Limelight, by Amy Poeppel*****

Limelight“Welcome to Gotham, babe.”

Amy Poeppel is a star, and since I loved her debut novel, Small Admissions in 2016, requesting the galley of her second novel was a no-brainer for me. Thank you, thank you Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available to the public May 1, 2018.

Allison Brinkley is excited when her husband receives a promotion that takes them from suburban Dallas, Texas to New York City. The excitement! The opportunities! Most people consider themselves lucky if they are even able to visit Manhattan as tourists. She can hardly wait.

Once they arrive, however, reality sets in. There’s no room for anybody’s stuff, and the bedrooms are tiny. Her eldest child is sulking, and the youngest gets in trouble at school. The mothers at the prestigious private school where the children are enrolled snub Allison as if she were the new girl at middle school.  She loses her teaching position, and then she loses her tutoring job too. She wants to be a good family organizer, provider, and cheerleader; and yet.

On top of everything, she bangs into another vehicle right in front of the school; when she goes to settle up with her insurance details, she instead finds herself in the apartment of a badly behaved teenager that turns out to be a famous teen heartthrob. Allison is mesmerized, but not in the manner to which Carter Reid is accustomed; she wants to know how his apartment and his lifestyle has spun out of control so badly. Where is the boy’s mother?

Before she knows it, Allison is swept into the official Carter Reid entourage. He’s sick in bed, and half of his people have up and quit because he’s so insufferable. But Allison deals with adolescents for a living, both as a teacher and as a mother. She knows how to talk to kids, and she knows how to get them to take their medicine and show up to appointments.

But Carter has another problem nobody knows about. It’s not a problem to be proud of, and it’s getting in the way of his career.

Nobody writes like Amy Poeppel. The beginnings of her novels are bizarre and disorienting because the protagonist’s normal is not most people’s normal. My first impression is that one of us—Poeppel or me—must be crazy. But once I am properly hooked on the story, she pulls me in and lets me know what’s up with that. Before the halfway mark is reached, I want to be the gal pal that drops in on Allison, asks questions, maybe drags her into the kitchen for a conversation. I wonder, how much more of her own money is she going to spend on this wealthy brat before she asks for compensation? Has she forgotten she has kids of her own at home?  Has she completely taken leave of her senses?

I make one prediction after another, anticipating well-worn fictional formulas, but Poeppel doesn’t do formulas, she creates surprises. At the end I find myself walking with my head up and a spring to my step. I will bet you a dollar, reader, that you need some of that too.

Frosting on the cake is that rarest of all things, a positive abortion reference tucked in quietly toward the end. It makes my feminist heart sing.

I can’t wait to see what this writer brings to her next novel; will she bring Allison back with a sequel, or will she start from scratch? Whatever it is, I have to read it. Limelight is sharp, funny, and wicked smart. You have to get this book and read it.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.

Dodgers, by Bill Beverly*****

DodgersDodgers is a harrowing tale of African-American teenagers sent away from their home in Los Angeles, an area depressed and tense but familiar, across the Rocky Mountains, the land of white folks, and into the pale rural American heartland, where they have been sent by a father figure to commit a capital crime. I could not wrench myself away from this story for love nor money once I’d begun it. Kudos to Bill Beverly, and thank you to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book is available to pre-order right now and becomes available Tuesday, April 5.

Our protagonist is East, and a key secondary character every bit as intriguing is his younger brother Ty. We are told at the outset that East has never had a childhood, and that goes double for Ty, who moved out of the house at age nine, their addicted, addled mother making no effort to nurture or stop them. In fact, a social worker would say that the boys are parenting the mother, if anything. Fin, who serves as the only father figure East has, tells him that he is the man of the house. Most days he works a twelve hour shift standing yard, to the casual eye just loitering or hanging around, but in reality watching for anything unusual that might indicate the presence of cops or another hostile outsider, and it’s his job to make sure that if something happens, it gets stopped before it breeches “The Boxes”, the cluster of squatter’s houses in which drug transactions take place. He’s learned to be observant and a fast problem solver, supervising others that are also standing yard in different locations.

