Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.

Family Values, by GM Ford*****

“They were standing inside the door when I came out of the bathroom. Two of them. Matching gray suits, milling around like the owned the joint. Something about carrying a gun in one pocket and the power of the state in the other changes the way a person relates to the universe. For as long as I could remember, that particular sense of privilege has always pissed me off.”

FamilyValues

Leo Waterman is a solid citizen now, no longer the scruffy Seattle PI that he was when our series began. But now that he has a lovely home and a good woman—well, sometimes anyway—he also has more to defend, and is less fettered by economic constraints. Those that have loved this series from the get-go should go go go to their nearest book seller or favorite website and get get get this book. New readers can jump right in, but likely as not, you’ll want to go back and get the rest of the series once you’ve seen this one. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, but it’s worth the full jacket price. It is for sale now.

 

Leo returns from vacation to find Rebecca Duvall, the love of his life, on the bathroom floor with a needle in her arm. Her reputation has been damaged by a suggestion of corruption, but Leo knows this is no suicide attempt. Her job as medical examiner is on the line now, and so Leo enlists the help of his boisterous investigative squad to untangle the mystery of who wants Rebecca not only fired, but dead. Ford tells the story with the gut-busting edgy humor for which he is known. He takes a playful jab or two at gender fluidity; at times this part feels a little excessive, but that’s not where the story lingers. There are a million twists and turns as our impulsive PI goes where everyone tells him he should not:

“’ I went out to see Patricia Harrington today.’

“’Don’t fuck with those people, Leo.’”

There are some arrhythmia-worthy attack scenes, and the plot wholly original and free of formulaic gimmicks. The streets and alleys of Seattle and the hinterlands beyond are all rendered immediate and palpable. 

Ultimately the heart of the tale is revealed by Leo’s regard for Seattle’s homeless men and women, some of whom were once friends of his late father. It is them he turns to for extra eyes in a difficult situation:

 

They were great for stakeouts, as long as it was somewhere downtown. They could hang around all day and nobody paid them any mind because society has trained itself not to see the poor and the destitute. That way, we don’t have to think about how the richest society on earth allows so many of its citizens to live in the streets like stray dogs.

 

The snappy banter between Waterman and Seattle cops is always delightful.  It’s even better once we add a pair of fake UPS guys, some thugs known as the Delaney brothers, local ruling scions, and poor Rebecca as the straight character representing all that is sane and normal: “Oh Jesus…what now? Locusts?”  The narrative is fresh, funny, and entirely original, avoiding all of the formulaic foolishness that makes old lady schoolteachers like this reviewer peevish.

The ending will make you want to sing.

Altogether, this novel is an unmissable treat.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

Hook’s Tale, by John Leonard Pielmeier***

HooksTalePielmeier’s debut novel gives poor, maligned Captain Hook an opportunity to share his side of the story. The teaser promises a “rollicking” story, and at first it seems to be exactly that, but it runs out of steam early on. Nevertheless, thank you, Net Galley and Scribner, for the opportunity to read and review.

At the outset, Captain James Cook (his name isn’t Hook!), named for the famous sea explorer, describes himself as looking nothing like the “unbearably pompous actor”, a clear reference to the hilarious Cyril Ritchard, who played Hook in the twentieth century complete with high heeled boots and a beauty mark; however, our pirate assures us, those periwinkle blue eyes do fit the bill. There is an assumption that the reader is well steeped in both the stage and cinematic depictions of the character, and it seems like a fair one. I love reading Hook’s fond and hugely original description of Smee, and our introduction to Hook’s pet crocodile.

“I named it Daisy, after my mother.”

Unfortunately, somewhere between the ten percent and twenty percent mark, the narrative founders, and the most frustrating part for this reviewer is that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong. The concept is strong, the voice clear, and yet my interest is gone before the quarter-mark is reached, and at that point I am reading for duty rather than pleasure. I came away with two considerations.

The first is the linear quality of the prose. The formal, old-school language is fun at the outset, but it might be more powerful if alternated with a present day narrative. Hook could have a grandson or other present-day relative that contributes; since Hook marries Tiger Lily, that might be a way to get there. Readers of the digital era may not have the patience to read the rather Victorian-sounding dialect all the way through. An alternating narrative would probably pick up the pace and make for a more compelling arc.

