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.

Soul Survivor, by G.M. Ford*****

SoulSurvivorLeo Waterman is one of my favorite fictional detectives. Lucky me, I scored this eleventh in the series free courtesy of Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer in exchange for this honest review.

Leo has changed, and yet he hasn’t. He came into his old man’s ill-gotten fortune awhile back, so he doesn’t have to work anymore, and since his knees are going, it’s just as well. But an old family friend comes calling on behalf of a grieving parent who wants to know how her boy, Matthew, turned into a mass shooter. Matthew died too, so nobody can ask him. Waterman goes to the funeral, where hysterical gun law advocates start a ruckus, and somehow Leo finds himself in the middle of it. From there, it’s all downhill.

Waterman runs afoul of some serious thugs, and they nearly kill him. He wakes up in the hospital and learns that his assailants have carved a symbol into his chest, one associated with white supremacy.

At first the plot seemed, once we were past the hospital portion, a little too familiar. Waterman always seems to find himself opposing right-wing nut jobs, and in chasing a resolution, he always ends up leaving Seattle in pursuit of reactionary criminals in some hinterland headquarters or bunker. But upon reflection, I decided I’m good with that, since it matches my own worldview. There are some bad apples in every city, every town, but the most progressive parts of society gravitate toward major population centers. Even an elitist place like Seattle contains more laudable elements than the teeny rightwing enclaves that are established in various rural outposts.

It doesn’t hurt that the Waterman series makes me laugh out loud at least once every single time.

I have read too many mysteries in which the sleuth is shot, stabbed, or whatevered, and when they wake up in the hospital, the first thing they do is rip out their IV, hobble into their clothes, and scoot out the door against doctor’s orders, material reality be damned. This inclination is inching its way onto my hot-button list of stupid plot points I never want to see again, and so I am greatly cheered by the way Ford writes this portion of the book. Leo’s in the hospital for a good long while, because he’s hurt. He’s really hurt. At the outset, he’s in a wheelchair, and then he needs additional surgeries and physical therapy. He leaves when he’s discharged. I’m pretty sure I hollered my thanks at least once here.

Ford’s corrupt cop characters are among the best written anywhere. I also love the intrepid desk clerk named Dylan who uses what little power he possesses for the forces of good.

This story is a page turner, and it’s hilarious in places. Last I looked, the Kindle version was only six bucks. If you love the genre and lean left, you should get it and read it. Your weekend will thank you for it.

 

So Close to Being the Sh*t Y’all Don’t Even Know, by Retta**

SoClosetobeingtheshHuh. Go figure.

Although I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, the television show for which this comedic actor has become famous, I thought I would enjoy her memoir. For one thing, she’s a big woman, and I love it when well-padded women have the courage to go on stage for a purpose other than disparaging themselves. At least one reviewer on Goodreads hadn’t watched her program, yet loved this book. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC; I want to like this book too, but I don’t.

Retta is the child of Liberian immigrants who sacrificed a great deal so that she could receive a stellar education. They had no clue that life would lead her to show business instead of medical school. She began her career by doing stand-up routines, and so I went to YouTube and watched a clip from Comedy Central, and I thought it was pretty good. But much of the humor she uses is in the delivery. Without the pauses, without the facial expressions and other body language, things that cannot be conveyed in writing, that routine comes out flat. I watched her perform her signature line, and whereas I didn’t feel the magic, I suspect context would improve it.

If the memoir were simply a little dull, I could likely go with a third star here, but there are aspects that I found abrasive. I don’t need to know all about the many thousands of dollars apiece that go into her handbag collection, and I wonder why anyone would find that kind of self-indulgence amusing. How many good causes could use that money? I don’t need all the details of what she does on the toilet; ew. And why insert a chapter complaining about the gifts she has received from others? Was she raised to be so ungracious? So much of the collection includes her great love for booze that I found myself wanting to hire a skywriter to fly over Southern California to say, GET HELP.

On the other hand, I’m a member of the Boomer generation. I suspect that a lot of Retta’s fan base is younger than I am. So if you already a big fan, you may like this book, but unless your pockets are deep—not deep enough for fifteen thousand dollar purses, but deep—I suggest waiting until you can get It free or cheap. Others may want to read something else. 

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li*****

NumberOneChineseLillian Li’s debut novel , a tale of intra-family rivalry, intrigue, and torn loyalties is a barn burner; it captured my attention at the beginning, made me laugh out loud in the first chapter, and it never flagged. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Company, from whom I received a review copy in exchange for this honest review.  Don’t let yourself miss this one. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

The book opens with bitter scheming on the part of Jimmy, one of two brothers that fall heir to the family restaurant after their father passes away.  Jimmy has waited for the old man to die so that he could run the restaurant his own way. The Duck House serves greasy, cheap Chinese food, and he is sure he can do better. He craves elegance, a superior menu with superior ingredients. He wants renown, and he doesn’t want his brother Johnny to have one thing to do with it.

Johnny’s in China. Johnny runs the business end of the restaurant, and he takes care of the front of the house. He’ll come back to Maryland in a heartbeat, though, when the Duck House burns down.

Li does a masterful job of introducing a large cast of characters and developing several of them; although at the outset the story appears to be primarily about the brothers, the camera pans out and we meet a host of others involved in one way or another with the restaurant. There are the Honduran workers that are referred to by the Chinese restaurant owners and their children as ‘the amigos’, and we see the way they are dismissed by those higher up, even when it is they that pull Jimmy from a burning building. There’s a bittersweet love triangle involving Nan and Ah-Jack, who work in the restaurant, and Michelle, Ah-Jack’s estranged wife, but it’s handled deftly and with such swift pacing and sterling character development that it never becomes a soap opera. Meanwhile Nan’s unhappy teenage son, Pat, pulls at her loyalties, and she is torn between him and Ah-Jack in a way that has to look familiar to almost every mother that sees it in one way or another. But the most fascinating character by far, hidden in the recesses of her home, is the sons’ widowed mother, Feng Fui, who serves as a powerful reminder not to underestimate senior citizens.

Li is one of the most exciting, entertaining new voices in fiction since the Y2K, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Gan bei!

39 Winks, by Kathleen Valenti****

39winksValenti’s droll new series continues, with Maggie O’Malley and her hunky boyfriend, Constantine riding in to rescue his beloved Aunt Polly. Those that read Protocol, the series opener, know that Valenti writes with swagger, often with tongue in cheek. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is now for sale.

What would induce a woman to walk away from her job in order to play amateur sleuth? Maggie wouldn’t know. She is currently unemployed. Her career with Big Pharma tanked after she turned whistle-blower, and now she’s been sacked from her position as a retail sales clerk. Damn. But it’s just as well in a way, because Constantine’s Aunt Polly served as “the woman who fit the mother-shaped hole in her life,” and she needs Maggie’s help. She’s in declining health—Parkinson’s? Alzheimer’s? Bad air, bad water, poisoned food, poison gas? And following the murder of her husband, Howard, who even Polly acknowledges “was a bit of an ass”, Polly is under investigation, a favorite suspect since she is the surviving spouse of an unhappy marriage.

Valenti’s feminist spirit could not be more welcome than it is today, and her dialogue crackles. This is a fast read, part satire, part suspense, and I love the banter that unfolds between Polly and Constantine, reminiscent of the snappy patter of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis in the 1980s TV show “Moonlighting” (which actually draws a mention toward the story’s conclusion).

Take Maggie O’Malley on vacation with you. It will be better with her than without her. Try not to wake the passenger snoozing next to you on the plane with your snickering, though—unless you’re bringing a second copy to share.