That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

Heavy on the Dead, by G.M. Ford*****

Leo Waterman is one of my favorite detectives, but the opening of this twelfth entry finds him trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. In Soul Survivor, which precedes this one, Leo and his bodyguard, Gabe more or less destroyed a white supremacists’ compound in Idaho, and now they are both wanted men. They’ve traveled as far south as they can from their mossy, misty Seattle homeland without leaving the country, but even in Southern California, trouble follows them.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, and of course to author G.M. Ford, whose annual entries in this entertaining series have become one of the best parts of summer.

It’s a tricky thing, braiding dark social issues with humor, and Ford does it expertly. At the outset, Leo and Gabe find the body of a dead child on the beach. They are trying not to be noticed, but they can’t just leave him there. As the story progresses, cop Carolyn Saunders quietly encourages Leo to dig further into the incident, because the official story smells fishy; she can’t do it without risking her job, but Leo is retired, and as long as he can stay out of view of his would-be assassins, he can pretty much do as he likes. When the story concludes, the role of Saunders is left open. She may be back, or she may not. Her role here is to advocate that Leo stand on the side of justice but within sane limits; this is a role previously occupied by Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca. The real fun is had when Leo and Gabe team up, since neither one of them gives a single shit about their social standing or, when it comes down to it, their own personal safety.

As far as I know, the character of Gabe, a sidekick with loyalty, heart, and the tenacity of a pit bull, is the first gender-fluid character to show up regularly (okay, twice so far) in a long-running series. I love this character.

A longstanding hallmark of the Waterman series is the large yet sometimes invisible homeless population. This was true in 1995 when Ford published Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca, and that was before homelessness burgeoned and became a national issue. As far as I know, Ford is the first to feature homeless people in every book of the series; although his characters are often quirky and sometimes bizarre, they are ultimately human beings possessed of worth and dignity. I’ve believed every one of them, and so it’s no surprise that I believe the man with the barcode tattooed on his forehead, the one that bites Leo when he collides with him while running from cops. I like how this thread of the story resolves, too.

As the plot moves forward, we have assassins chasing the assassin that is chasing Leo, and it is simultaneously suspenseful and hilarious. This is important, because the crimes that are uncovered in pursuit of the truth about the dead child on the beach are dark indeed. In less skilled hands, the issue of human trafficking could well trip my ick-switch, that boundary line each of us possesses where the sordid but compelling central focus of a detective story suddenly becomes too sickening to be fun anymore; but the author’s less-is-more instinct is on point, and so once we touch that hot stovetop, we withdraw and move on to other things, circling back—briefly again—at its conclusion.

Anyone that reads the genre unceasingly across decades develops a mental list of overworked character and plot devices that we never care to see again; at the same time, a badass writer can take one of those elements and make it seem brand new and shiny. For me, the place where so many protagonists arrive, the one where they are knocked out, or drugged, or simply overpowered and tossed into the back of a truck (or van, or car) is one that can make me close a book. Nope; done.  But in this instance, the truck abduction is a critical component, and to try to carry off the climax and conclusion in any other way would be artificial and most likely hamper the pace. But to aspiring writers: Ford is an experienced professional; don’t try this in your book.

This book will be for sale July 23, 2019, and earlier entries in the series are selling digitally for a buck each. Get your plastic out now; you can thank me later. Highly recommended.

Alpha and Omega, by Harry Turtledove****

I greatly enjoyed We Install and Other Stories when it came out a few years ago, and so when Turtledove’s name came up again, I pounced on the chance to read and review Alpha and Omega. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

The Dome of the Rock, an ancient Islamic shrine, is about to be relocated so that the Jewish Third Temple may rise in its place. As the story commences, a rare, completely red heifer has been identified and will be used as a sacrifice for the occasion. Chaim, a youngster who has raised Rosie and regards her as a pet, is not entirely on board, but he is just one kid, and he has no authority at all.

Until he does.

Turtledove is a master writer of alternative history, which I confess isn’t my usual wheelhouse, but I do love me some old school science fiction now and then, and this book is that, too. A three-way conflict develops between the Orthodox Jews of Israel; the Muslim Grand Mufti—and the Islamic nations with which he is aligned—and the evangelical Christians of the American South, led by the Reverend Stark. Archaeologist Eric Katz, a secular Jew with no religious axe to grind, provides the reader with an objective, every-man perspective, accompanied by his girlfriend, Orly.

