Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

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

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

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

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

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

Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim*****

The buzz around this mystery started early, and it started loud. If it hadn’t I am not sure I’d have asked to read it. When I saw the premise—the use of a hyperbaric oxygen tank to murder an autistic child—I thought wow, this author is reaching. But a quick web crawl taught me that though controversial, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is actually used to treat autism. The treatment is controversial but the basis of the story is a sound one, so I have learned something already, and now that I’ve read it, I am glad I didn’t let it pass me by. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sarah Crichton Books for the review copy. Miracle Creek will be available to the public April 16, 2019.

The HBOT therapy device is owned by Pak and Young Yoo.  A lot of hard work and financial struggle went into procuring this device; there were years when they had to live apart, with Young and their daughter Mary in Baltimore, Young working round the clock for room, board, and her daughter’s private school tuition while Pak worked two jobs in Korea, squirreling away resources. Now the unthinkable has occurred—the chamber has gone up in flames with patients inside it. Two people are dead and others are horribly injured, and there’s an intensive investigation that leads to an arrest. Elizabeth, a single mother, is charged with starting the fire in order to murder her little boy and free herself from the difficult caregiver role. On the surface, the facts are damning indeed, but what the cops don’t know, at least in the beginning, is that every single person that was there that day is lying about it.

Elizabeth, Kitt, and Teresa are mothers of autistic children, digging deep and running up their credit cards hoping for miraculous transformations. The seventh patient is Matt, whose wife has pressured him into trying this treatment to raise his sperm count. The other characters in this story are the Yoo family that own and operate the chamber, and the legal teams assembled for the trial.

Most legal thrillers and courtroom mysteries hinge heavily upon what happens in the courtroom. In contrast, although what plays out in court is not unimportant, the real meat of this story has to do with the actions, thoughts, and memories of the townspeople that are involved, primarily when court is not in session. Although our point of view is the third person omniscient, specific critical details are revealed to us in stages, and what we learn at the end differs greatly from the conclusions most of us will have drawn at the outset, when we had less information.

Why do people lie, and in particular, why would anyone lie to the authorities investigating a deadly disaster like this one? Make a list of the possibilities, and as you read, you’ll see them all, a veritable potpourri of bald-faced lies and critical omissions of facts. At the end of it, we find just one (lying) person that has integrity and pure motives, and everyone else has crossed a line, not only legally but ethically. And although there’s just one character here that I’d describe as dynamic, the others are developed to an extent as their layers of rationalization, anger, fear, resentment, and greed are revealed to us.

This is an explosive debut, and Angie Kim is a force to be reckoned with. You want to read this book, and happily, you won’t have to wait long. Highly recommended.

The Winter Sister, by Megan Collins****

Sylvie doesn’t want to go home. Sixteen years ago her sister Persephone was murdered, and her mother, a single parent, was undone by it. Sylvie’s built a new life for herself and would prefer not to revisit the old one, but her aunt calls and summons her. Sylvie’s mother is gravely ill and Aunt Jill says it is Sylvie’s turn to take care of her. Reluctantly, Sylvie packs and heads home to face her demons.

I was invited to read and review this compelling debut novel courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 5, 2019.

Persephone went on a date the night she was killed; she wasn’t permitted to date and so she had to sneak out. And right away my antennae twitch, because who doesn’t let their seventeen-year-old daughter date? The heck? She was a senior in high school, yet was reduced to climbing in and out of the bedroom window to avoid her mother’s anger. At fourteen, Sylvie was her confederate, leaving the window just a finger’s width ajar so that Persephone could return home undetected. But Sylvie had become increasingly ambivalent; Persephone came home with bruises with increasing frequency, asking her little sis to paint temporary tattoos to cover them up for her. Should Persephone be seeing Ben, the boy responsible for the bruises?  One night she decides not to leave the window open. That way it will be out in the open. Persephone will have to come in through the front door. She’ll be busted, but then the problem of the abusive boyfriend will be where it belongs, right on their mother’s plate.  Let the adult do the adult job, she figured. But that night, unable to sneak back in, Persephone instead returned to her boyfriend’s car, hopped in, and never came home.

Her body wasn’t found for three days.

The guilt of the thing followed Sylvie everywhere she went. She told no one. Their mother took to drink and locked herself away, refusing to respond to her daughter’s pleas on the other side of the door. Aunt Jill took Sylvie home with her when it became obvious that her mother had ceased to mother.

