Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin***

I received this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It will be available to the public February 26, 2019.

The cover grabbed my attention right away since I like sassy working class fiction. I haven’t read the author’s first book, but this one doesn’t rely on back story, so that is no problem.

The promotional blurb says this is laugh-out-loud funny, and it did make me laugh out loud right away. The protagonist Mona is a housecleaner, and as she is wiping down the various surfaces in the bathroom, she comes across a human turd on a soap dish. The hell? But she resolves not to say anything about it, because she tells us once you mention it, they win. I howled with laughter. This is great stuff. Every now and then she tosses in a cleaning tip, and for some reason it works with the narrative. Maybe it’s because she already uses such an eccentric style that it seems consistent with the rest of the story.

As the first of the book’s four sections moves forward, she recollects the oddball things that she’s found while cleaning other people’s homes, and then we see the reward she gives herself at the end, after several hours of cleaning a large, expensive home: she paws through the residents’ clothing, selects some, and tries it on. She photographs herself in their clothes, and she also photographs herself mostly nude with their more remarkable possessions.

But one day she is interrupted in this ritual by the homeowner, and a truly bizarre relationship develops which includes his wife as well, and just like that we moved out of my comfort zone, but I promised to read and review this thing, so I forged onward.

I knew this would be edgy humor when I requested the galley, and perhaps I should have read between the lines a little more thoroughly. The narrative contains a goodly amount of explicit sexual content—much of it twisted–not to mention a rape that Mona recounts, a scarring episode from her past. But in all of it, I don’t see any character development to speak of.  The plot seems like more of a framework that’s been constructed in order to contain the various bits of humor that the author wants to include. And here, I also have to wonder why, why, why would anyone include the horrific suicide of a family member in an otherwise raunchily funny book? It was unexpected and made my gut flip over, the snide things she thinks about how the couple has dealt with the death of their daughter, the disposition of the ashes. Once you have read something you can’t unread it, and in all honesty I won’t read anything by this writer again.

At the same time, there are readers that loved her first book and I’ll bet you a dollar that they will love this one too. It bears the hallmark of a cult classic. I have no doubt that many readers will love it, but I do not.

Recommended to readers that read and enjoyed the author’s first book.

As Directed, by Kathleen Valenti****

Oh, I do love me some Maggie O’Malley mysteries. Thanks go to Henery Press and Edelweiss Books for the review copy. This is the third in the series, and will be available to the public March 12, 2019.

Maggie is recovering from brain trauma inflicted on her by a bad guy in an earlier book. Maggie 2.0 is more savvy than before, tougher than before; yet she is impaired sometimes in memory and thought because of her injury, and this adds to the suspense.

But you can’t keep a good woman down and she is here to prove it. She is healing and also planning her wedding to Constantine, which is a delicate balancing act, with the senior women from her family and Constantine’s ready to do battle over critical world issues like frosting choice and the cut of the bridal gown. These things fade in importance, however, when three pharmacy customers collapse after ingesting cyanide that is traced to Petrosian’s Pillbox. They are forced to close indefinitely, and the police—who Maggie and Constantine agree are “falling short of Magnum P.I. status”—focus on two people of interest: Maggie, and her boss. Once again Maggie and Constantine must team up in order to save her job and her reputation. They have to unravel the problem themselves as they have done so successfully before. 

“What could possibly go wrong?”

Along the way we encounter newsman Brock, who follows Maggie relentlessly as he jumps out from behind dumpsters and whatnot with a microphone at all hours, and an admirer of sorts who is following her, leaving her threatening notes. Constantine points out that Maggie has a “two-fer” on stalkers, and he isn’t wrong. We also meet The Boulder, a steroidally enhanced bodybuilder that teaches spin class at the local gym; Maggie’s friend Ada works at the gym and serves as confidant. 

And Maggie gets a dog. 

Insightful humor pops into all the best places. Valenti knows all the timeworn clichés that hack writers utilize, and she turns them all on their heads in a delightfully satirical way. As we go, she deepens Maggie’s character and the bond she shares with Constantine, her father, Miss Vanilla, and now of course, the dog. 

I love the ending, and the creative uses that Maggie finds for bridal ribbon.

This is a damn fun series and you should get all three of these books, but if you want to read this as a stand-alone novel you can do it without getting lost. Recommended for those that like humorous mysteries.

The Plotters, by Un-su Kim*****

The author of this surreal, expertly crafted tale has been called “the Korean Henning Mankell,” but I say he is the Korean Kurt Vonnegut. Enter a world in which the most ignorant and uncurious survive, one in which “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame.” My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the advance review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This novel will be available in the U.S. February 12, 2019.

