The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

Happy release day! This deeply moving story takes awhile to warm up, but once it gets moving, you’re pretty much in it for keeps. Those that love literary fiction will have to look far and wide to find better.

Seattle Book Mama

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is…

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The Half-Life of Remorse, by Grant Jarrett*****

TheHalfLifeofRemorseHere is a story for our time. It’s fresh, moving, fall-down-laughing funny in places, and has the best character development I’ve seen lately. I was growing cranky from having to pan other people’s bad books, and I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Sparkpress almost as an afterthought; then it nearly knocked me off my feet with its voice and sheer creative power. It was published last week, and you should get it, read it, and then make other people do the same thing. It’s that strong.

The format is a simple one, and because there’s not a lot of plot or setting, everything boils down to the inner monologues of the three characters here. We start and conclude with a brief narrative in the third person omniscient, and in between we have the staggered monologues of two homeless men and a professional single woman confined to a wheelchair. Sam has blocked out a traumatic past, likely suffering from PTSD and who knows what else. His monologue is a literary sounding one, and indeed, he was once an academic. Now he calls himself a wizard, and at times, we nearly believe him.

The other homeless man calls himself Chick. He is not a young man either, and is running from his own misdeeds, and Sam tells us that Chick “…is a testament to life’s unrelenting desperation to continue.” Chick is not literate, but he manages to communicate brilliantly in his own tumbledown, roughshod, clumsy manner. Every now and then he tries to use a slightly larger vocabulary than he possesses, and ends up referring to “the persecuting attorney” and not wanting to “cast inspersions” upon the characters of others. Though he is thoroughly profane and limited grammatically, in his own way Chick is as eloquent as Sam.

The third character, a less developed but still important one, is Claire. Claire lost the use of her legs when her family was invaded by criminals during her childhood. Both Sam and Chick were there, but at the time, they did not know each other.

Jarrett writes in a way that is wholly original, and the juxtaposition of Sam’s monologue with Chick’s is startling and very funny. Somehow this author manages to slam tragedy and humor right up against one another without diminishing either. Most importantly, he is able to portray both Sam and Chick as men that still have purpose and a personal code of honor despite the horrors they have experienced and the bad choices they have made. Jarrett’s prose is the sort that grabs me by the hair and doesn’t release me until the story is finished. At one point, I found myself lightheaded because I had forgotten to breathe.

This novel is highly recommended to everyone that loves strong fiction.

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is drawn to a cottage said to be haunted by a boy that died in a hurricane many years before.

The story begins with a lengthy internal monologue that made me fear I’d regret requesting the review copy. There’s a saying that only those that know the rules of written convention well are entitled to break them upon occasion, and Godwin is one that does, and she does it for a reason. I can promise the reader that if you push through the first twenty percent of the story, complete with very frequently used parenthesis, you’ll be in it for keeps.

Marcus is one of the most resonant characters I’ve read in a long time. He is orphaned, unmoored, and friendless; his one good friend insulted Marcus’s mother, and the friendship was broken. Now his great fear is that Great-Aunt Charlotte, a reclusive painter that values her privacy and has a very small home, may grow weary of the inconvenience of having him with her and send him away. The reader can clearly see this brusque but thoughtful woman grow attached to her young relative, but Marcus is too overwhelmed and depressed to catch a clue. He tries to make himself scarce to reduce his impact on her, and in doing so spends an inordinate amount of time nurturing and watching the nests of leatherback turtle eggs laid on Charlotte’s beach, and walking or biking back and forth to the far end of the island, where the legendary Grief Cottage, Charlotte’s most lucrative painting subject, sits desolate and friendless, not unlike Marcus himself.

A measure of a well written a novel is the way our affection for it lingers after we have finished reading it and look back after we’ve read other things. Because I received a very early galley for this one, I have read and reviewed 24 other books since this one, and yet when I see the cover for this title, I heave a deeply satisfied sigh. Oh yes. Grief Cottage. That one was wonderful!

Those that only enjoy action-packed thrillers will have no joy here; rather, Godwin’s prose is the sort one sinks into, like a deep feather bed or a favorite chair by the fire. For those that love strong literature, I cannot think of a better way to spend quiet spring evenings.

Highly recommended.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti*****

thetwelvelivesofs “Everything breaks if you hit it hard enough.”

What would you do to protect those you love the most? Tinti’s epic father-daughter tale has already drawn accolades far and wide. What can I add to it all? There are only so many ways to say that someone is a genius and that her work deserves the highest praise and honors. I received my copy free and in advance, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, in exchange for this honest review, and I’ve spent the last month trying to decide what I can add to the discussion. Although 2017 is clearly an outstanding year for literature, this title stands head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen. It will likely be the best fiction published this year.

Our two protagonists are Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo. The story is arranged with alternate points of view, and also moves from present tense to the past, when Lily, Loo’s mother, was alive. Hawley is a career criminal, a man that has robbed and killed as part of a business transaction, but his tenderness for his daughter and his wife keep us connected to him.

