Honestly, We Meant Well, by Grant Ginder****

“All art is appropriation.”

Sue Ellen Wright is a professor of Greek classics; she’s headed for Greece to deliver lectures and reminisce about the experiences of her youth. At the last minute, her philandering husband Dean and the couple’s lovesick son Will decide to tag along. Grant Ginder has made a career of writing hilarious prose about disastrous families, and Honestly, We Meant Well made me laugh out loud more than once.  Thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The book opens as Sue Ellen is conferring with a freshman who’s come to her office to challenge his midterm exam score:

“’I’m pretty sure I got this one right.’

“Connor points to a picture on his midterm…it’s an artifact that he was meant to identify.

“’That’s not a bong, Connor. That’s a Corinthian urn from the fifth century B.C.E…’

“But can’t you see how it could have been a bong?’

“’No,’ Sue Ellen says, ‘Actually, I can’t.’”

Teachers, are you experiencing flashbacks here? And those of you that aren’t teachers can appreciate that Sue Ellen needs a break, one that takes her as far away as possible. Her bags are packed.

Dean is a professor as well, and he’s a celebrated one. As the writer of a bestselling novel, The Light of Our Shadows, he is permitted to cherry-pick which students may enroll in his seminars. He knows he ought not to have sex with any of them, but they’re so insistent; and why shouldn’t they be? He’s a genius. At the moment, though, he’s a genius with writer’s block, and he thinks a Grecian holiday might just be what he needs; it will strengthen his marriage and get his creative juices flowing as well.

Will is a student, but who can chart a course, academic or otherwise, when his heart has been shattered? His boyfriend broke up with him and has instantly turned up on Instagram with kissy-face photos of himself with his new squeeze. It’s humiliating. It’s horrifying. Worse: everyone is liking those photos. Meanwhile, he has committed an unforgivable academic sin, one he’s desperate to keep his parents from learning.

Ginny Polonsky works at the university, and she knows where the bodies are buried. Readers know what Ginny knows—well, most of it anyway—and as the family unknits itself and copes with one unforeseen event after another, we are waiting for Ginny’s other shoe to drop on them. It’s immensely satisfying when it does.

There’s not a lot of character development here, but not much is needed. I believe each of these characters, which are written with admirable consistency. The prose is tight and the resolution surprises me. I would read this author again in a heartbeat.

The Wrights are Caucasian and middle class, and this is the demographic most likely to enjoy this book. It’s just the thing to toss into your suitcase or carry on when you’re headed on a trip of your own.

The Night Tiger, by Yangtze Choo****

Choo is a force to be reckoned with. Her dazzling second novel, The Night Tiger, crosses genres from historical fiction, to literary fiction, to mystery, to romance, to magical realism; it’s deeply absorbing and unlike anything else being published right now. My thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. It’s hot off the presses; get yours before they sell out.

We have two protagonists, Ji Lin, whose widowed mother has married a tin ore dealer, and Ren, an eleven-year-old orphan that works as a houseboy. The story takes place in 1931 in Ipoh, Malaya, which was the name of Malaysia when it was still occupied, part of the British Empire. As the story commences, Ren’s master, Dr. McFarlane, has died of malaria, and his last words instructed Ren to go to Dr. William Acton, find McFarlane’s amputated finger and return it to McFarlane’s grave. He has 49 days, and the clock is ticking. Go.

So powerful is Choo’s storytelling voice that I was most of the way through the book before it occurred to me to wonder: who puts that kind of responsibility on a little kid, especially since the task involves traveling alone to a different town? But Ren loved his master, and he’s a loyal kiddo. Despite an offer by his former master’s housekeeper to take him in, he forges forward, determined to do as bidden.

Ji Lin has a different set of problems. She recently reached marriageable age, but the only man she’d have considered desirable is engaged to someone else. Her stepfather is looking for candidates so he can be rid of her, and Ji Lin doesn’t like the same men her stepfather prefers for her. And in 1931, there are very few respectable alternatives for women to support themselves. She might like to train as a teacher, but she needs money right this minute, before her stepdad finds out about her mother’s Mahjongg debt. That man beats her mother savagely over much smaller things, and this gambling debt is potentially ruinous. Ji Lin takes an apprenticeship with a dressmaker, but secretly makes a lot more money as a dance instructor, a risky job that can lead to assault, a ruined reputation, or both. One night on the dance floor, as she skillfully parries a handsy salesman trying to make a move on her, her hand brushes his pocket and a little glass tube rolls out. She pockets it so she can check it out later, and oh hey, there’s a finger in there!

