Southern Fried, by Tonya Kappes***

southernfriedThis fetching little cozy mystery is the second in a series, but I didn’t read the first one, and I was able to keep up with it finer than frog hair. You might could, too. I am grateful to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received absolutely free of charge in exchange for this review. But don’t you worry none, cause you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Sheriff Kendrick Lowry, and she tells us the whole story in the first person. The problem starts when Myrna finds Owen in the greenhouse on top of her prize tomatoes. Why did he have to go and die there? She says it took her months to get them that plump, and if you’ve ever grown great tomatoes—an impossible feat in Seattle, I am sorry to admit—you know it’s true.

Sheriff Kendrick, locally known as “Kenni”, is assisted in her law enforcement activities by Poppa. Poppa was the sheriff around these parts, but he’s dead now, and his ghost can only appear when she has a case to crack, so in a strange sort of way, this murder is a blessing in disguise. The local stigma against a woman as sheriff in this small Kentucky town is offset by the venerable family tradition Poppa cultivated before he departed.

I believe my favorite part is the day following the discovery of the body, when Lowry arrives to find the crime scene tape destroyed and Myrna moseying around the greenhouse like nothing ever happened. You know this happens in real life, but you never see it in fiction, except here. I also love the part when someone suggests the sheriff call for backup, and she notes that her deputy is out of town, and so exactly who is she supposed to call? Again, fictional cops always seem to have unlimited resources in even the most unlikely situations, and Kappes leaned hard on my funny bone. What a hoot.

A lot of this book doesn’t make much sense, but then it doesn’t have to. It’s a romp. However, if a couple of inconsistencies had been cleared up and a hot-stove issue hadn’t been grazed, it would be better still.

Would anyone kill for an okra recipe, for example?  (I was told as a child that okra tastes like a bowl of warm snot.) Because there’s so much camp in this very funny story, I can’t tell whether I should be suspicious of this as motive or not; in the real world I don’t see it, but in this story, I feel as if anything goes.  And while I love the feminist spirit in the sheriff’s assertion that she doesn’t cook anything, period, later she goes to try out the secret recipe and I find myself wondering how she knows how to glaze a cast iron pan. This woman doesn’t even know how to boil water, and yet a fairly obvious cooking skill that nobody puts into a recipe seems to present no problem at all.

But these are just li’l thangs.

Despite the occasional feminist overtones, there are some tired devices and stereotypes that are harder to disregard. Why does half the story obsess with her crush on her deputy? It’s kept light, but the notion that a woman is nothing without a man, while not openly asserted, seems to float in the air. I would have liked to see more women, especially older women, depicted in a positive light. It seems as if every story that features a heroic young woman has to also feature an impossible mother, and so I moaned when she introduced her momma. And there’s the “cat fight”, which while there’s no denying that the narrative is straight-up hilarious, is also a stereotype that suggests women can’t get along once you put us in a room together.

The thing that knocked a star off what would have been a four star review is the place where her Poppa’s ghost notes that when he saw Deputy Finn carry Kenni’s drunken, unconscious body to her bedroom and put her in her bed, he had feared the deputy was about to “take advantage” of her.  The word is rape, and it’s never funny. The deputy didn’t, but the suggestion, accompanied by the euphemism, left an after-taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite get rid of.

If you can get past these brief but clear obstacles, you will get a lot of laughs out of the main thread here. Kappes has a raucous sense of humor, and I had immersed myself in too many dark stories. I was ready for a good laugh, and this title provided several.  But unless your pockets are deep or your interest great, I recommend you get this one cheaply when you can, or at your local library if available.

Himself, by Jess Kidd*****

himselfbyjesskiddAh, feck me blind now, Jess Kidd’s written herself a novel, and it’s good enough for any ten others. It comes out March 14, 2017, and although I read it free via Net Galley and Atria, there’s surely a chance I will buy one or more copies to give to those I love anyway. You should, too. It’s too clever to miss, and if you don’t mind a bit of irreverence, if you have a heart at all for Ireland and for ordinary working folk just trying to get along as best they’re able, this book is your book. Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny, it will put a spring in your step for a goodly while thereafter. That it will!