Our protagonist is Reseng. Orphaned at a young age, he grew up in Old Raccoon’s library. He is an assassin. Killing others for hire has grown into a huge industry, and the story begins with Reseng watching an old man through a scope. He has a job to do.

Readers are forewarned that this story is not for the squeamish, and I almost abandoned it, because although I like dark humor, this is triple-dark. I set it aside fairly early, unsure whether I was coming back or not, but despite its brutality, it drew me back, and I am glad I returned to it.

Bear is Reseng’s friend, and he runs the pet crematorium.  That’s what it’s called, because the murder industry is still officially illegal; it wouldn’t do to announce his business as the place to dispose of a freshly assassinated human victim. Not yet anyway; the way things are going, this may change. Reseng is there on business, though, because the old man he just killed has to be processed. And as he and Bear converse on the state of the profession—so many immigrants are coming to South Korea and taking these jobs; Chinese, North Koreans that sneak over, Vietnamese. They’ll work cheap, and it makes it harder for guys like Reseng to get what the jobs are worth. And then there’s outsourcing. Assassins are hired by plotters, but Reseng reflects that “Plotters are just pawns like us. A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them that tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter…You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

 Reseng’s greatest concern is Old Raccoon, Reseng’s aging mentor who is being edged out by unseen forces. Old Raccoon isn’t an assassin, but he has kept himself out of the crosshairs by permitting his library to be used as a meeting point between shady individuals looking to make deals. That’s worked for him pretty well, until recently. Old Raccoon is all the family Reseng has, and so out of concern, he begins asking questions. It’s a reckless thing to do, and he knows it.

Before long, Reseng’s life turns into a hall of mirrors, and it’s hard to know who to believe, because he can’t trust anyone. Where does Hanja, who was also mentored by Old Raccoon, fit in? What about the cross-eyed librarian? Is she on the up and up, and if so, where did she go? Is The Barber involved here? His queries take him to visit Hanja, who is now wealthy and influential, a giant among giants in the industry, and his offices take up three whole floors in a high-rise building:

“As if it wasn’t ironic enough that the country’s top assassination provider was brazenly running his business in a building owned by an international insurance company; the same assassination provider was also simultaneously managing a bodyguard firm and a security firm. But just as a vaccine company facing bankruptcy will ultimately survive not by making the world’s greatest vaccine but, rather, the world’s worst virus, so, too, did bodyguard and security firms need the world’s most evil terrorists to prosper, not the greatest security experts. That was capitalism. Hanja understood how the world could curl around and bite its own tail like the uroboros serpent…There was no better business model than owning both the virus and vaccine…A business like that would never go under.”

The struggle unfolds in ways that are impossible to predict, and what kind of fool would even attempt to make sense of it? When challenged, Hanja tries to warn Reseng that when an anaconda tries to swallow an alligator, it instead dies of a ruptured stomach, but Reseng will not be stopped. His journey builds to a riotous crescendo, and there’s a point past which it’s impossible not to read till the thing is done.

It’s a scathing tale of alienation told by a master storyteller, and the ending is brilliant as well. There’s nobody else writing anything like this today. Highly recommended.

The Waiter, by Matias Faldbakken**

Translated by Alice Menzies

Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. I am sorry to be so late here; the truth is that I kept setting it aside because I didn’t like it, and then returning to it, thinking that I was missing something. I’ve given up on finding the magic, though there are some nice moments here; I also have a strong hunch that there may be a cultural barrier in play. Those that spend time in Europe, possibly with some Scandinavian background, may enjoy this in a way that I didn’t. 

The setting is a fine restaurant in Norway, and the protagonist is of course the waiter. The author pokes fun at the pretensions of everyone present. I like satire and dislike pretension, and so I expected to like this book. There are some clever character sketches, and that’s where I am able to engage, but a character sketch is by definition a brief thing, and so I am quickly disengaged again. I feel like the same joke is being made a different way a great many times, and the “neurotic waiter whose wit is sharp as a filleting knife” (to quote the teaser, more or less) seems not just sharp or witty, but downright vicious. And here it isn’t just a lack of connection that gets in my way; I recoil at some of the passages. 

The book is supposed to appeal to everyone that likes food and wine, spends time in restaurants, or has European sensibilities. Food and restaurants are a match; but I don’t keep wine in the house and have no European sensibilities at all, apart from a few Irish habits passed down over generations. So maybe foodies that spend time in Europe will respond better than I have. In order to see print in other languages than the original, the novel must have met with acclaim locally, and this is why it confuses me that my own response is so negative. But a reviewer can only write her own viewpoint, and mine is that this book isn’t funny, and I don’t recommend it.

