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!

Treasure Coast, by Tom Kakonis*****

TreasureCoastHugely imaginative, terribly funny, and utterly tasteless, Kakonis delivers the chortles with Treasure Coast, a comic caper that juggles numerous entertaining characters with surprising deftness. Thank you twice, first to Brash Books and second to Net Galley, for providing me with the DRC to review. This title will be available September 14, 2015 to the book-buying public.

Our tale begins with Uncle Jim Merriman, a professional gambler who can’t even manage to break even these days, and “his numbnuts nephew”, Leon Cody, “…this kid with the crop of wild hair and Magoo glasses and dippy grin”, who is in debt to loan sharks. Leon’s mother has died and left not only her body, but also her foolish son, to Uncle Jim’s care and keeping. And of course we have the shark’s collection agents, Morris “Junior” Biggs and “your badass Hector Pasadena”.

On the other hand, we have Bryce Bott, hustler of gravestones that once purchased, will never arrive and “séances” delivered with the help of his hillbilly sidekick, Waneta Jean, who feigns nearness to death as a part of the séance scam.

Of course, ultimately, the characters wind up in a messy pile trying out-scam each other. “Circles inside of circles, games within games.”

But oh, that’s not enough! We also have trophy bride Billie Swett, who within my mental movie soon became Bernadette Peters, and her obnoxious, porcine, but almost infinitely wealthy spouse, Big Lonnie Swett. Eventually we add Cheetah, to whom Reverend Bott referred as “that other intrusive fellow”. Their roles in all of this, you will have to find out on your own.

“And how do you count the ways of weird?”

This was a story worthy of patience. There were so many nasty racist comments made about almost everyone you can think of; however, they are used within the context of Junior’s vapor-brained, “Aryan” sensibilities. There are several horribly ugly sexist remarks using the worst possible terms you can imagine, but again, it is only the bad guys that use them…and a reckoning comes down in a manner I found deeply satisfying.

To put it another way: we were halfway through before I was even sure I liked this novel, but once I was on board, I was in it for keeps, flagging one clever passage after another, most of which I can’t share here. I can share this YouTube promotional clip, though:

So although I was ultimately dumbstruck by the creativity with which Kakonis wove all of the complicated strands of this story together without dropping a single one, I also caution the reader. There are some really crass, fairly specific references to corpses in this book. If you have just lost someone and the wound is still raw, this is probably not the title with which you should escape. There are repeated references to the joys of rape. If you or someone near to you has been down that brutal path, maybe this is not your story, either. And one more caveat before I can go back to singing praises: if your mother tongue is not English, you may not want to embrace this challenging novel, which despite its Keystone Cops-like atmosphere requires exceedingly strong vocabulary skills. For those that enjoy word play, it’s a real treat, but any time you have to look up more than 3 words per page, the effort will outweigh the enjoyment you receive.

With the above caveats in mind, this new release comes highly recommended by this reviewer. The only real question is how you will wait until Monday to get your copy!

Wakefield, by Andre Codrescu ***

wakefieldWakefield is absurdist, dark humor written by award-winning poet and playwright Andre Codrescu. Thank you to Net Galley and to Open Road Integrated Media for permitting me to access a DRC. The title, originally published in 2004, will be available for purchase digitally September 8.

Wakefield is an anti-motivational speaker. He’s in great demand. People grow weary of the cheerful chipmunk types that show up with a big grin and a you-can-do-it attitude, and so corporations are seeking balance by also providing a guy that tells them it’s all a waste of time. As a natural cynic, Wakefield assumes, when the devil comes to call and tells him his time is up, that he ought to be able to strike a Faustian bargain. But oh what a surprise—the devil doesn’t want his soul. “You’re assuming, dear sir, that you have one…”

The devil wants one thing only: proof that Wakefield has found a “true life”. This broad brush stroke gives the author all sorts of leeway. At times, Wakefield’s search is savagely funny. There are some literary references that I thought were terrific; quirky philosophy; and, true to his poetic nature, some kick-ass figurative language.

The main problem is that the plot doesn’t really have a structure to hold onto. “True life” is too general, and so Wakefield wanders, both geographically, in his relationships, and in his own thoughts. The author is obviously a very intelligent man, but he’s relied too much on innate cleverness and not enough on the structural requirements of a novel. Even the most unconventional literature needs to be able to hold its audience, or it won’t be successful.

I confess I took issue with the author’s characterization of Marxism as a kind of religion; then as well, one might think that someone that spends his life considering matters philosophical would recognize that Marxism and Stalinism are not necessarily identical.

But this isn’t the reason for my rating. The three stars reflect a story that has moments of great strength, even ones that made me laugh out loud, but its inconsistency and lack of a problem that builds, peaks, and is resolved in one way or another, makes it hard to get a handle on. The result was that I found my attention wandering at times, which doesn’t happen much , and then I’d have to tab back a few pages and do some rereading. Even with notes in my e-reader, I can’t find any functional pattern. There’s an ending of sorts, but it seems to be sort of tacked on because the book has reached its required length, rather than because the plot has led us there.