Mahony has come to the tiny Irish town of Mulderrig, looking to find out what happened to his mammy, who left him orphaned when he was small. The townsfolk aren’t happy to see anyone related to Orla Sweeney, but Mahony is undeniable in his charm, with:

“A face that women can love on sight and men will smile upon. Mahony has the right tone in his voice and the right words to go with it. Mahony has a hand that people want to shake and a back they want to pat.”

But beneath the charm, the voice, and the handsome face, “He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks.”

You see, like Orla before him, Mahony sees the dead, and they’re thick as flies here. They’re sitting on the rafters knitting; they’re smoking a pipe in the roll-top bath; they’re sitting on the cistern, just watching. Because “The dead are drawn to those with shattered hearts.”

But his mother isn’t among them; how can that be so?

As we follow Mahony on his quest, we get to know a number of the townspeople. Shauna runs the only decent boarding house in town, and since Mahony is staying there, we get to know her and her father, Desmond. We get to know Mrs. Cauley, the wealthy senior citizen that keeps the town afloat, ancient, wheelchair bound, and surrounded in her quarters by a “literary labyrinth” that’s positively magical. In her, Mahony finds an unexpected confederate. Though elderly enough to be fragile, when the chips are down Mrs. Cauley is at the ready, declaring that “I’m Miss Marple, with balls.”

We also get to know one of my favorite characters, Bridget Doosey, as well as the “crocodilian” parish priest, Father Quinn.

The lyricism of the text is owed to no small skill on the part of the author, partly with the use of figurative language—and here I tell my readers that are teachers, you’ll find no better passages for teaching the effective use of repetition anywhere, but select carefully, because the text is very spicy—but a certain amount of it is due to the intangible talent that some of us have, and that some of us don’t. I note that every chapter is ended brilliantly and the next also begun as much so.
I could reach into my notes all day long and find more passages that are lyrical, moving, or funny enough to make you wish you’d been to the bathroom first. But in the end I’d be doing you a disservice, because what you really need is the book itself. With a little planning, you can have a copy in your hands before St. Patrick’s Day. And you should do so.

The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

Happy Release Day! This exceptionally engaging YA title is available today, and you should read it.

Seattle Book Mama

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so…

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The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak*****

theimpossiblefortressThe Impossible Fortress has been generating a lot of buzz since last summer when the review copies came out, and rightfully so. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, because it’s smoothly designed and hugely original. It’s written with a deftly woven plot that never misses a step; engaging characters that are nearly corporeal, they are so well sculpted; and an utterly captivating voice that unspools the narrative. Best of all, it’s hilarious! I thank Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for my DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title comes out February 7, 2017.

When this reviewer retired from teaching, I buried myself in books I had long wanted to read, and I promised myself that I would never have to read another young adult novel. That promise to myself still holds true, but now and again I see a premise so tantalizing that I know I want to read it anyway; this was one of those times. It’s a book you can read in a weekend, and once you have it, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

First I’d like to reassure readers that are most comfortable in the liberal arts realm that the programming jokes here are very shallow, and you can easily read this without missing anything even if you aren’t a tech type. I wrinkled my brow at the chapter headings and called my spouse, a network engineer, in to see them. He told me it’s just the chapter numbers written in code. So for those of you that hyperventilate around complicated math and science, it’s okay. Breathe.

Moving on to the story itself, here’s the set-up: it’s 1987, and Vanna White, America’s girl next door who’s seen every weeknight on television’s Wheel of Fortune, has posed nude for Playboy, and no one under the age of 18 can buy that magazine. The only place it’s even for sale in our depressed rustbelt neighborhood is in Zelinsky’s shop, and the man is unhinged when it comes to kids in his store. He’s had problems with crime, and on top of that, he’s grieving his wife’s death, and right at this moment, he’s in the anger, anger, anger stage.

