The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.

The Illness Lesson, by Clare Beams***

Caroline lives with her father, Samuel, a writer and educator whose career and reputation have been sullied by a younger man that Samuel mentored many years ago. But Samuel is determined to revive his career by starting a school for girls. Girls can think. Girls can learn. They needn’t be limited to the traditional lessons that make young ladies into gracious hostesses. They can rise in this world, as long as he is there to guide them.

I read this book free and early thanks to Doubleday and Net Galley. It’s for sale now.

As the story opens, just a few ladies are signed up for the boarding school that will be run by Samuel and Caroline from their home. A former protegee, David, comes to join them also, and will teach the sciences. Running errands in town, however, Caroline and David run into Eliza, the daughter of the man that ruined Samuel’s career. Her father is now deceased; Eliza wants to attend the school. In a moment of mischievous rebellion that she will come to regret, Caroline accepts her.

At the outset, The Illness Lesson seems to be feminist fiction, and as school begins and I see Samuel mansplaining to his female charges about the things that women can and cannot do, should learn to do, should want to do, I lean in, ready for a rapier-sharp tale in which—I hope—the father and teacher that believes himself to be an educational gift to womankind will learn a powerful lesson.

Alas, not so much.

Before the halfway mark is reached, the story has wandered in various directions and has lost its cohesion and focus. I check my notes and change the genre for it over and over again; feminist fiction becomes historical fiction becomes romance becomes magical realism becomes horror and what the heck is this author trying to achieve? If the plan is to keep the reader guessing, I can honestly say that I am genuinely surprised (in the second half) by what Caroline finds in the woods. However, I am not a fan of surprise elements that fragment the plot. It almost feels as if it was written by a half dozen writers drunkenly passing a story around late at night. “Okay, now YOU write a chapter! Surprise me.”

I might not have been so disappointed if I hadn’t expected such great things. The premise is a wonderful one. Beams could have done so much with it, and I can’t figure out why she didn’t.

Perhaps if you read it, you’ll come away with a more charitable viewpoint. My advice, however, is to get it free or cheap, or else give it a miss entirely.

The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for this much-buzzed-about novel, and I am sorry it took me so long to plow through it. Haddon is a gifted writer and it shows, yet for me, this one was more pain than gain; I read part of my galley and then, after publication, received an audio version via Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s for sale now.

Our protagonist is Angelica, the only child of the extremely wealthy Phillipe.  Her mother, Maya, dies in a plane crash and her father, wild with grief, withdraws from the world. He substitutes Angelica for Maya, sexually molesting her from a very young age; he is magnanimous enough not to “penetrate” her until she is fourteen. What a champ. When she is an adolescent, a handsome young visitor tries to liberate her, but Phillipe makes short work of him.

The story is modeled upon a Greek myth, and a second story is told alternately with Angelica’s, rendering a complex story more so. The prose is beautifully rendered, and I think if I were a student tasked with writing an essay involving allegory in a novel written in the twenty-first century, I might have enjoyed using this one. However, as a popular read it is both largely unpleasant and a great deal of work. The one passage that I found deeply satisfying was around the halfway mark, and it involved the revenge of rape victims.

Those looking for skillfully written literary fiction will likely appreciate the artistry Haddon unspools, but I didn’t find a lot of pleasure in reading it.

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker****

Happy anniversary, Doubleday. This is my thirtieth review for you.

Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy.

I wanted to read Kolker’s book because so little is written about schizophrenia for the general readership. My best friend’s older brother was schizophrenic, and sometimes she would phone me crying and whispering from the floor of her bedroom closet. The bro—let’s call him Marco–was a large person, over six feet tall with a towering red afro that made him appear even larger. He and my friend were both adopted, and their parents weren’t nearly that big. Marco hated taking his medication, and once he reached his teens, he self-medicated with every street drug he could get his hands on. As a result, he often became violent, breaking out all of the windows of the family home and assaulting his poor sweet mother with a crowbar before the cops arrived to haul him off to the hospital again.

And so I wondered, when I saw this book, whether this was a common experience (yes,) and what inroads had been made in the decades between then and now (very few.)

The Galvin family is an anomaly, a very large family of twelve children, half of whom were stricken and the other half traumatized from growing up with them. The family participated in The Human Genome Project, a compilation of genetic samples and other information aimed at unlocking Mother Nature’s terrible secrets. Of course, researchers were also absorbed in the question of nature versus nurture.

Kolker does an outstanding job of chronicling the Galvin family’s history alternately with passages about what was known about this disease at the time when the eldest sibling began to show symptoms, and what has been learned since. It’s a lot of information to organize and share, and who knows what information he weeded out as unnecessary, because one has to stop somewhere.