But now, Sylvie has to go back. And she carries so much anger with her; how is it even possible that Ben, the boyfriend, was never arrested or charged? How is it possible that he is working—of all places—in the clinic where her mother goes to receive her chemo?

Collins’s narrative is deeply absorbing, with a component of the psychological thriller in that at times, I wonder whether she is reliable. Things are certainly not what they seem. The resolution is surprising, yet fair to the reader. It’s a clever plot with layered characters, and I look forward to seeing what Collins writes in the future.

Recommended to those that love the genre.

Best Debut Fiction 2018

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                                                                                           Honorable Mention:

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

The Lido, by Libby Page***-****

thelido3.5 stars rounded up. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review this charming debut. This book is for sale now.

Kate is a journalist, painfully shy, anxious, and lonely. Rosemary is an elderly widow. When the Lido—which I learned is an open air swimming pool—in Brixton is slated to close, Rosemary is up in arms. She isn’t usually an activist, but she has swum in this pool her entire life, and many of the most memorable events she has experienced took place there. She loves it still, and she cannot abide the fact that the lido is being sold to private developers who want to put up “swish new high rises.” Rumor has it that it won’t even remain a swimming pool; they may pave it over and put in tennis courts. Rich folks love tennis.

Kate smells a story, and she wants to interview Rosemary. Rosemary makes a counteroffer: she’ll do the interview only after Kate has swum at the Lido.

For Kate, this is traumatic. She isn’t crazy about her own body, and the thought of disrobing in front of others in a locker room nearly undoes her. But she swims, and she gets her interview. Over the course of the fight to save the lido, which Kate joins, she and Rosemary become good friends, and Kate’s own life blossoms. At the same time, there’s a bit of history here as we wander back in time with Rosemary to the war years when she met her husband, George.

The text has a soothing quality that you don’t see much of anymore. It’s not a page turner, and gets a bit slow in places, but sometimes a more sedate pace is what’s needed. I found it good bedtime reading, because it helped me unwind. My feminist heart is cheered by a story in which both main characters are female, and neither of them fits the tiny-but-fierce model that so many writers seem to favor. Kate is awkward. Rosemary is a fat old granny. Oh hell yes. Both are white women; there is a side character named Ahmed, but those looking for a truly diverse bit of fiction will have to look elsewhere.

Some readers are disturbed by blue language and sex scenes. Though the story isn’t entirely devoid of these, there’s very little of it.  The text is accessible to anyone with a high school education.

There are moments where the sweetness goes over the top. I gagged when the Brownie troop joined the protest to save the pool, and I wondered how Rosemary could have dozens of sweet memories of George and not even a single resentful or ambiguous one. But these are relatively small concerns.

For those looking for a feel good story, this book is recommended.

Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley*****

Findyouinthedark4.5 rounded up. What a way to make a debut!  Ripley’s creepy new thriller will have you locking your windows and looking under the bed at night. Thanks go to Atria Books for the review copy, which I received free of charge. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t expect it, but once I flipped it open and began reading, there was no question that I would finish it. You’ll feel the same.

The story is told in the first person by Martin Reese, a wealthy entrepreneur who took early retirement. He explains to us that he is on the way home from one of his digs, and he has to get back in time to pick up his daughter, Kylie from swim practice. Martin regards himself as a family centered man, and so at first I assume this is true. Is the guy an archaeologist?  Is he a cop? He isn’t either of these. So the digs are…?

Alternately we read a second narrative, told in the third person, about Detective Sandra Whittal.  She’s nobody’s fool, and the anonymous calls she receives that lead her to the graves of women long presumed dead at the hands of serial killer Jason Shurn set off all sorts of bells and whistles. Whittal doesn’t think this caller is the clever public servant he claims to be. She regards him as a murderer in the making, a man building toward a killing spree of his own.

The pacing here is strong, building toward the can’t-stop-now climax, but it’s the tone, the phrasing of Martin’s narrative that is disquieting.  His conversational tone tells us that he genuinely considers himself to be one of the good guys, but there are little cues here and there that that make me lean in, because something is wrong, very wrong here. Martin tells us that his wife and daughter are his whole world, but he spends very little time in their company. He tells us that he is searching for Ellen’s missing sister, a presumed victim of the serial killer whose remains haven’t been found, but a dozen small signals tell us that he’s never going to stop doing this. As the story unfolds, the dread and tension increase without ever letting up.