If I could change one thing about this story, I’d like to see a female character developed well outside of the traditional pigeonholes; journalist Gabriella almost gets there but doesn’t. However, this is an issue that’s endemic to the genre.

All told, the miracles that unfold within this witty tale are delightfully provocative; this is a story that will rocket to the top of the banned book list, and you’ll want to know why. I recommend it to fans of the genre.

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 Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

The author of the renowned #1 Ladies Detective Agency books has begun a brand new series, and when I found a chance to get in on the ground floor, I hopped onto it. This one is the first in the Detective Varg series, and the author’s signature drollery is in full effect. Big thanks go to Edelweiss and Random House Pantheon for the review copy. It’s for sale now. 

Detective Varg works for the sensitive crimes unit of the Malmo police. The unit exists for the purpose of investigating cases that require research. The setting is one of mind numbing blandness; Martin, our investigator’s dog, is growing deaf, and Varg is teaching it to lip read. We read about skin problems, a dairy farm, aging bikers, and my eyes begin to glaze over. And then, eureka! A case! There’s been an assault in the market. Someone has entered the puppet theater and stabbed its proprietor in the back of the knee. Not only a crime, but a crime of violence! Everybody wakes up and roars into action. Varg and Anna, his partner, head for the scene of the crime; they could conduct their interviews at the station of course, but Anna needs to buy eggs anyway. 

The stabbing is the first of three stories, but each piggybacks on the last, so you should read them in order. Once the stabber has been caught, tried, and has tearfully confessed, we move onto a missing person’s case featuring an imaginary boyfriend that can’t be found anywhere, followed by other disappearances. Yes, things are hopping at the Department of Sensitive Crimes. 

Smith has a dry, sneaky sense of humor, so if you read this while you are partly thinking about something else, you’ll miss a lot of the funniest bits. This is what I appreciate most about this author. Some humor writers assume that the reader is as stupid as a sack of rocks, and they drop the joke, but they can’t leave it there, and so they drop it again and then explain it, and it ruins the whole thing. Smith is the opposite. He’ll include a remark that is almost offhand, and then there’s a beat of about three seconds where I start to read on, and then it hits me, and my eyes scroll back. Did he say…oh my god. That is hysterical. And so if you’re paying attention you’re in for a treat, and if you’re checked out, it’s your loss. 

This satirical series is off to a strong, vastly amusing start, and I rate it five giggles. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are right around the corner; could your parent use a laugh or two? Who knows. If you buy it for your parent, they might let you read it when they’re finished. Highly recommended. 

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.

Lessons from Lucy, by Dave Barry***-****

3.5 rounded up; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.

Dave is seventy, and his dog Lucy is up there in years as well. Unlike most of Barry’s essays and books, this one has a reflective aspect and a bit of advice for those nearing or entering their senior years. There’s still a great deal of humor, but there’s a gently philosophical self-help thrust not present in his earlier work. As a 60-year-old retired reader that loves her dog, I represent his target demographic. And I also have to say—his demographic is clearly Caucasian, and this made me a mite uncomfortable. I’ll get back to that in a minute. I have to, since apparently no other reviewer anywhere is going to address it. *

Dave breaks his advice down into seven suggestions, all of which are in some way inspired by Lucy. None of his points are especially new or profound, but because he is so capable in describing and explaining them, he makes old tired advice seem worthy of my attention. A number of his observations left me nodding my head, and he includes liberal humorous anecdotes that in some cases, made me laugh out loud. And here I will put on my teacher hat and tell you that brain studies reveal that learning is easier when there is positive emotion that goes with it.

Dave wants senior citizens to stop merely being content—which is exactly what I am—and take the occasional trip out of our comfort zones. He describes a family trip to a wildlife preserve in Africa to illustrate his point, and his story is so hysterical that it leaves me gasping for air. I can never imagine myself participating, as Dave has, in a parade involving decorated lawnmowers, but I love reading about it. And he reminds senior men to find their friends and tell them how important they are. A great many men have friends that are very important, and that they haven’t talked to in person or even by phone for years. What are you waiting for? At some point, one of you will be dead, and then the survivor will realize his mistake. Barry argues for seizing the moment. (He also makes me glad I am female. My friends hear from me all the damn time, and when I leave the planet, they will know what they meant to me.)

I began reading Barry’s work in the 1980s, and during the ‘90s and ‘00s, I used one of his columns, “How to Play with a Dog,” to teach middle school students expository writing. Step by step, he told us how to do it, and in the most enjoyable way; and that’s what expository writing is. Kids that didn’t like to write sat up and listened to this. It is a genius piece of work, and because of this, and because of the long period during which I loved each and every thing he wrote, this book receives a favorable rating from me. Because there’s also a big problem with it. Keep reading.