When the Galvin children were diagnosed in the mid-twentieth century, professionals in the field leaned heavily toward the idea that there was no hereditary cause for the condition, but instead embraced a “mother-as-monster” theory. Because of this, Mimi Galvin, the mother of all of those children, was inclined to stonewall rather than seek help. But who could blame her? Our society was only slightly removed from the days when the ‘crazy’ family member was locked in the attic. (“That thumping sound? Oh dear heaven, perhaps that old raccoon has snuck back in. Enjoy your pie; we’ll chase him out of there after you’re on your way.”) To make matters more complicated, Don, father of the brood, had a high profile position in the U.S. military, and rumors of family drama could have impacted his career.

Like my friend’s family, the Galvins dealt with the noise, the horror, the disruption by moving to the far edges of town, seeking geographical isolation so that neighborly complaints need not be an added worry.

Here’s the difficult part of writing about schizophrenia: readers want to find a grand discovery at the end; if not a cure, then a new and impressive treatment, or an historic advance in eliminating the problem. But solutions are elusive, and because of the stubborn nature of this disease, what may seem ground breaking to a researcher looks like a big, fat so-what to the average reader.

All told, Kolker has done a fine job describing what has taken place within the family and within the field; I thought he was a little hard on Mimi, who made a lot of errors but was facing a terrible dilemma during a period when our culture was very different from today. That aside, I do recommend this book to you. It will be available April 7, 2020.

Zed, by Joanna Kavenna***

Kavenna is an established writer, but she is new to me. I saw the description and—okay, yes, the cover—and I knew I had to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

At the outset this story is electrifying. It’s set in future Earth in what was once London. Beetle is an all-powerful company that governs both business and government; it resembles Future Amazon more than a little. Its employees have Real Life selves, and they have virtual selves that make it possible for them to attend meetings without physically being there. They have BeetleBands that measure their respiration, pulse, perspiration and other physical functions, and those bands are supposed to stay on:

The Custodians Program tracked people from the moment they woke (having registered the quality of their sleep, the duration), through their breakfast (registering what they ate, the quality of their food), through the moment they dressed, and if they showered and cleaned their teeth properly, if they took their DNA toothbrush test, what time they left the house, whether they were cordial to their door, whether they told it to fucking open up and stop talking to them, whether they arrived at work on time, how many cups of coffee they drank during the course of an average day, how many times they became agitated, how many times they did their breathing relaxation exercises, if they went to the pub after work and what they hell they did if they didn’t go to the pub, how late they went home, if they became agitated, angry, ill, drunk, idle at any point during any day, ever.

Of course, it is possible to avoid the entire Beetle system, but there’s almost nothing that someone that is off the grid can do for a living; these people scuttle about in abandoned buildings, living miserably impoverished, private lives.

Those in high positions of responsibility have Veeps, which are virtual assistants that run on artificial intelligence. There are few human cops out there because those jobs are done by ANTS—Anti-Terrorism Droids—and these in turn follow the protocol, which says they should shoot at their own discretion. And all of these things lead up to the murder of Lionel Bigman, who bears an unfortunate resemblance in both body and name to George Mann, who has just cut the throats of everyone in his family. The ANTS find Bigman and kill him.

The aftermath features the sort of government whitewash and cover-up that every reader must recognize. The error was caused, say the higher-ups, by two factors: one was Mary Bigman, wife of Lionel, the uncooperative widow of Lionel who demands answers and is therefore conveniently scapegoated; and Zed, the term for chaos and error within the system. And Zed, unfortunately, is growing and creating more errors which must also be swept under the virtual carpet.

Those dealing with this situation are Guy Matthias, the big boss at Beetle; Eloise Jayne, the security chief who’s being investigated for saving the life of a future criminal that the ANTS had been preparing to shoot; Douglas Varley, a Beetle board member; and David Strachey, a journalist torn between his paramount duty to inform the public, and his self-interest that suggests he shouldn’t rock the boat.

Once the parameters of this book are defined, I am excited. The book could be the bastard antecedent of some combination of Huxley, Rand, Vonnegut and Orwell. The possibilities! But alas, though the premise is outstanding, the execution is lacking. I have gone over it multiple times trying to figure out what went wrong and what could fix it, and I am baffled. All I can say is that by the thirty percent mark, though a major character is running for her very life, the inner monologue drones until I am ready to hurl myself into the path of the ANTS just to end it. All of the fun stuff has been offered up already, leaving us to slog our way out of it. How could a story so darkly hilarious and so well-conceived turn so abstruse and deadly dull?

Nevertheless, I would read Kavenna again in a heartbeat. Someone this smart will surely write more books that work better than this one. But as for you, read this one free or cheap if you read it at all.