Contributing to my foreboding is the way Martin talks about and to his wife. Ellen suffers from anxiety and depression related to her sister’s death, but she functions in the real world, holding down a position of responsibility at a credit union. Though Martin tells us that everything he does is for her and Kylie, there are little cracks in the surface that show anger and resentment toward her. He doesn’t treat her as his equal; he is patronizing toward her, treating her and Kylie as if they are one another’s peers. Conversely, he confides an unusual amount to his fourteen-year-old daughter, and is the final arbiter of disagreements between his wife and daughter. I expect this sick dynamic to factor into the story’s denouement, but although his inattentiveness is a factor in some of the surprising results, the bizarre relationship isn’t fully addressed or resolved, and it is here that half of a star comes off.

This story is a page-turner. I read it quickly and if it hadn’t been quite so sinister, I would’ve torn through it in a weekend, but I gave myself an evening curfew where this book is concerned. I didn’t want it in my dreams. I didn’t even want it in my bedroom. As a younger woman, I am sure it wouldn’t have impacted me this way, so it may not disturb you quite as completely as it did me.

If you enjoy a book that conveys the emotional impact of Thomas Harris or Truman Capote, here you go. But plan to sleep with the light on while you’re reading it.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li*****

NumberOneChineseLillian Li’s debut novel , a tale of intra-family rivalry, intrigue, and torn loyalties is a barn burner; it captured my attention at the beginning, made me laugh out loud in the first chapter, and it never flagged. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company, from whom I received a review copy in exchange for this honest review.  Don’t let yourself miss this one. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

The book opens with bitter scheming on the part of Jimmy, one of two brothers that fall heir to the family restaurant after their father passes away.  Jimmy has waited for the old man to die so that he could run the restaurant his own way. The Duck House serves greasy, cheap Chinese food, and he is sure he can do better. He craves elegance, a superior menu with superior ingredients. He wants renown, and he doesn’t want his brother Johnny to have one thing to do with it.

Johnny’s in China. Johnny runs the business end of the restaurant, and he takes care of the front of the house. He’ll come back to Maryland in a heartbeat, though, when the Duck House burns down.

Li does a masterful job of introducing a large cast of characters and developing several of them; although at the outset the story appears to be primarily about the brothers, the camera pans out and we meet a host of others involved in one way or another with the restaurant. There are the Honduran workers that are referred to by the Chinese restaurant owners and their children as ‘the amigos’, and we see the way they are dismissed by those higher up, even when it is they that pull Jimmy from a burning building. There’s a bittersweet love triangle involving Nan and Ah-Jack, who work in the restaurant, and Michelle, Ah-Jack’s estranged wife, but it’s handled deftly and with such swift pacing and sterling character development that it never becomes a soap opera. Meanwhile Nan’s unhappy teenage son, Pat, pulls at her loyalties, and she is torn between him and Ah-Jack in a way that has to look familiar to almost every mother that sees it in one way or another. But the most fascinating character by far, hidden in the recesses of her home, is the sons’ widowed mother, Feng Fui, who serves as a powerful reminder not to underestimate senior citizens.

Li is one of the most exciting, entertaining new voices in fiction since the Y2K, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Gan bei!

The Island Dwellers, by Jen Silverman*****

TheIslandDwellersJen Silverman is a playwright with a list of awards as long as your arm. With this impressive collection of short stories, she steps into the world of prose with guns a-blazing. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book is now for sale.

Silverman’s contemporary fiction is themed, as the title suggests, around people that live on islands in various parts of the world. Everything here is edgy and a little bit dark. Her characters are melancholy, naïve, neurotic, bent, and at times laugh-out-loud funny; she doesn’t leave her endings—or her readers—hanging, and I didn’t successfully predict the way any of her stories would turn out. We have destructive relationships; relationships that are hellishly unequal; artists that aren’t really; strange, strange animals—oh, hell, that Japanese pit viper! But the thing that ties these tales together, apart from the theme, is deft, tight writing.

Anyone planning a vacation should pack this title, whether in paper or digitally. Short stories are terrific for bed time and when traveling, because the end of each story gives the reader a reasonable place to pause even when the prose is masterfully rendered, as it is here. This volume was released May 1, 2018 and is highly recommended.