Ji Lin’s stepbrother, Shin is an intern at the local hospital, and that place is seriously messed up: “There’s a secret, white and yeasty maggot, which threatens to undermine the neat and orderly life of the hospital.” Just for starters, what happened to all the amputated fingers that are supposed to be in the storeroom with the other medical specimens?

At the same time, an unusual number of deaths have occurred lately, and there’s concern that it’s a weretiger that’s behind them. A weretiger is like a werewolf in reverse: instead of originally being a human that changes to a monstrous sort of wolf when the moon is full, a weretiger actually is a tiger that can at times become human.

Choo is masterly at weaving a complex plot, developing characters, and using imagery and possibly allegory as well; the river is a symbol that has been around as long as literature. But her greatest contribution here is in the way she uses all these things to create suspense. Once the possibility of the weretiger is raised in more than a passing way, I find myself examining every secondary character—and some fairly important ones—whose whereabouts are unknown at about the same time a corpse is discovered with tiger tracks nearby. Could that person be a weretiger? Could this one? No. Well, maybe. We learn that a weretiger is distinguished by a limp or otherwise deformed back foot, and so then I am eyeing anybody with a hurt foot or a limp or a wheelchair.

There are a number of threads that weave in and out of the story: troubled dreams are shared by Ren and Ji Lin, who have never met, and Ren’s dead twin, Yin, speaks to him. Ren’s “cat sense” guides him away from trouble and toward the finger. I often struggle with magical realism, because I’ll be trying to solve the story’s main problem using real world information, but then someone will do something people cannot do, and I yelp with frustration. But Choo sells me on the notion that there’s a weretiger, because now I know that a dead twin that magically communicates here; who’s to say there can’t be a magical tiger monster that’s killing the local folk too? Somebody sure as heck keeps leaving tiger tracks, and I know it’s not me.

The author provides information about Chinese folklore, including the weretiger, in notes following the story, and about halfway through the book I read the author’s notes before finishing the story.

The only part of this book that I don’t like is the romance that pops up between Ji Lin and her stepbrother. Ew, ew! Why does Choo find this necessary? It doesn’t add interest so much as distraction. When their mother goes bonkers and tells them to stay the hell away from each other, I’m right there in her corner. You tell them, honey. Hit them again. You can borrow my umbrella. Let them have it! Sick little bastards. The author goes to pains to stress that they aren’t biologically related and that Shin’s father never legally adopted Ji Lin, but who the hell cares? The incest taboo has nothing to do with biology; it’s a social construct. We don’t screw the siblings we grow up with, period. This aspect of the story is just plain tasteless, and if I were her editor, I would cut it clean out of there, making Shin the fantastic brother that he had been when they were younger and nothing else.

That said, I nearly went for a five star rating anyway, because it is so gratifying to see a well written story about any part of Asia during the colonial period that is not written from the point of view of the colonists and whose main characters are native residents rather than the occupiers. By showing the ignorant, patronizing way that local Brits—many of whom are expatriates because they aren’t decent enough people to be accepted socially back home—Choo exposes the true nature of colonialism, and for this alone, I could stand up and cheer.

With the single caveat emphatically mentioned, I recommend this story to you.

Small Animals, by Kim Brooks***

SmallanimalsBrooks is a journalist and also a parent; she is nearly sent to prison for having permitted her son to remain in the car watching a video while she bopped in to a big box store to purchase headphones. The experience provided a catalyst for discussions and research she has done on structured parenting practices versus a looser model, for which she advocates. The resulting book is a plea for greater flexibility and more options for parents that either question the wisdom of tight societal controls on parenting, or that cannot find or afford the childcare that their children are legally required to have when the parent or parents must go to work.

I read this intense manifesto free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Flatiron Books and Net Galley for the review copy.