The Janes, by Louisa Luna****+

 4 stars plus. Louisa Luna debuted in 2018 with the first book in this series, Two Girls Down. When I learned that Alice Vega was returning, I jumped on the galley without a moment’s hesitation. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 21, 2020.

Alice Vega is back home in Southern California, and she is hired as a consultant on a case for the local cops. Two dead girls have turned up, both recent immigrants with IUDs in their too-young bodies. All signs point to their having been victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation, yet there is no evidence of rape. What happened here, and where did the IUDs, which aren’t available in stores, come from? She is offered an astonishing amount of money for her services, and she decides to use some of it to hire her old partner, Max Caplan, who’s back on the Eastern seaboard entertaining job offers. When Vega crooks her little finger, Cap comes running.

Luna has a voice and style not like anyone else’s. One of the things that I love is the way she swaps the stereotypic gender roles of these two main characters. Cap is nurturing, and he loves kids. Vega isn’t a nurturer, and when huge stressors come down on her, she becomes angry and violent, but as a reader I love this because her rage is always spot on. Cap has sex when he’s in love, but Vega has sex to fulfill a biological need, and then wonders why the guy is still hanging around. Clean yourself up and get out of here, dude, I have things to do today. Run along. And while Vega’s vigilante justice would be a terrible thing in real life, in fiction it feels deeply satisfying.

In other words, Alice Vega makes my feminist heart sing.

Luna is better than most authors of the genre in that no matter how off the chain her protagonist is, I never disengage because of an unlikely plot element. We have corrupt cops; we have bureaucrats; we have secrets that would become public if Vega and Cap were prosecuted for crimes committed in the line of duty. My single twinge of regret comes when Cap sustains a head injury that renders him unconscious; wakes up dazed and confused, with some memory loss; and then shakes it off without tests or treatment of any kind. Vega reminds him to get an MRI when everything is over, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I wonder at times whether she meant to do more with it and then edited it back out.

Given that both stories, this one and the last, feature two female victims, I wonder if this will be her signature element throughout the series.

This story differs from the first in that it is darker, less funny, and ramps up to the high octane, pulse-pounding excitement of a true thriller at around 80%. The plot and characters are credible, but they lack the bounce and the zip that made the first book so memorable. Nevertheless, I love Alice Vega and eagerly await the next in the series.

Heartily recommended to those that love the genre and respect women.

Best Overall Nonfiction of 2019: Say Nothing

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry*

I have never in my life dropped a galley so quickly. Thanks still go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, but I couldn’t finish this thing. Actually, I couldn’t even hold to my own reviewing rules.  This book is horrible.

The promotional description mentions several qualities that appeal to me.  I like literary fiction; dark humor; Irish fiction; and the Booker Prize nomination sealed the deal.  I was also aware that there would be violence and and that the characters would include terrible men, but I read grit lit—in small frequent bites when I can’t deal with longer stretches than that—and have reviewed many titles that include these things. But this is something else.

The distinctive writing style doesn’t appeal to me; I like a good paragraph, and having vast yawning spaces in between single brief entries seems wasteful to me. But that isn’t the deal breaker. The deal breaker is the hostility toward women.

Now of course one could say that twisted misogyny is not the author’s perspective but that of the characters, and blah-de-blah-blah, but let’s extend this a step further, for the sake of those that buy that kind of bilge as an excuse. Let’s write the whole thing, the whole book, as repeated child rape, with graphic descriptions and maybe a quick comeuppance or two at the end to make the reader feel better.

Would you buy that? Would you read that?  Then maybe you should give this a miss as well.  After all, this is fiction; its two purposes are to entertain and to convey ideas through the art of literature. How do either of these jibe with ugliness such as this?

My usual practice for a galley I don’t favor is this:  I read up to about 30% in order to give the author a chance, and then if I am still not engaged I skip to the last 25% to make sure there isn’t something wonderful about the climax and the conclusion that might make me reconsider. Fair is fair. But this book feels like a form of violence against women all by itself. I had trouble sleeping after having read five percent; I gave it a couple of days and came back, read another four or five percent, and queasily realized that this novel is the exception to my policy. I am not reading more of it for anyone or anything.

Usually when I don’t recommend a book, I consider whether there’s a niche audience that might still like it. Sometimes a lukewarm book gets a recommendation to read the book free or at a deep discount. But for this thing I confess that I would rather not be around anyone that wants it any time for any reason.

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Delicious! This book is straight-up fun. McMahon—a successful author, but new to me—takes an old school ghost story and drops it into a contemporary setting, while providing alternating glimpses of what happened in this same place long ago. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. You can get this book Tuesday, April 30, 2019, and I don’t know how you can stand the suspense until then.

