Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

The Locals, by Jonathan Dee*****

theLocalsDee’s new novel has created a lot of buzz. Despite impressive list of publications and accomplishments, he had slid under my radar until now; thanks to Net Galley and Random House, I read this free and early in exchange for this honest review. It is available to the public Tuesday, August 8, and those that love strong, purposeful fiction should get it and read it.

The Locals is entertaining, and it also conveys a sharply driven message, one that is timely, as we see the middle classes wasting away in Western nations that were once strong and relatively democratic, the most affluent becoming richer, and tens of thousands of homeless living in cardboard shacks and tents beneath the freeways of otherwise-successful American cities.

The story starts with 9/11. Mark Firth is in Manhattan on business and is taken advantage of by a con artist. By contrast, Howland, the small (and fictional) town where he lives and in which our story is set, seems safer, and more benign. He breathes easier when he is home.

He isn’t the only one that feels that way.

Philip Hadi decides to leave the big city, and he hires Mark to fortify his summer home into a secure summer residence. From there things unfold, and Hadi takes on increasing amounts of responsibility and power in Howland.

The story is largely character driven, and I dare you to find a novel in which a large number of townspeople are better developed than these. At the outset, I think I know which are the better citizens of Howland and which are its pond scum, but as the story progresses—told in third person omniscient, with one noteworthy exception—the most lovable characters darken, while those that seem irredeemable at the outset show some vulnerability and decency. Even without the novel’s purpose, which is brainy and clever as hell, it would be a good read. I particularly credit male authors that can develop female characters with this kind of depth. You don’t see it often.

Ultimately, however, we are forced to examine, through the eyes of the people of Howland, the role of the super-rich. How much authority are we willing to cede in exchange for easy material benefit? Teachers that have questioned the authority given philanthropists that have a lot of dollars to throw around, but no background whatsoever in education, will particularly appreciate this story. Beyond all of this, it’s absorbing, entertaining, and in places it’s funny as hell.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction.

Holding, by Graham Norton*****

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 is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel*****

Happy release day! The holidays are over and your humor may be running dry and a little snarky by now. If so, this book is just what the doctor ordered…and it’s for sale right now.

Seattle Book Mama

smalladmissionsI received an advance reader’s copy of this darkly amusing novel from Net Galley and Atria Books. It’s funny as hell, and even more amusing to teachers, school counselors, and others that have dealt with high maintenance parents and the aura of entitlement they carry with them. I rate this title 4.5 stars and round upward.  It comes out December 27, 2016, just in time to chase away your post-holiday depression.

I sat on this book for more than three months, which is a rare thing for me.  I kept starting it, not liking it, and deciding to set it aside and look again with fresh eyes later. Finally November came, and I realized the book was not going to change; I’d given my word to the publisher I’d review it; it was time to suck it up and get the job done. And this is a little ironic all…

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Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel*****

smalladmissionsI received an advance reader’s copy of this darkly amusing novel from Net Galley and Atria Books. It’s funny as hell, and even more amusing to teachers, school counselors, and others that have dealt with high maintenance parents and the aura of entitlement they carry with them. I rate this title 4.5 stars and round upward.  It comes out December 27, 2016, just in time to chase away your post-holiday depression.

I sat on this book for more than three months, which is a rare thing for me.  I kept starting it, not liking it, and deciding to set it aside and look again with fresh eyes later. Finally November came, and I realized the book was not going to change; I’d given my word to the publisher I’d review it; it was time to suck it up and get the job done. And this is a little ironic all by itself, since that’s the position in which our protagonist found herself, but more on that in a minute.

The issue with the first part of the book is that it reads like a very lengthy introduction, steeped in character introduction and overlong inner narrative. After I had read—and loved—the rest of the book, I went back and reread that 15%. Was it just me? What was wrong with it? And once I had read the book and become familiar with all of the characters, it seemed perfectly fine. In fact, it seemed a lot like the voice-over at the beginning of a movie. Then I read the author’s biography, and discovered that this novel was first written as a play.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

Our protagonist is Kate, and she’s come undone. Her French boyfriend has dumped her:

“When he’d encouraged Kate to follow her heart, he hadn’t meant she should follow it to Paris.”

Meanwhile, upon departure she’s left her position at NYU.  She was studying anthropology, and now she isn’t, and her family doesn’t know what to do about it. Enter Angela, her sister, who moves heaven and Earth in order to get Kate’s life going again; once Kate’s out of the woods, Angela can’t stop maneuvering and controlling. She’s good at being a white knight, and she can’t give it up. We have Vicki and Chloe, her friends from college, and the old boyfriend from France lurking offstage.

