She Regrets Nothing, by Andrea Dunlop****

“Love,” she thought, “is for the rich and foolish.”

SheregretsLaila is just twenty-three when her mother dies, and she is astonished when her cousins appear at the funeral. Cousins? What cousins? In fact, they are from her father’s side of the family, long estranged—and they are very wealthy. Cousin Liberty wants to make amends, and nobody has to tell Laila twice. She ditches her home in Michigan, leaves her spouse, a dull dentist who’s blindsided by her sudden departure, and heads for New York City, to live in the style to which she would like to become accustomed.

Lucky me, I read this darkly funny story free courtesy of Atria Books and Net Galley. It was released Tuesday, so you can get a copy of your own now.

As Laila arrives in New York, the reader cannot help but worry for her. She’s never been to New York before, and she has very little money. She’s brought a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry, the only things of any value her mom had owned, but she doesn’t want to sell them. As she meets her newly found kinfolk and settles into a guest bedroom, it’s instinctual to wish we could grab her by the wrist and yank her back out of there. Careful Sweetie, you’re playing with fire. They’re being nice to you now because you’re new. When the novelty wears off, they’ll spit you back out again. New Yorkers are tough, and nobody uses people and discards them as quickly as the very rich—right?

There are at least a dozen places where I make predictions that prove incorrect. For example, given Laila’s trump card that makes her a possible heir, I find myself waiting for the DNA test that will prove she actually isn’t related to them at all…but that doesn’t happen. I can tell things won’t work out the way she anticipates because the author drops so much wry foreshadowing. But what she does with it at the end is both completely consistent with the protagonist as we know her, and a complete surprise as well.

Part of the joy this novel sparks is its understated quality. Some writers will drop something amusing into the storyline, but then they have to go back to it, explain it, make sure the reader got it and at that point it’s cold and lifeless. None of that for Dunlop. Stay on your toes; if you’re paying attention you’ll get it, but if you are distracted, oh well. Think of it like trying to catch a cab right after the theater lets out; watch out or you’ll be left behind.

I confess that I have read neither of the novels to which this one is compared in the promotional blurb, but to me, the humor is similar in some ways to that in The Nanny Diaries.

If you need a giggle—and frankly who doesn’t—you should order this snappy, cleverly turned novel. It’s a fast read and it made me laugh out loud.

Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna*****

TwoGirlsDownThis is a quick read and a fun one. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday. It becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 9, 2018.

A frazzled mother in a small Pennsylvania town pops into a big-box store one afternoon, leaving her two elementary-aged girls in the car. They’re old enough not to wander off with some weirdo, and she’s just going to be a minute. When she comes back, they’re gone.

Our protagonists in equal measure are Cap, a former cop who’s left the force in disgrace, and Vega, an out-of-state PI brought in by the girls’ relatives. Vega seeks Cap out after the local cop shop refuses to work with her; sparks fly.

If you take the story apart and look at its elements, it is all old material and should be stale. We have the missing children; a single grieving female detective, a vigilante type with little to lose; a slightly-older, single-dad, lonely older male detective, all of which leads to romance, because heaven forbid we should ever have a competent female private eye without a sizzling chemical frisson to keep readers from feeling threatened by her competence. We have the single dad’s (also-competent) teenage daughter left alone for long periods of time, vulnerable to the forces of evil. And of course our female detective has to be diminutive, a tiny-firecracker type.  Even Vega’s love of firearms isn’t new; consider Kinsey Millhone and Stephanie Plum. And our female detective has to be a very light eater. God forbid she should chow down at dinner time; no, she pushes her food around and away.

The pieces of this thing have been done to death. And yet.

And yet, the whole of the story is so much more than the sum of its parts. A strong writer can take overdone elements and make them gleam, and that’s what Luna has done here.

The thing that makes it work is the element of surprise. When I am looking ahead, I can often see, in a broad sense, where we are going, but when I try to predict how we’ll get there, I see three possibilities, and Luna always comes up with a fourth at the most unexpected of times.  Vega’s “roofless rage” gives her a no-holds-barred, Dirty-Harry-Lite kind of approach; she’s never killed anyone, but if she’s always as off the wall as she is here, it’s a miracle. But the other miracle? The fact that I am wondering what she is like at other times demonstrates how well Luna has developed her characters. Cap is a well of timeworn chivalrous decency, but Vega wants to take the kind of people that would deliberately hurt a child and “put them in the fucking earth.”

Luna uses lots of crackling dialogue and a spare prose style that makes this book accessible to anyone that finished the eighth grade, and possibly some that didn’t. Although there’s no indication that this will become a series, one has to wonder if such a thing might happen.  My own preference would be to see Vega act independently of romantic entanglements, because she has the potential to be a feminist hero, and we need one of those right now.

One way or another, this is a read you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

 

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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