When he is taken to meet with Fin, he is hustled into a car in a way reminiscent of mafia tales, told not to look at the street signs and not to attempt to keep track of the route they are traveling. Fin solemnly tells him that he and three others are being sent to whack an African-American judge in Wisconsin, a man that can rule against Fin in a federal court; the man is “a legal Negro”, and has to be taken out. East has never shot a gun before and isn’t eager to begin, but he can’t say that.

 

Guns, after all. The noise. The mess. He’d held a gun before but never felt safer for it.

                  All the same, he was no fool. He knew guns made his world go round.

 

One of the four young people heading out on this terrible mission is a young man from the middle class named Michael. Michael is a UCLA student, but has taken on the chore of helping Fin establish a drug market at the university. This is the only potentially weak part of the story. Why would a young man with a future do something like this? On the one hand, I can see why we want him in the story; we are trying to break apart the stereotype that every Black kid lives in the projects and is on welfare. Most African-American teens aren’t living there, and in making “The Boxes” in LA seem like the whole world to East, the author risks perpetuating that myth. But apart from the author’s need to recognize that a Black middle class exists, why would Michael be part of this? He has so much to lose and not much to gain other than maybe an adrenaline rush. Michael is the least developed of the four teens, but we do see that his judgment is questionable, and so maybe that could account for it.

As they cross the Rockies, East can’t stop looking out the windows. He has never seen the mountains before, even though they are within a day’s drive of LA, and this is poignant. And as they cross the USA on their terrible mission, we see countless acts of racist misbehavior toward them that provide us with an important subtext: no matter who is in the White House now, racism in the USA is still alive. It isn’t just cops, not just a few crackers waving their Confederate flags. They’re all over the place.

While we’re talking about text and subtext, let me address the use of the “n” word. It’s used liberally here. In schools where I taught, and among my youngest son’s friends (my youngest son and most of his friends are African-American), the acceptable word for Black people to use among themselves ends with the letter “a”, not “er”. Maybe this is a regionalism. At any rate, it is used a lot in this book with the “er” ending, often by the teenagers in dialogue, and also used by racists against them. At one point East points out that Fin doesn’t want them using that word, an instruction that is casually dismissed.  And this quieted my concern somewhat, because while it gets used, it also gets talked about.

And in general, our four characters are not caricatures, but are portrayed with dignity and a point of view that seems authentic to me. I confess I would like to see some African-American periodicals’ take on this book, and given time, maybe I will see some. Right now there are dozens of reviews out, but all of the reviewers whose photos show are white folks, except for a single Asian reviewer. This isn’t the writer’s fault, but it makes me uncomfortable, a crowd of us out here in cyberspace, Caucasian bookworms, offering approval of a Caucasian writer’s version of Black teens from the ‘hood.

But back to our story. Those that think inner city LA is a scary place to go might do well to see the rest of the country from East’s point of view. Out among the cornfields, nobody knows what the rules are anymore. A white guy sitting in the middle of nowhere in a kiosk behind bullet-proof glass is supposed to sell them guns, but things have changed and he isn’t going to do it. The white guy in a hoody that covers most of his face disquiets them all. “Grim-reaper-looking motherfucker”, says Walter from behind the wheel.

All sorts of bizarre cultural cues jump out at them. It’s Christmas, and at odd times, LED lights festoon the fronts of houses: “a Baby Jesus was standing yard.”

Little brother Ty is brilliant but cold; in a different circumstance, he would be parked in gifted ed classes all day long, but here, he is the one that makes hard choices that make sense from the street point of view, and he is utterly remorseless.

I won’t give anything more away, but I have to tell you that when all is said and done, the untold reason for their cross-country mission is the most staggering of all.

You have to read this book.