Those that are familiar with Codrescu’s other work and are fans may feel differently, and so I recommend this novel to that niche audience.

The Miser’s Dream, by John Gaspard*****

themisersdreamThe Miser’s Dream is the third in a series featuring magician Eli Marks. Once I got into it, I did a forehead slap because I could also have read the first two in the series free and reviewed them, had I been paying attention. Thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for hooking me up with this enormously entertaining novel. It’s billed as a cozy mystery, but were the humor placed around the killer rather than the sleuth, it could have been a comic caper. The title will be for sale October 27.

Marks runs a magic shop and works as a magician locally. He lives over the shop, and the quirky placement of its windows permits him to see into the projection booth of the adjoining theater. Imagine his surprise one fine day when he looks out his window to see a corpse—the projectionist—on the floor of the projection room. It is a locked room mystery, since the man could not have killed himself; the weapon is there in the room; and the door is locked from outside, showing no sign of forced entry.

Just like magic.

Gaspard occupies common country with Grand Master James Lee Burke in his cleverness at choosing engaging, oddball names for his characters. In addition to Detective Sutton-Hutton, we also have the sinister Mr. Lime and his assistant Harpo. The latter two seem to have some inside information. Whereas the character descriptions for these two were a trifle overdrawn, putting me in mind of a Tim Burton animation, the dialogue was sometimes quite splendid, and their role in the story is interesting and well played.

For the first half of the book, I didn’t care at all who the killer was. I was having such a good time with the double features, which I highlighted in my DRC and added to at length, but you’ll have to get the book because I’m not going to post a spoiler. There were other odd bits of hilarious detail in unexpected places, perhaps the best, in my view, being the scene with the flower pot. I had begun to wonder whether there was so much extraneous hilarity here that the murder was becoming obscured, but then it all came into focus just when it needed to, and I didn’t have to retrace the thread to figure things out. The plot is mostly linear and Gaspard has used just the right number of characters, not enough to confuse or clutter.

If you need a good laugh, get this book when it comes out. If you like a good cozy mystery, I likewise recommend it. And for those that have precocious pre-teens and adolescents that sometimes read adult-reading-level material, this one has no explicit sex and relatively clean language, and so it is safe to pass on to your budding bibliophile.

To sum up: this is hands-down the funniest thing I have read in a long time, expertly paced and hilariously detailed. Do it.

Off and Running, by Philip Reed****

offandrunningOff and Running is a comic caper set around Y2K. Jack is a writer looking for his lucky break; Walt is an old man, a beloved American icon who hasn’t published a memoir yet. Garrett is Walt’s ill-begotten, bad-tempered adult son, the worst celebrity brat imaginable. Reed tosses them all into his literary blender and what comes out is both hilarious and at times, genuinely suspenseful as well. Thank you once more to Brash Books and Net Galley for permitting me a sneak peek; this amusing tale will be for sale in August.

Jack has had one project after another not work out. His wife, Sarah, has had it with him, and wants him to go out and get a real job. Every day she schleps out to her full time job, coming home tired and ill tempered, and she doesn’t want to hear anymore about how Jack’s latest book proposal will make money for sure. She has a change of heart when Jack’s agent sends him out to see the venerated, universally loved comedian, Walt Stuckey. Walt is choosey about who he sees and what he talks about, but over time, Jack builds a genuine rapport with him. They become friends, and Jack is accepted as Walt’s biographer. Just as Walt invites Jack and Sarah to come stay the weekend with him and his girlfriend, Mary, the unthinkable happens: Walt has a stroke. The son-from-hell Walt loves but has been unable to develop a positive relationship with takes charge. Walt is held virtually a prisoner, and it soon becomes clear that Garrett does not really want Walt to recover. He wants Walt’s financial empire, and he will be the executor of Walt’s estate when he goes.

So the first thing Garrett does is to isolate Walt. Since his own memoir is the one thing Walt is truly excited about and could give him reason to live, Garrett uses his power-of-attorney privilege to fire Jack and cancel the memoir. Mary isn’t having any of it, and once he thinks about it, neither is Jack. Jack is determined to finish this book. It’s what Walt wants, too. And most of all, Jack wants to know why the reference to Bebe Rebozo in Walt’s comedy routine caused his over the top hit comedy show, which was “funnier ‘n hell”, to be cancelled without a moment’s warning. He’ll find out, or die trying.

So Jack and Mary launch a rescue mission to free Walt from his rotten son-turned-captor, and the result is alternately suspenseful and hilarious.

There are several events in the book that strain credulity, but it’s okay, because this is not literary fiction; this is a caper. I couldn’t wait to see how it ended, and I was sorry when it did. A considerable portion of the story is set in Death Valley, and the heat, the inescapable sun, the gritty sand were all so palpable that I nearly resolved never to leave my cool damp domicile again.

We all need something ridiculous in our lives now and then. Humor relaxes us and puts our own worries into perspective. Do yourself a favor and order this book when it comes out digitally August 4. Then, you’ll be off and running!