The fun commences when Kate gets a job in the admissions department of a small, private secondary school. She’s misrepresented her skill set to get it, but she’s determined to give it a try:

“Kate viewed Hudson Day as an unknown culture that required her exploration.”

It’s time to start interviewing and selecting students, managing interviews with demanding, sometimes aggressive parents. I’ve taught honors students in a public secondary school, and I thought my experience took fortitude; Kate’s experience was similar to my own, but on steroids.

There are hilariously dysfunctional parents, kids whose folks don’t have a clue what they can do and what they can’t, and in the midst of it all, relationships among Kate’s nearest and dearest become unstuck and reconfigured in ways that mirror those Kate works with, and even Kate herself. I can’t tell you anymore, because it would ruin it for you, but this snarky romp is not to be missed. It’s cunning, wickedly bold humor at its finest.

Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch****

goodbehaviorcrouchLast spring I advance- read and reviewed the riveting sci fi thriller Dark Matter, which was my introduction to author Blake Crouch, who has already met with success as a screenwriter. When I saw that something else he had written was up for grabs at Net Galley, I landed on it eagerly. Thanks go to them as well as Thomas and Mercer at Amazon for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Good Behavior consists of a trilogy of Letty Dobesh stories, along with a brief narrative that follows each one explaining how it was tweaked (pardon the pun) as it was adapted to television. Our protagonist herself is, in fact, a recovering meth addict, and there is only one activity that comes close to the rush she experiences when she uses it, and that’s crime. Not just the seamy survival type of theft; not just cleaning valuables out hotel rooms while the guests are off in tourist-land. A big theft with huge risk and a potentially tremendous payday provides the adrenaline rush Letty needs to stay clean, not forever, but for one more day.

Letty is a kick-ass character, a woman who’s been knocked down a million times and gotten back up a million and one. I love the way Crouch works her motivation. Actor-director Jodie Foster once commented that when men in the film industry want to reach the core of a character’s motivation, they reach every damn time for rape, and I’ve noticed that male authors do this with female protagonists a lot also. It’s a fascination they can’t seem to let go of. I am cheered to see that Crouch does something much different, with Letty’s main motivation being the need either to stay clean, or on bad days, the need to score. Behind the need to stay clean is the possibility of seeing her six year old son, Jacob, again. He is living in Oregon with his paternal grandparents; he’s in a stable, loving environment, and though Letty yearns to see him, she won’t let herself go there until she is convinced she can stay clean. But there are triggers out there in the everyday world that some of us could never have imagined:

“She could almost taste the smoke. Gasoline and plastic and household cleaners and Sharpies and sometimes apples. Oh yes, and nail polish.”

Around every corner, temptation calls to her. She can’t even get a pedicure without the fumes invoking a primal craving.

My hunch is that Letty will be with us a long time, and I am curious to see whether this child will remain six years old forever; grow up, but more slowly than real-time chronology; or be aged as if in real time. I can think of some hit mystery series that have been frozen in time to good effect. Crouch could keep Jacob small throughout the life of the series, and this might make more sense than having him grow up and be independent; on the other hand, this series is so full of surprises already that there’s no telling what will happen.

To see the first television episode, in which the protagonist’s name is different from the book:

https://www.goodbehavior.tntdrama.com/?sr=good%20behavior%20video

The first story involves a murder for hire. The second is a complicated rip-off of a billionaire who’s about to go to prison. The last and by far the best is a scheme to knock over a casino. The casino plot is proof positive that a relatively old concept (theft of a casino’s funds) can be made brand new in the right hands.

I believed Letty nearly all of the time; the only weak spot I see is when she considers dialing 911, a thing that former prisoners just never, ever do. No matter how big and ugly a situation gets, for someone who’s been in jail, and especially for those that have gone to a penitentiary, calling cops will only make it worse. Even if the caller is Caucasian, and even if she believes she can do so anonymously, cops are never desirable. They’re just not on the menu of choices anymore.

This is a super fast read, one that might make for a fantastic holiday weekend. There’s lots of dialogue, crisp and snappy. Best of all, it has just been released, and so you can get a copy now. If the turkey is dry and the marshmallows on your yams catch fire, Letty Dobesh can knock everything back into perspective for you.

Recommended to those that love dark humor and big surprises.

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

Happy release day! Today this title and another winner, Everyone Brave is Forgiven,  hit the shelves. I don’t reblog all titles upon release; only the ones I really like. Don’t let the cover scare you away, because once I had gotten into the title story, I understood why this was exactly the right cover art. Happy reading!

