great Depression. I read this quixotic tale free and early, thanks to Sourcebooks and Net Galley; it’s available for purchase now.

Cussy is the daughter of a miner; her mother is dead, and her father is dying slowly of Black Lung, known to them locally as “the miner’s sickness.” She has no siblings. The government pays her to follow every possible winding path to reach out-of-the-way homes, loaning books, magazines, and the scrapbooks assembled of odds and ends by the librarians themselves. It provides a bright spot in an otherwise grim little town.

I like Cussy Mary, but I have to admit that I am more attached to Junia, her mule—and if you read this book, you’ll see why. Everything Cussy does is fraught with peril, and though I seldom do this, I cheat and look ahead because although I can tolerate any fate for the human characters here, I need to know whether anything will happen to Junia. Junia serves as Cussy’s transportation, watchdog (watch mule?) and best friend. Ordinarily I am no more attached to hoofed animals than any other city dweller, but this plucky critter has me at hello.

One of the best single moments in historical fiction occurs when Cussy Mary is confronted by a rattlesnake on a path. A shot rings out, and a neighbor woman steps out of the trees holding a gun and yells, “Back. That’s my supper.”

The story’s greatest strengths all have to do with setting and historical detail. Cussy Mary and her father are among a relatively rare racial group that no longer exists, people possessed of blueberry-blue skin. They were often shunned by those they lived among, some of whom regarded them as “colored” (as did local law), and others of whom feared they carried a curse. I had never known about the “blues” before reading this novel, and this is historical fiction at its best, that which educates us and makes us like it.

I would have liked to see more subtlety and ambiguity in the development of Cussy Mary and the lesser characters. Everyone here is either a good person or a bad one. Richardson’s good people never have bad moments or vice versa. I understand when Cussy Mary turns down offers of food even though she is hungry; part of it is the pride that is an inherent part of the culture, and she also fears that those making the offer may be giving up their only food of the day. I understand this the first time she tells us, and the second, and the third…but by the time I see it again (and again, and..) I am rolling my eyes and wishing fervently that once, just once she will say thank you and scarf down the biscuit, or the apple, or the whatever. On the rare occasion she accepts food, she takes it to someone else, and then she goes home and eats thistles. It makes it difficult to believe her character, because nobody is that saintly every minute of every day.

Nonetheless, I recommend this book to you, because there’s nothing else like it. If there were a body of fictional literature widely available regarding this time, place, and its people, I might say differently, but as far I can see, this is it, and the setting is strong enough to just about stand on its own. Those that enjoy the genre will want this book.

Clover Blue, by Eldonna Edwards*****

Edwards is the author of This I Know, and here, once again, she creates a powerful story based on a youthful yearning for identity. My thanks go to the author and her publicist for the printed galley, and to Kensington and Net Galley for the digital copy.  It will be available May 28, 2019.

Our setting is a small commune in California in the early 1970s. Our protagonist, Clover Blue, sleeps in a tree house with some of the other commune members. There’s no running water or electricity, but we don’t miss what we don’t have, and California has a mild climate. Though decisions are made collectively, with younger and older residents each having a vote, Goji is the spiritual leader of the group. In place of formal education, young commune members study with him. Blue can read as well as other children his age, and he knows more about nature than most would because it’s part of his everyday experience. He doesn’t remember living anywhere else; his life is happy, and his bonds with his communal family are strong ones.

But everyone wants to know their origins, and Blue is no different. As puberty approaches, he begins to ask questions. He gains the sense that older members know things they won’t tell him, and it heightens his desire to find out. Goji promises him that he will be told when he turns twelve, but his twelfth birthday comes and goes, and still Goji evades his queries.

And so the story darkens just a bit as Blue undertakes research on his own. He has a hunch as to who his biological parents might be, and despite the communal culture that regards every older person as the mother or father of every younger person, he wants the particulars and is determined to get them. The things he learns are unsettling and produce further questions.

A large part of the problem the communal elders face is that the State of California does not recognize the commune, and the living conditions and educational process used there are not legally viable. Because of these things, Goji discourages interaction with the outside world, and sometimes essential services—such as medical care—are given short shrift because of the risks they pose. Instead, naturopathic remedies are used, often to good result.

Edwards builds resonant characters, and I believe Blue, the sometimes-mysterious Goji, and Harmony, the member of the commune that is closest to Blue. There is enough ambiguity within each of them to prevent them from becoming caricatures; everyone holds various qualities within them, none being wholly benign or malevolent. The way that we judge these characters isn’t built upon their ability to do everything well, but in how they deal with their mistakes when they make them. In addition, some writers of historical fiction—which technically this isn’t, but it has that vibe—fall into the trap of establishing time and place through the cheap shortcut of pop cultural references and well known historical events. Edwards doesn’t do that, but she does use the speech of the time period so effectively that at times, I feel transported back to my own adolescence. There are aspects of the period I’d forgotten entirely that surprise and delight me; if there are errors, I don’t see them.

Ultimately, the story takes a turn that harks back (somewhat) to George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, in that while everyone at the commune is said to be equal, some are “more equal than others.” Cracks in the foundation of their once-idyllic lives form, and we see who has strength of character, and who is lacking.

If I could change anything, I would make the ending less rushed, and I’d also urge the author to be less afraid of letting the ugly parts play themselves out as they most likely would in real life. In this novel and her last, it seems like the tragic aspects that occur near or at the climax are a hot stove, and we have to move away from them quickly. I’d like to see Edwards let the stove burn a little more.

 I do recommend this book to you. In fact, it may be a five star read, but it’s almost impossible to evaluate it without comparing it to what the author wrote earlier, and this made the five star standard difficult to achieve here. Those that love historical fiction should get it and read it.

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, by Adrian McKinty*****

I listened to the audio version of this quirky, darkly funny mystery, set in Belfast. I only use audio books while I use my exercise bike. I hate exercise like grim death, and so my audio book is my incentive. My rule for myself is that it’s okay to stop cycling early, but if I do, I have to stop the book also. I never quit early while I was listening to this book.

The reader has a lovely Irish accent, and while I don’t know accents well enough to know whether it’s a Belfast accent, it certainly worked for me.

McKinty develops Sean Duffy in a way that is believable and sympathetic, and there are a couple of surprise twists that made me laugh out loud. I wonder whether McKinty made himself laugh while he was writing. It must have been immensely satisfying.

My thanks go to the Goodreads friends that persuaded me to try this book. I seldom dive into an unknown series this far in, but I had no trouble keeping up with it, and will certainly watch for future installments. I read enough mysteries that most of them have a sameness to them. This one doesn’t.

Highly recommended.