Bad, Bad Seymour Brown, by Susan Isaacs*****

Susan Isaacs has been writing bestsellers since the late 1970s, and she’s hilarious! I’ve been a fan since then. During that earlier time, a period of third wave feminism, her tales often featured rotten husbands and ex-husbands reaping what they’d sown. Her creativity and trademark snark have always kept me running back for more. Her new novel, Bad, Bad Seymour Brown is the second in the Corie Geller detective series, and it’s deeply satisfying. My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Seymour Brown was an accountant for the Russian mob. “I’ve never heard of a violent accountant before,” my mom observed. “At worst, they’re a little pissy.” But by all accounts, Seymour was a rotten guy. “He made regular bad look good.” Bad to everyone, that is, except his five year old daughter April, his only child, for whom the sun rose and fell. But Seymour’s family was tucked away for the night when an unknown assailant came and burned the house to the ground with the Browns inside it. Happily, April made it out the window alive. The case was never solved.

Now April is an adult, a professor in film studies. She’s put her past behind her, and now, all of a sudden—someone is trying to kill her! She contacts the detective that was assigned to the murder investigation; he’s retired now, and he is Corie Geller’s father.

All of the things that I love about Isaacs’s work are here in abundance. The story is full of feminist moxie—Geller isn’t an assistant to her father, but rather retired from the FBI in order to raise her stepdaughter—she is his partner in this new investigation, and as it happens, in the new detective agency they’ve begun. But another thing I’ve always loved about Isaacs’s prose is her trademark snark, and I snickered and chortled all the way through this engaging novel. The pages flew by, and I found myself looking for extra reading time when I could sneak off to plunge in once more. Susan Isaacs writes the most creative figurative language I’ve seen anywhere. She’s funny as hell.

You can read this book as a stand-alone, but I’ll tell you right now, once you read the second, you’ll want to read the first one, Takes One to Know One also.

Highly recommended, particularly to feminist boomers.

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkos*****

barracudaDanny Kelly is a swimming prodigy, and he is elevated beyond his humble working class origins by a sports scholarship. When he is in the water, he can fly. The water parts for him. His coach believes, and he himself is certain, that he is the strongest, fastest, best swimmer in Australia and perhaps the world. No one can beat him. His teammates nickname him “Barracuda”.

My thanks go to edelweiss books and above the treeline for the free peek.

The “golden boys” from the privileged classes live in the dormitory and come from all over the nation. The tuition renders it an exclusive place, one where the very wealthy can send their silver-spoon-fed young men without worry that they will consort with the wrong friends or marry below their station. Danny is twice-over alienated, because not only does he go home to his own little two-parent, two-wage-earner bungalow while his classmates head to the dorms, but he is gay. When some of his friends pair off into heterosexual couples, he keeps his own sexuality close to his vest. After all, he isn’t primarily gay; he is primarily a swimmer. He is stronger, faster, and better.

Early in the story the narrative breaks from present to past to in between, and so we know that right now he is an adult who works with brain-damaged adults. Between his youthful dream of an Olympic gold medal—at least one—and the present, he has been sent to prison for nearly killing a man. We are fed the pieces in small servings, and because we bond so immediately with the protagonist, it is agonizing as we slowly fill in the missing puzzle parts. What happened? What in the world happened?

It’s really dark out there. In fact, the cowardly reader in me was ready to jump ship and abandon the novel, given that it was so early in the story and yet things had already gone so wrong, but I couldn’t look away. This was up there with The Thornbirds for me. I can’t believe this book hasn’t been heaped with awards. My only possible explanation is that it is too edgy for the wider world; if so, it’s a shame. Tsiolkos deserves renown for what he has achieved here.

Another reviewer has noted the prolific use of the c*** word, one I could cheerfully see lost to the English language forever and always. The general use of profanity is consistent with the book’s harshness and although it makes it a more painful read, the discomfort we feel is part of the author’s design, and appropriate. Nevertheless, I wish he had chosen just about any word other than that one. Even with it, though, Barracuda is a strong, strong novel.

Dan’s journey is a rough one. In prison and out, words fail him, and he is constantly misunderstood. He lives for routine and is happy with menial labor after prison, but the entire family’s hopes and dreams have been fastened to him for so long that they can’t drop their high expectations. He finds himself avoiding his family because the weight of his failure and what it has done to the family who sacrificed for him is unbearable. He is still so angry, and there are important aspects of his life he has to resolve before it can be different. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, because you have to read this book.

Danny’s family is so complex and so well-developed that I felt as if they were right here in the room with me. Of particular significance is the relationship that unfolds between himself and his cousin Dennis. The dignity of the story as it approaches its climax is breathtaking. Don’t assume anything here. There is no book like this one, at least not that I have found or heard of, and I have had my ear to the ground.

My one criticism is that the last chapter is superfluous. The story is over at the end of the second-to-last chapter, and that is where it should have stopped.
When all is said and done, we learn by following Dan Kelly’s life that there is more than one kind of victory, and there is more than one way to become a hero. Barracuda is a stellar novel by a talented writer; I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work. As for you, do yourself a favor and get this book.