Our 15 year old protagonist is Billy, a ninth grader whose mother works long hours and can’t supervise him effectively. His two longtime friends are Alf and Clark. The threesome is determined to get that Playboy from Zelinsky’s store. Since they can’t buy it from him, and since it’s kept behind the counter which the owner watches feverishly during all store hours, they’re going to have to steal a copy when the store is closed. Sort of steal it. They’ll sneak in; leave money on the counter; then leave with their magazines. They’ll want three, of course, so that each can have his personal copy.

When his hormones aren’t in overdrive, Billy loves computers more than anything. He sneaks a programming manual inside his textbook during class time, because it’s what he wants to learn about. His mother is beside herself when she sees his grades—“You’re failing Rocks and Streams!”—but she has no idea what to do about it. The only thing she can take away that Billy really cares about is his computer, and she does it, telling him he can have it back once his grades are up.

As it happens, our store owner has a daughter that’s about the same age as Billy, and she has a computer too. Billy is better with computers than any of his public school classmates, but Mary, a student at St. Agatha, is brilliant. He talks to her initially as part of the scheme to get into the store at night and filch the magazine, but once he sees what she can do online, he is transfixed, and he spends more and more time in the back of Zelinsky’s store watching what Mary can do on her computer. He notes that his own technical finesse next to Mary’s is “like finger painting next to Picasso.” As the friendship between them develops, Billy is torn between Mary and computers, versus Alf, Clark, and the magazine. He tries to back out of the plan they’ve agreed upon because he doesn’t want to hurt Mary’s feelings, but complications emerge.

Although Rekulak does a fine job developing Billy, the best developed character in this story is unquestionably Mr. Zelinsky.  As to setting, I am impressed with how much minutiae is absolutely accurate here. But it’s not the character development, setting, or plot that drives this novel; it’s the voice, which is as authentic in adolescent reasoning , planning, and oh dear heaven, in its impulsiveness as anything I have ever seen.

Whether you are a teen, a parent, a teacher, or a reader that’s just looking for a good laugh, you’ll find it here. Highly recommended.

Turbo Twenty-Three, by Janet Evanovich**-***

turbotwentytI’ve been a big fan of the Stephanie Plum series since Evanovich launched it over twenty years ago.Twenty? Whoa now, that hardly seems possible. But the first book in the series landed a host of great-first-book awards in 1995, the year before my youngest child was born.  I haven’t missed a single book nor even read any of them out of sequence.

There was a point somewhere along the way when the series started to lose its zip and some of the new fuel the writer injected turned sour. Does anyone recall the bit where Stephanie’s sister moves home from out of state, and one of the sister’s daughters thinks she’s a horse? It was beyond stupid to my way of thinking, but the point is that our author pulled it all back around within the next couple of books and it was funnier and fresher than ever. The last in the series, Tricky Twenty-Two, was an absolute scream, and so although I rarely purchase a book for myself anymore, I plunk #23 onto my Christmas wish list without a moment’s hesitation. And when Christmas is done, I scurry off with my four much-longed-for new books—three of them mysteries– and prepare to feast.

So this is a crushing disappointment. Sad, sad, sad. It isn’t funny enough to actually laugh at even once, and there are aspects of it that actually offend. I consider this sort of odd, given that since her movie deal, Evanovich has actually sanitized a lot of the spicier aspects of her work. The language isn’t nearly as blue as it was when she was new at this thing and had little to lose; the sex isn’t as steamy; and all told, it seems as if her imagination has an agent of its own whispering into its ear, asking just exactly how much revenue she’s willing to risk losing if she pursues this, that, the other creative but risqué notion.

How is it possible then that for the first time in a career of over twenty years and nearly two dozen published mysteries in this series alone, this author has been so politically tone deaf?

As I read one scene involving Stephanie and Lula, a pairing that’s almost always good for a laugh, my face was in a tentative smile, the expression one wears when expecting something funny to happen any minute. And that’s the moment when Lula claims to be extra lucky when seeking employment, because she can check off three boxes; she’s Black, she’s female, and she’s large in size. These should just about ensure that she’ll be hired. And then she tops it off by allowing that the only better thing that could happen would be if she were in an altercation with a cop and got beaten up and landed on YouTube.