I loved the way Barry skewers the whole ‘mindfulness’ shtick even as he also advocates for some of its better aspects. When he digs into the topic of the diversity workshop, I feel a little hitch in my breathing, a twinge of anxiety. I read Dave Barry Does Japan, and the things he said about the Japanese demonstrated that his understanding of other races and cultures needs an upgrade. Here he tells us that his wife is half Cuban, half Jewish, so we know he’s probably not an alt-right white supremacist, but at the same time, some of the jokes he makes are cringe-worthy at best. When he tells us that if he was ever forced to sit through another diversity workshop (as was required by the Miami Herald,) he would join the Klan and the Black staff members would go with him, I slumped. Aw, shit. Dave, statements like this are why diversity training even exists. If there’s a training and you are invited, run there and get you a real good seat. In fact, there’s a chance that other staffers had to go to a workshop that was mostly aimed at you!

I have had a similar experience with 3 or 4 other books I’ve reviewed, and there’s always someone out there that will leave a comment saying it’s ridiculous to fuss over one little sentence in the book. In anticipation, I have an analogy just for those people, and here it is:

imagine you have been invited to a potluck supper. You hand your contribution, maybe a bowl of potato salad to the host to add to the collection of food, and you grab a plate. There are three long tables, and you move down the row selecting from among the crispy fried chicken, the smoky ribs, watermelon, three-alarm chili, coleslaw, nachos, garden salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, a bowl of human excrement, baked squash with cinnamon, homemade cherry pie, key lime pie, shrimp salad, pesto salad, deviled eggs, and of course, your own contribution, the potato salad. But once you sit down, your appetite has fled, hasn’t it? You came in feeling hungry. You skipped a meal before this thing, cause you knew there’d be a lot of good things to eat. And of course, when you passed that bowl of human poo, you didn’t take any of it, and like everyone else, you politely diverted your eyes away from it once you were satisfied that it was exactly what it looked like. What the hell…? After a glance around the room to see whether a joke is about to be sprung, or at least a conversation had about this inappropriate addition, you edge toward the garbage, where you quietly deposit your uneaten meal, and then you edge toward the door…all because of that one thing.

Why would you toss a plateful of delicious food merely because there was one distasteful thing on the table? Because neither you nor your food could be close to that mess for even a minute.

So that’s how I see the Klan reference. It’s hard to chuckle after a bomb like that has been included, and he even includes a snarky remark after it about the fact that some will be offended, which comes off like an extended middle finger to anyone that doesn’t like a Klan-friendly joke.

And maybe that’s how it rolls with him; he has all the money he needs, and he doesn’t care if there are people that don’t like what he wrote. But I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would write a memoir like this, one intended to provide an excellent philosophy for his aging readers, one which will also be a part of his legacy after he’s gone, and then include something that will hurt some of the people that read it. I just don’t get it.

Do I recommend this book to you? From where I sit, if you want it, don’t pay full price for it. I wouldn’t buy it for anyone I like, but now you have my take on it, so the as always, the decision rests with you.

*Sigh!

The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, by Matt Kracht***

I received this review copy free and early, courtesy of Net Galley and Chronicle Books. This whimsical yet bawdy take on our feathered frenemies will be for sale on April Fool’s Day, which figures.

Kracht—whose name sounds ever so slightly like something a crow might say—illustrates each bird he discusses in a style that is not half bad, with some anger tossed in as seasoning. I have to admit I don’t entirely understand his indignation, given the state of the environment. I myself tend to relish the sounds of birds, most of whom the author refers to as “shit sacks,” “noisy little fucks,” etc; yet clearly his tongue is in his cheek, since he studies them sufficiently to write about them.

Much of the humor will be appreciated by teenagers, and so if you are expecting a teenage guest over the spring and summer holidays and the blue language won’t be considered inappropriate in your family, you might want this book for your guest room.

If I could change one thing about this book, I’d expand the section devoted to “Murderers,” meaning birds of prey. This is where the art is the best and also the funniest, and so I don’t understand why he only includes four birds here, one of which is the bald eagle, which even Kracht cannot diss. Most of all I wonder how a Seattle birder can omit the Peregrine Falcon, a magnificent and adaptive bird that dwells on the ledges of many of our city’s tallest buildings. Go figure.

If this eccentric little book sounds like something you or those you gift might like, you can get it April 1, 2019.