As a parent, though, Hawley is kind of a mess. He does his best, teaching his daughter useful tasks like how to file the serial number off of a weapon and how to use it, but at the same time, he keeps his criminal business quiet and low, and she is nearly grown before she realizes what he actually does for a living. The two of them move around the country frequently, and they have a routine that gets them gone in a hurry when it’s necessary, but as she gets older he takes her to the Massachusetts town where her maternal grandmother lives. And I have to say, Mabel Ridge, Lily’s mother, is one of the most arresting side characters I have seen in a very long time.

For Loo’s sake, Hawley works as a fisherman and sets down roots. His participation in the Greasy Pole event, a cherished local tradition, wins him a place in the community. But he’s left enemies in his wake, and Hawley is constantly alert to the threat others pose. Who’s in prison, and who’s out? Who’s alive, and who isn’t anymore? Sooner or later, someone he doesn’t want to see is bound to rock the life he has established for himself and his daughter.

This is the sort of literary fiction that lets the reader forget that it’s art, because it reads a lot like a thriller. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; my favorite involves a car thief named Charlie.

Samuel Hawley seems to me to be a character for our time. Fifty years ago, a novel like this would have been controversial—and it may still be, who knows? Great literature often is. But today with the stratospheric growth of the American prison population, many more members of the book buying public either have done time, know someone that has, or know someone that barely escaped having to do so. It’s no longer unthinkable that a person that has done some truly reprehensible things, may also be a human being.

One way or the other, you have to read this book. The buzz it’s created is only the beginning. If you read one novel this year, let this be it. It’s available now.

Setting Free the Kites, by Alex George*****

settingfreethekites“Hope is a curious thing. It emerges in the most unexpected places.”

Robert Carter is an introverted boy with few friends and loving but preoccupied parents. His life changes forever when he is befriended by a new kid at school. Nathan stands up for him when he is being assaulted by a bully, and a friendship is forged that will last for life. Thank you Net Galley and Penguin Putnam for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Our story is set in a small Maine town in 1976. Nathan’s parents are creative people, sculpting, writing, building one-of-a-kind kites, but tragedy strikes early in the story and Nathan’s mother retreats into herself, and is not available to her only child. Robert’s parents are fond of Nathan, who also befriends Robert’s terminally ill brother Liam, and soon Nathan has found a second home.

Most reviewers describe Setting Free the Kites as a tragic tale, and they’re right, but what few people mention is how many really funny scenes lie in between the somber stuff. George’s writing has tremendous voice, one that brings these adolescent boys to life as few others do. I actually laughed out loud more than once, and this not only makes this a more enjoyable read, but also underscores the tragedy, taking the reader through a whole wide range of emotions.

The genre crosses between adult and young adult fiction. If I were still teaching highly capable language arts students, I’d want half a dozen copies of this book to use in a reading circle; that said, the sexual content would also force me to send home permission slips, because conservative parents would otherwise rampage into the district office with torches, hot tar and feathers. However, I consider this an outstanding enough read that I’d jump through some hoops to use it.

In some ways, however, it is more suited to literate adults. George uses a high vocabulary and uses it well. It’s certainly not a story I’d recommend to someone whose mother tongue is not English, because there’s too much cultural nuance and subtlety for that audience, and likewise, most adolescents won’t benefit from such a novel.

There are a couple off odd extraneous reveals toward the end of the story that startled me, and that did nothing to enrich the story or develop its characters. However, the rest of the book is so outstanding that it’s a five star read regardless.

This book is available to the public February 21, 2017. Highly recommended to those that love great literary fiction.

The Animators, by Kayla Rae Whitaker*****

 “I always heered that art was for ugly girls and queers.”

theanimators

The Animators is the right story at the right time, outstanding fiction that is too impossibly good to be debut fiction, and yet here it is. I nearly let the DRC pass me by, because apart from its female main characters, there is nothing here that would ordinarily hook me. I am too old, too straight, and too un-artistic to be part of the target demographic. But I had been in a rut lately, reading too many mysteries, and so I decided to step out of my comfort zone; in doing so, I hit the jackpot. Sometimes rewards come when we aren’t expecting them, and it would be a sad thing to let a golden moment pass by unmet. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the advance copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our story revolves around the lives of two women that meet at art school. Sharon Kisses is a shy kid from Kentucky, self-conscious but ambitious. Mel Vaught is hilarious, outrageous, and riotously extroverted, a noncomforming thrill-seeker from Florida.  Mel appreciates Sharon’s art in a way that no one else does, and Sharon is grateful to finally have someone understand her. Together they form a team that will become famous.

The entire story hinges on development of our two characters and the relationship that unfolds between them. The plot is original and interesting, but it wouldn’t go anywhere if I didn’t believe Sharon and Mel. I buy both of them immediately, and before we’re even halfway through the story I am making predictions—mostly unsuccessful ones, and it’s the chewy ambiguity that makes the whole thing so fascinating—about what one or the other of them will do. I made one accurate prediction midway through, but nothing else went where I expected it to. That being said, however, everything here made complete sense, and these are two such viscerally relatable characters that I carry them in my head still, though I’ve read at least half a dozen other books since I finished this one. In fact, a hallmark of the very best fiction is that I have to let what I have read cook in my head for awhile before I am ready to describe it. I take notes, but they aren’t enough.