Helen and Nate are ready for rural life. Using recently inherited funds, they purchase a chunk of land in Vermont, quit their jobs, sell their Connecticut condo, and head for the hinterlands. They will build their own house. They will get chickens and sell eggs on the side. They will grow their own food and be almost self-sufficient. Just smell that fresh air! Oh, aren’t they adorable.

Meanwhile, Olive, who has recently lost her mother and whose father is unraveling, is channeling Wednesday Addams, lurking in trees nearby and wishing these new people gone. “I banish you,” she says quietly. No one hears; well, nobody alive does anyway.

Nate and Helen are hurt and perplexed by the local residents’ reception. Why is everyone so surly? Why are they looking at them side-eyed all the time?  Turns out the locals don’t want them upsetting Hattie’s ghost. Everybody knows that Hattie is in the bog that is part of Helen and Nate’s land. The last owner, an elderly man that fled to Florida and won’t talk about it, apart from advising the new owners to get out of there also, saw some things. Not everyone does, though. Hattie chooses who will see her, hear from her. And Hattie isn’t happy.

At first, Nate and Helen are oblivious. Their belongings disappear, but that turns out to be Olive, whom they will befriend. But the more Helen learns about Hattie—who reveals herself to Helen and Olive both—the more distracted she is by her. Time and money that should be directed toward the house and improvements to the new property are instead spent on deep research, and on carrying out Hattie’s wishes. It becomes an obsession; first she procures a hunk of wood from the tree on which Hattie was hanged, thinking it will be perfect to frame the doorway she and Nate are building. Hey, who wouldn’t want something like that in their new home? Next, she finds old bricks from the mill where Hattie’s daughter died. And Nate can see this is just nuts, and he tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t let him in. She is lying to him now. But Nate has an obsession of his own: he keeps seeing an albino deer that visits him, and then leads him into the swamp.

A man could get lost in there. Nate wouldn’t be the first.  

Olive is on a mission of her own. She wants to find the treasure that Hattie buried somewhere near the bog. She is sure it is there, and it was a project that she and her mother worked on together. She secretly hopes that if she can find the treasure, her mother will come home to her.

The mystery of where Olive’s mama has gone segues in and out of the ghost story, and the plotting is deft and surefooted, never slowing, never inconsistent, and relentlessly absorbing. Helen is obsessed with Hattie; Nate is obsessed with the deer; Olive is obsessed with the treasure and her mama; and I am obsessed with this story.

The typical way for a book like this to end would be with the discovery that some sketchy character has somehow created all of the events that seem otherworldly in order to profit materially or achieve revenge. Although I am impressed with McMahon as we near the climax, part of me is expecting this. But this writer doesn’t use tired plot points or tired characters, and she sure as hell doesn’t end this tale in a way that is trite or expected. I guessed one aspect of the ending, but by the time I saw it coming, we were closing in on it, and I can’t help but believe the author means me to see it just before it’s revealed. And this is a hallmark of an excellent thriller: there aren’t brand new characters or plot points tossed in at the end that make it impossible for the reader to have guessed what’s going on. McMahon is a champ, and her respect for her readership is evident in the way she spins the climax and conclusion.

The book’s last paragraph is masterful.

Highly recommended to those that enjoy a classic, well turned ghost story. As for me, I’ll be watching for this author in the future, and….oh hey. Did you hear something just now?

Southern Lady Code, by Helen Ellis****

Helen Ellis makes me laugh out loud. If you can use some of that, you may want to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Southern Lady Code is a title that carries a code of its own.  Some people use the word “lady” to describe European royalty; some to describe a courteous woman, which is what I anticipated here; and some use it to describe a well-mannered woman with a very comfortable income, which appears to be the author’s operating definition. In terms of the “code,” I thought I’d be reading straight satire, but discovered that she has provided a combination of self-help tips and searing, sometimes raucous humor. It works surprisingly well.

I have never made a cheese log before or wanted one, but Ellis’s recipe sounds so persuasively delicious that I may try it. That said, my favorite essays were short on advice and long on humor. I nearly hurt myself laughing over the construction man she found masturbating in her bedroom—did I mention that she gets a little edgy here?  And “The Ghost Experience” is massively entertaining.  There’s a lot of good material here.  Though at times her outlook is a little more conservative than my own, I like the things she says in support of gay and trans friends.

Ultimately, I suspect that I am not the target audience for Ellis, who in her middle-aged years is dispensing life skills wrapped in bountiful amounts of humorous anecdotes. She is writing to her peers and to those women younger than herself.  I am ten or twenty years older than this woman, but I still came away impressed. So, ladies and women, if you can look past the assumption of a greater-than-average income, you’ll have a good time here, and if you can’t, try to get this collection at the library and read selectively, because more of these essays will resonate than not, for all of us.

I rate this book four giggles, and it will be available to the public tomorrow, April 16, 2019.