Best Debut Fiction 2018

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                                                                                           Honorable Mention:

Holy Lands, by Amanda Sthers*****

HolyLands

 

“Does keeping the memory fresh prevent history from repeating itself? Surely not. Memories are meant to be forgotten. History is meant to be repeated. That of Jews, of women, of Arabs, of people who suffer, of Little Red Riding Hood. And the grandmother always, always has sharp teeth.”

Seldom do I make a decision to read a galley based almost entirely on the book’s cover, but really. A dancing pig in the Holy Land? How can that story not be interesting? Big thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury. This book will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The whole book is a series of letters and emails sent between five characters. We have four family members: Harry and Monique are divorced, yet it’s one of those complicated divorces where there’s no clean break; David and Annabelle are their adult children.

Harry is an American expatriate who has moved to Israel, but instead of embracing his culture and homeland in a more conventional way, he has opted to become a pig farmer in Nazareth, one of the few places in this Jewish nation where the animals are not straight up illegal. And so the fifth character is the rabbi, who entreats Harry to give up the pork business. He’s upsetting people, and he should respect his roots a little more. Jews have been through enough, nu? And before we know it, there’s mention of the Holocaust.

Harry wants to keep his pigs, and he thinks it is time for Jews to lighten up about the Holocaust, maybe tell a joke about it now and then. The rabbi is floored. Joke? About the Holocaust? And so it’s on.

You would think that with such edgy subject matter the story would veer over the boundary of good taste, but Sthers—who has many bestsellers to her credit, though this is her American debut—is deft, insightful and very, very funny. The prose is angry, hilarious, and aching all in turns, not unlike our feelings for our kin.

Families are such fertile territory, and this one is among the best fictional families in literature. David, Harry and Monique’s son, is a gay playwright whose father has not come to grips with David’s sexuality. David writes him endless letters; Harry won’t respond. We see how Harry thinks and feels about David through his correspondence with the rabbi, and with the things Annabelle learns when she comes for a visit. Meanwhile, David’s new play is about to open, and it’s titled “Kosher Pig.” It’s about his father. Oh, how he wants Harry to be there for the opening! But Harry remains incommunicado.

This is a slender little book, just 176 pages, and so I expected a casual romp, but it’s more than that. It’s a quick read, not because it’s lightweight literature but because it’s impossible to put down. I recommend you should get it and read it, and then…maybe you should call your parents. Better yet, go visit them.

Best Humor 2018

MrFloodsLastHonorable Mentions: 

 

 

 

Seances Are For Suckers, by Tamara Berry****-*****

SeancesareforTamara Berry is the queen of snarky humor, and now that I have read the first installment of the Eleanor Wilde series, I am primed and ready for those that follow it. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Ellie narrates her own story in the first person. She explains that she makes her living through fraud, scamming those that want to talk to their dead relatives and solve their Earthly problems via séances. A referral brings her a wealthy Brit that wants a fake medium to vanquish the ghost his mother believes is haunting their mansion. Expenses paid, she flies out to join him and is delighted to find that he lives in an actual castle. His mother, however, hates houseguests and discourages them with miserably small, terrible meals and bad accommodations. As preparations are made for the séance, guests exchange furtively obtained and hoarded snacks in order to avoid starvation.

Nicholas is a hunk; he and Ellie are both drawn toward each other and repelled in classic fashion, and there’s a lot of crackling banter that keeps me snickering. Other well drawn characters include Nicholas’s mother, his sister and her teenage daughter, and a couple of other men, one of whom works for the family. When she comments to the reader, “Bless the sturdy and simple folk of this world,” I nearly fall off my chair. The narrative and dialogue are wonderfully paced and hugely amusing. The solution to the mystery is both partially obvious and wildly contrived, but since this is satire, that makes it even better. In fact, there’s more than one tired old saw that works its way into this story, but it’s with a side-eye wink every time, and I love it.

As the narrative unspools, a corpse is found and then lost, threats and warnings heighten the suspense, and we wonder along with Ellie which of these guests and family members are truly as they seem, and which might be a killer.

The scene leading into the séance is so hilarious that I nearly wake the mister with my cackling.

The only aspect I find unappealing here is the somewhat saccharine story having to do with Ellie’s dying sister. Ellie’s dishonest vocation is, she tells us, necessary so that she can pay for her catatonic sister’s nursing care, and while squeamish cozy readers may find it comforting, I am more than ready to dispatch sis to the great beyond and just let Ellie be Ellie anyway. Happily, this doesn’t hold the story back, particularly since most of the sister’s part of this tale is told at the start and is out of the way by the time we are rolling.

I can’t wait to see where life—and the wakeful dead—will take Ellie next. Highly recommended for mystery lovers ready to be entertained.