Mel is gay, but Sharon isn’t. On the other hand, Mel is also about ninety percent of everything that Sharon has in this world, once the partnership develops. Sharon always introduces Mel as “my business partner,” and this is both true and safe, but here I wrestle with my own thoughts. Is there anyone else alive that Sharon can love the way she loves Mel, whether she recognizes it or not?

How many women of days gone by—let’s say the early twentieth century—lived with another woman their entire adult lives, never even considered touching one another sexually for fear of their mortal souls, and maybe propagated a myth to the neighbors that they were related? I think there were a lot of them. Being a lesbian was on a par, back then, with having barnyard sex with Old Bessie. No decent person was; no decent person did. So instead, they labeled themselves ‘spinsters’ and invented a story, and just lived together, decade after decade. And when I look at the community from which Sharon has sprung, I can understand how this mindset carries over to some people even today.

Yet there’s another reality, too. Sharon really likes having sex with men. When she isn’t doing it, it’s on her mind.  How many women have pledged their lives to someone that does not physically attract them, because they find the person good company and don’t want to break their heart? And so when I think of Sharon, I remind myself that perhaps Sharon really isn’t gay. Maybe she will never want Mel sexually, and maybe that’s a fair thing to recognize.

The story contains so much life, so much sorrow, and it’s so damn funny at times.  And the rage! Both women carry a tremendous amount of anger, and it provides fuel for their creativity. Hearing their stories is like peeling an artichoke, one layer after another to get to the best part, which is way deep inside.

As the story progresses, we come face to face with the pasts both women carry with them. Mel’s tortured upbringing is the subject of their first animated film, and it’s clearly therapeutic; yet good therapy can only do so much. And as we see the world through Mel’s eyes, the depth of analysis is both brainy as hell and absolutely riveting.

Sharon is the introvert, and so it makes sense that her own story comes out more slowly, and it may never have done so without Mel’s assertive nature insisting that they stop by Sharon’s home town on the way back to New York.

The critical thinking here is deep and dark. Those that have regarded art as a soft discipline will have to sit up and take notice.

This story is for geeks, artists, and anybody burdened by at least one dark secret. It’s a story for strong, unapologetic women and those that love them.  And it’s for sale Tuesday, January 31, 2017. Get a copy. You can’t miss this one!

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri**

thefamishedroadI surrender! Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review; however, try though I have, I cannot push past the molasses-like allegory and other figurative language to locate a plot. After painfully forcing my way through the first 20% of the book, I went to Goodreads to see what other reviewers had to say about it. Some felt as I did, but others swore that if the reader could endure the first two-thirds of the story, the last third would not only be so amazing, it would also enlighten us as to why the earlier part was necessary. Seeing this, I vowed to persevere. By the 25% mark, I found I was avoiding this DRC, because just about every other galley in my possession was either more enjoyable to read, or more rewarding, or both.

Tonight I decided it was time to put up or shut up. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when one should read a book out of sequence. I skipped to the 70% mark and found it was pretty much more of the same. The allegory pointed toward the horrific debt load that cripples African nations, but I already knew that, and if that is actually where this story is supposed to lead me–because really, I am still not sure–then it’s a disappointment. I already knew about the impact of colonial overlords on African nations, and this did nothing to improve either my knowledge or my appreciation for that, or for literature.

I will add, however, that I have also never liked magical realism. Either write fiction or nonfiction, don’t try to do both at once. Even the work of literary goddess Isabel Allende makes me crazy this way: we are in the midst of what feels like a genuine memoir, and then someone turns bottle-green and levitates. No, no, and no.

Those that have a great love of magical realism and thirst for African fiction may find joy here. This book has won prestigious awards, and I had anticipated that reading it would be rewarding. Just because it didn’t happen for me doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you; but if you come to feast at Okri’s table, bring a high literacy level with you, or you’ll find yourself leaving it still hungry.

This title is available for purchase now.

Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel*****

Happy release day! The holidays are over and your humor may be running dry and a little snarky by now. If so, this book is just what the doctor ordered…and it’s for sale right now.

Seattle Book Mama

smalladmissionsI received an advance reader’s copy of this darkly amusing novel from Net Galley and Atria Books. It’s funny as hell, and even more amusing to teachers, school counselors, and others that have dealt with high maintenance parents and the aura of entitlement they carry with them. I rate this title 4.5 stars and round upward.  It comes out December 27, 2016, just in time to chase away your post-holiday depression.

I sat on this book for more than three months, which is a rare thing for me.  I kept starting it, not liking it, and deciding to set it aside and look again with fresh eyes later. Finally November came, and I realized the book was not going to change; I’d given my word to the publisher I’d review it; it was time to suck it up and get the job done. And this is a little ironic all…

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