The second consideration is audience. There are two characteristics here that suggest completely different types of reader, and they don’t overlap very well, which may make for a small readership. We have the Boomers and those that came right after them, folks that may have seen the Cyril Ritchard version of Captain Hook on television. It was a childhood favorite of this reviewer, and you can watch the entire thing here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6K2M…

The assumed knowledge and detailed descriptions jibe with this audience. But then there is the other sort of detail, the gore and guts that are more suited to a young reader, perhaps one in his early teens. Older readers may wince at the graphic gore here, decapitations and intestines and fountains of blood—I certainly did—but younger readers that are more likely to love it are unlikely to tolerate the formal prose style adopted. It’s hard to tell whether the writer had a particular audience in mind, but if so he shot wide of the mark.

Another possibility is that the story really is better as a visual medium. Reading about people flying is not as enjoyable as seeing them do it, and I say this as a person that prefers the printed word over film almost always. J.M. Barrie’s work itself is difficult to plow through, and also racist as hell; the story took wing on stage and screen. In addition, the stage version was the first time an actor had been hooked to cables and “flew” in front of a live audience; what seems like corny, ancient technology now, was new and exciting then.

All of this notwithstanding, you may love this book. It was released July 18, and is for sale now.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

The Accomplished Guest, by Ann Beattie*****

theaccomplishedguest Ann Beattie is a seasoned writer with a list of accolades as long as your arm, and this is why I requested a DRC of her soon-to-be-published short story collection, whose theme is visitors and travel. I was not disappointed. Thank you Net Galley and Scribner for letting me read it free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 13.

The first selection is droll; our protagonist is going to see an older man, and so we wonder…is this a boyfriend? Is it an ex? And as we move down the checklist, I love what she does with it. The next couple of selections are good but not as striking, but then the wind catches in Beattie’s sails and she is unstoppable.  Other favorites here are “Other People’s Birthdays”, “The Debt”, and “The Cloud”. I found myself highlighting most of the text, which is wasted effort, since I can’t quote most of the book to you, but it’s something that happens to me when I read top-drawer fiction. The story I loved best is “The Caterer”, which made me laugh out loud and woke Mr. Computer, who was slumbering next to me and had to get up the next day for work.

Short stories are wonderful bedtime material, because there isn’t the wrenching sensation in tearing oneself loose from the book. When the story is over, it’s time to bookmark one’s place and turn out the light. I’ve read over a hundred short story collections, and this one is among the best.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent prose, and in particular to Boomers.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby*****

wearenevermeetingGet out your plastic and go use the restroom, because this book will leave you holding your sides. Samantha Irby mines what ought to be old material but isn’t, at least not by the time she is done with it, and her edgy, plain-truth humor may leave you breathless by the time the last page is turned. My thanks go to Net Galley and Knopf Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book has just been released and is available for purchase.

Much of the base level subject matter is eternal and well worn: needing to use the bathroom while stuck in traffic; dating; racism; attempting to lose weight. But Irby has a fresh take on everything. She refers to herself as “old”, and since at 36 she is the age of this blogger’s eldest child, I suspect that I am not her target audience. But so much of what she says is eternal, and her take on current social concerns such as cop violence and the horror of stumbling upon a bunch of white people in the hinterland performing a Civil War reenactment complete with Confederate flags is welcome and resonant. The thread in which she voices the horror of being away from a major urban center is one I share. I have not laughed at potty humor since I was twelve, but the essay containing the traffic jam bathroom emergency on the way home from the dorm made me laugh hard enough to shake the bed, and my husband—a silver-haired Japanese gentleman old enough for Social Security—laughed hard enough that he was doubled over. The passage where she discusses having squandered money on things she doesn’t need just to prove she can do it is just one instance where I laugh because I am surprised. What writer ever admits this? Irby does.

Other aspects of this wonderful collection of essays were more educational than resonant, but also good to read. Can Black women admit they have mental health issues and still be Black?

Her cover model represents the cat from hell, Helen Keller:

“’I know where they keep the euthanasia solution,’ I whispered into the downy fur on top of her head.”

Every book blogger knows the pressured feeling that comes with scooping up a galley right before publication. When I begin the book, all I want is to read it fast so I can review it in a timely manner; yet by the time I turn the final page, I am disappointed that we are done here.

Highly recommended to strong women with an offbeat sense of humor, and those that love them.