Once I see this, I’m not laughing, and now I’m not smiling anymore either. It’s time to put the book away, read something else, and come back later when my blood pressure has settled.

The story continues; it isn’t funny, but it also isn’t dull. My attention is held, and I’m still somewhat convinced that it’s just about to get funny. And that’s when Lula says she is going to make money online by pretending to wake up one day “feeling like I’m a dude” and go use the men’s restroom. She’ll go in, “have my positive experience”, capture it on film and get rich. And of course, there are trans people all over America getting filthy rich just by identifying with a different gender than the one assigned them by nature and their parents…right?

Not so much.

I do find two amusing parts in this story. The first is some understated business with Stephanie’s parents. It’s the only subtle humor she employs, and maybe that’s why it works so well. I love seeing her mom and dad respond to uncomfortable situations.

The second is an entirely unexpected yet believable twist on the whole Morelli-or-Ranger thing, which had begun to go stale. I won’t spoil it for you, because you may still want to read this book.

One other obvious twist is that the writing, which has always been accessible to a reader that’s made it part way through high school, has been dumbed-down considerably. I find myself distracted by the number of four and five word sentences; where’s the fluency? I check the vocabulary and recognize that she’s dialed it down to a fourth grade level. I’ve administered vocabulary tests to fourth and fifth graders, and I find myself having flashbacks of the sort a retired teacher doesn’t really need. What the hell, Janet? Are we marketing to the functionally semi-literate now?

Nevertheless, I’ll be reading #24 when it comes down the pike; but not until I can get it used or free. My wish list is now reserved for other things.

You Can Have a Dog When I’m Dead, by Paul Benedetti***-****

youcanhaveadogwhenThis is a collection of funny stories and brief essays. It’s geared for the Boomer generation, and is billed basically as bathroom reading. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn Press for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. I rate this book with 3.5 stars and round it upward; it will be available to the Canadian public –and presumably anyone anywhere that wants to buy it digitally—February 17, 2017.

I confess I made an assumption when I saw the title. I was expecting jokes and essays dealing with man’s best friend; actually, I find very few stories related to dogs, but an unexpected number related to death. Of course, many of the essays are not humorous, but of a more reflective nature. This is all well and good, and the quality of the writing is worthy of such a sobering topic. But when I saw the book billed as being similar to the work of Dave Barry, I wasn’t anticipating reflections on my own mortality. I was expecting jokes.

That aside, there are indeed some very funny pieces here, and although I am on the borderline in terms of being in—or out—of the Boomer generation, a lot of the humor does resonate. I love seeing Benedetti try to explain a home phone to a young person:

 

“I should probably explain to anyone under thirty that a home phone is an actual device about the size of a toaster that remains in your house. The reason you cannot take it with you to the bar, to your class, and into the toilet, where I’m sure you’re receiving very important calls, is that it’s attached by wires directly to the wall in your house.”

 

I enjoy the piece on his garden, and about his elderly mother’s dance class.  I am disquieted to learn that every person, real or imagined, in any of these stories is assumed by the writer to be Caucasian.

I also find myself wondering why every story has to have booze in it somewhere. Wine, beer, whiskey, Bailey’s, more beer, more wine, gin, Kahlua…what’s up with this?

Should you pick up a copy for yourself? I suppose that depends upon what the purchase price looks like and how much time you spend at home. If it’s affordable and you are retired, you might like to have it. If the price tag is hefty, you may want to wait.

But I imagine Mr. Benedetti would prefer you to purchase it before you get that dog. Because…yeah.

 

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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Best of 2016: Humor

I tried. I really did. The fact is, 2016 was a hilarious year, at least where new books are concerned. Each time I chose one, I felt terrible about the excellent titles I wasn’t choosing and that would win in a different, less competitive year. So here’s my #1 choice in this genre, but I also want to remind you of the other 5 star books that made me laugh out loud this year:

#1

TheFloodGirls

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Also outstanding:

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.

The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

Happy release day to Fannie Flagg! This one is a treasure. If you’re buying Christmas or Hanukkah gifts, consider this book, which is bound to make your loved one smile…especially for those over 40.

Seattle Book Mama

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our…

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