Seattle Book Mama

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but…

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The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but this one wins the prize. The second story that deals with Judgment Day didn’t work for me; first there were some hyperliterate science references that zinged right over my head, and then the sick factor got the better of me, and so I skipped that one and moved on to the title story. Having read the rest, I am inclined to chalk that second one up to my own quirks rather than Hale’s skill set.

When I came to “The Fat Artist”, I could only bow in awe. I was overcome with frustration because no one else in my household enjoys literary fiction, and so I couldn’t share. In a nutshell, the protagonist, a performance artist, seeks to eat himself to death while setting a worldwide fatness record. I actually gasped several times while reading this one.

Although the writing within this collection provides outstanding examples of every imaginable literary device, those that teach high school literature would be wise not to place it on classroom shelves unless you work at an alternative school. A very alternative school. A very, very, very…well, hopefully my meaning is clear. There is so much edgy material, from language, to explicit sexual description, to sexual roles and gender ambiguity, that I can see the villagers coming with their torches, their hot tar, their feather pillows. Teachers, don’t do this to yourselves. Get a personal copy; take it home and enjoy it; then pass it on to someone that can be trusted to appreciate it. Seriously.

Four more stories follow, and they’re all strong. “Leftovers” deals with a middle aged man in the midst of an extramarital affair when his problem child unexpectedly appears, ready to ransack the family vacation home for valuables to sell in order to feed his addiction. The way this tale unfolds gives me goose bumps.

The next two tales deal with sexual roles and ambiguity. I came away from “Beautiful Boy”, which made me realize, whether by the author’s intention or not, that men that choose to cross dress only as a diversion are looking at the best of both worlds, never having to confront the glass ceiling because they’ll be at that office meeting clad in their conservative suit and tie like always; it reminds me of white actors that wore black face.

The final story of a troubled brother that lands in the basement of his brother, the MIT researcher, and is provided with a job driving squid from the docks to the laboratory, is as brilliant as all the others, and equally esoteric.

Hale is wholly original, but if I were to compare his writing to any other author, it would be to that of Michael Chabon.

Bring your literary skills to the feast that Hale has laid for you; you will need them.  It’s one hell of a banquet.

Blanche On the Lam, by Barbara Neely*****

BlancheontheLamI was already a Barbara Neely fan when I received this DRC, courtesy of the Brash Priority Reviewers Circle, in exchange for an honest review. I’ve been reviewing books for Brash Books and others for the past couple of years, and had read three other Blanche White mysteries out of order, so when I saw that the first in the series—which I think was the only one I hadn’t read yet—was up for grabs, I nailed it right away. It’s available for purchase now.

The amazing thing to me is that although these novels were originally published in the ‘90s, they are extremely relevant right now. For those new to this Anthony, Macavity, and Agatha Award winning book and series, Blanche White is author Barbara Neely’s foil for a number of social issues that are best approached with humor, yet also with absolute, stark clarity. Those that have supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement should order this fantastic book right away. It’s a double win, treating those of us that favor social justice and also enjoy strong fiction. On the other hand, those that don’t understand the current of Black anger that pumps through the small towns, fields and cities of the United States may want to read this book and catch a clue.

She makes everything crystal clear.

Here’s the premise: Blanche, who does domestic work and also has custody of her late sister’s children, is in trouble with the law. She has written some checks she can’t cover, and the fact that they’ve all been paid in full by the time she stands before the court doesn’t make much difference to the judge. She is given two months in the slammer, but a much greater disturbance distracts the officer who’s supposed to lock her up, and without a moment’s hesitation, Blanche slips out a side door to freedom. She knows she has to get gone and figures on leaving the state as soon as she has the money for travel, but in the meantime she escapes by using the greatest camouflage possible…because nobody looks a domestic worker in the face.

The family that has hired her has problems of its own, and Blanche can’t leave once the shit hits the fan, because if a domestic worker suddenly disappears when a crime has been committed, the thing will automatically be blamed on them. Instead, she is pinned like a butterfly, stuck in the kitchen of a horribly dysfunctional—and criminal—family. But Blanche is a born survivor, and the cynical things she does in order to keep herself from harm’s way, and ultimately to avenge the death of a nice man that didn’t deserve his fate are both amusing and riveting.

It is here that we meet Mumsfield, an engaging character who will turn up later in the series.

Blanche’s attitude toward the sheriff and the situations that feature him made me want to stand up and cheer!

I took the opportunity to read Blanche White mysteries as they became available, and I am glad I did. Reader, you have the chance, if you haven’t begun the series yet, to read them in order. Neely’s writing is both politically on-point and also seriously funny. What more could you ask for? Once you read this one, you’ll want to continue the series.

Highly recommended!