Brooks has an engaging writing style, and at the outset of the book I was with her entirely. I wouldn’t leave my child in the car as she did, but the legal fallout sure seems like overkill. Whatever happened to a warning first? But later in the text I find some outrageous logical fallacies and suppositions that she uses to bolster her argument in favor of free range parenting. I quickly moved from being supportive, to questioning, to feelings of hot indignation, and several times I felt it best to set the book aside while my temper cooled.

I suspect I have a lot of company out there. I’m a grandmother now; my children are raised, and though I love my grandsons, I am also happy not to be the one that is raising them. So I have the benefit of a bit of space and distance when I look at this controversy. Fresher are my feelings as a teacher, because there are plenty of hot buttons here that connect with educators, and I haven’t been retired from the classroom for long. More on those hot buttons in a minute.

My favorite part of this book is the research behind and inside of it, and she includes some material that is new to me. For example, I wasn’t aware that nearly three-quarters of Americans in their twenties are childless, or that childcare is so hard to find at any price that more mothers—including low income women—are stay-home mothers. There are a lot of great quotes. However, the conclusion Brooks draws from that research leaves me scratching my head.

The head-scratching as well as the hot buttons all have to do with the suggestion that children, including those in early elementary school, be permitted to roam by themselves to whatever family-oriented public locations their busy parents approve of. An example is the public playground. She reasons that if a mom that works fast food for a few hours after school lets out says her kid is allowed to leave school and go to the park, then the kid should be able to go to the park; likewise, if a writer such as herself wants some alone time, she should be able to drop her kid at the park and go home to her keyboard.

This assertion is bolstered by an assertion that very few children are harmed by strangers, and she proves this thoroughly for those that didn’t already know. In addition, she points out that there are already a lot of parents and other adults at the park.

This is the point at which my jaw drops open and I start closing doors and drawers a little extra hard just thinking about what she’s said. Brooks blithely overlooks the common ways that children at the playground get hurt. Let me count the ways: kids run in front of moving swings. Kids climb the slide someone else is sliding down and maybe both kids are injured. Kids chase a ball into moving traffic. Kids have an allergic reaction when previously nobody knew they were allergic to a single thing. Sometimes kids quarrel with other kids, and whereas many parents deal with this appropriately, there are inappropriate parents out there. If your child upsets Poopsie and Poopsie’s mama decides to unload on your kid, who’s going to step in? If an older child invites yours to play doctor in the bushes and wants to show your child something he’s seen mom and her boyfriend doing, who is going to stop them? Never mind the dangerously strange adults; most of us know there are few of them. But what about everyone else, and what about the accidents that a kid can have anywhere, and for which quick action can make a big difference?

Now let’s look at it from another angle. Which stay-home mom at the park wants to be responsible for your child? What if the park is emptying out and she wants to take her children and go get dinner started, but there’s this one solitary, anxious child that will be left behind? What can she do if one of the above-mentioned accidents befalls your child and he or she is unconscious? She calls an ambulance, and then what? Without parental approval, medics cannot even treat your child. An epipen? An IV line? A trip to the hospital? Some states and municipalities may allow a professional to start treatment, but even if they can, most hospitals won’t admit a kid whose insurance details are not known. And then of course there’s liability. If that parent—the one doing his or her job—gives your child a band-aid or a cookie and it turns out to be the wrong thing, what then? No good deed goes unpunished. And right about now, every reader that has ever worked in a public school is vigorously nodding their head.

Then too, many stay-home parents have made a choice to live on less money in order to create a better life for their family. The closest distance between two points is the stay-home mother and whoever has no childcare and wonders if she could take care of their kid because (fill in the blank.)

Usually a book such as this one will make a strong case for more federally funded childcare, and if that was Brooks’ s main focus, I would be posting a review of this book to every possible outlet in an effort to create a more vocal bandwagon. But instead Brooks really just seems to want other people to watch her kid free, and leave her occasional bad choices unmentioned. (She suggests that the person that called the cops when she left her kid in the car should have spoken to her in person; can you even imagine the hell that might befall anyone that openly questions a total stranger’s parenting practices?)

So if you are looking for a conversation starter for your book group, this might be a good choice, because it is loaded with controversial ideas. If you want to see where those kids come from—the ones that wander in unsupervised and seem more needy than the kids that have a relative, day care supervisor, or nanny in attendance—here is your epiphany. But if you are a prospective parent looking for advice, I suggest you run in the other direction. Run fast.