A Shot In The Dark, by Lynne Truss****

AShotintheThe world is a serious place right now, and everyone needs to step away from it now and then in order to stay sane. Here it is, your very own mental health break. In fact, if you look at the hourly rate of a good therapist versus the number of hours you’ll read this mystery, even at the full jacket price, Truss’s book is clearly the more economical choice, and it’s far more fun. Lucky me, I read it free courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

The story doesn’t start as well as it might. It begins with a note from the author explaining that she has written this book exclusively for the purpose of joining a particular writer’s club. It’s likely intended to be a tongue-in-cheek reference, but it comes across as an in-joke between people other than me. I almost feel as though I have walked into a party to which I am not invited.

Then, to make matters worse, the opening chapters contain some jokes that fall completely flat. At about the quarter mark, I consider skimming and then bailing, but I am reluctant to do this with a galley, so I double check the author and publisher first. That changes everything. Bloomsbury is not some small, desperate press that will take any old thing, so that gives me pause. Then I see that Truss also wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Cat Out of Hell. At this point the tumblers click into place. I liked both of those books quite well, but I felt exactly the same at the quarter mark of the latter story as I feel about this one. Truss is a writer that takes her time warming up, but she is worth the wait. Soldier through the start as she sets up her characters and puts the story in motion, because once she is on a tear there is no stopping her, and then she’s funny as hell.

Our story starts in a little tourist town in Britain. Twitten is the eager new guy on the force; Sargent Brunswick is unimaginative but sincere, shackled by the lead cop, a bureaucratic blowhard that avoids doing police work by pretending that Brighton has no crime. Since this is the first in the Constable Twitten series we know he won’t be killed, but everyone else is at risk.

Our story features performers from the Brighton Royal Theatre, a woman that works as a cleaner and occasional secretary for the constabulary, a love triangle, a playwright, and an ambitious journalist. The satire is both thick and at times, subtle. I appreciate a writer that can sneak humor into odd nooks and crannies without hitting me over the head with the fact that she’s made a joke, and Truss does that even as she lays out the larger joke in an unmissable way. Ultimately, even the captain must acknowledge that a crime has taken place:

“’May I offer you a sherry before you go?’ And then she opened the door to her front living room, and let out a scream of horror. Furniture was in disarray; ornaments shattered, curtains torn, blood dripped from the fireplace and was sprayed in arcs across the walls. There was no doubt that a life-and-death struggle had taken place inside this room–the biggest giveaway being the lifeless remains on the best Persian rug, of the magnetic young playwright Jack Braithwaite, whose own personal Gas Man had arrived unexpectedly to read his meter and collect his dues.”

The glory of satire is that instead of needing to dream up a variety of innovative twists and turns to liven up the plot, Truss instead can take the oldest and tritest murder mystery elements and make us choke with laughter as we read them.

An added perk is that this is the first in a series, and so the reader can get in on the ground floor. Just don’t trip over the corpse.

Once Truss warms up, her humor is hilarious. Cancel that expensive therapy appointment and order this book instead.

Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart****

Lakesuccess“’All I know is I never had any advantages,’ Barry said. ‘I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents.’”

Schteyngart’s wry new novel takes a swift kick at the funny bone of the American ruling class. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy.

Barry grew up as the son of the pool guy, the man that serviced the swimming pools of the wealthy. Now between one trade and another—some of it inside, some of it legal—he has become one of the wealthiest men in Manhattan. His entitlement and vast privilege rubs up against his flimsy social conscience; meanwhile he tries to avoid coming to terms with his two-year-old son’s Autism. (When the children of the very rich are Autistic, it’s referred to as “on the Spectrum.”) His midlife crisis comes to a head when rumblings suggest he may be held accountable for his dubious business practices, and with his marriage teetering on the brink and the law breathing heavily down his collar, Barry flings himself onto a Greyhound bus and rubs elbows with the hoi polloi. Obsessed with becoming a mentor to someone with brown skin, Barry takes his rolling case of impossibly expensive wristwatches and embarks on a series of failed friendships and romances as he hurls himself due south and then west to San Diego. Who knows? Maybe he will even start an urban watch fund so that children that live in poverty can learn to appreciate fine timepieces.

Humor is a hard field for many authors. Some get stuck on a single joke, which is funny at the outset but tired by the end of an entire novel; others simply bomb, and unlike stand-up comics, the bad humor is enshrined forever in published form. So I approach humorous novels cautiously; but Schteyngart is no novice, though he is new to me, he has a good sized body of humorous work before this. The result is smooth and professional, but also original and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

The ending is brilliant.

This book will be available September 5, 2018.