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.

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett***-****

Foundryside RD4 clean flat3.5 rounded up. This title is the first in a new series. Those that love fantasy, and especially those that already enjoy this writer’s work will want to check it out. My thanks go to Crown and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. Bennett comes to this project with a list of awards as long as your arm, so I was excited to read him. I probably would have been more impressed by this book if there hadn’t been so much build up. Still, it has a lot going for it. It will be released August 21, 2018.

The fictional city of Tevanne in which this story takes place is even more polarized than the developed world of today; there is a walled city in which the haves get everything and live in tremendous luxury, and then we have The Commons, where not only is there no law enforcement or legally held private property; in fact there are no laws at all. This is where the dispossessed try to stay alive. Our protagonist is Sancia, a thief that has been commissioned to steal a valuable artifact. Buildings speak to Sancia through her hands, so when she doesn’t want to be distracted or drained, she must wear gloves. The technology of the time is scriving, a magical method similar to artificial intelligence on steroids, and this dominates the plot. Sancia discovers Clef, a key that is scrived, and Clef becomes her sidekick.

The story starts out with a lot of noise, but not much of substance takes place; we have scriving, and we have a lot of chasing, running, hiding, climbing, jumping, running, fighting, running some more and…well, you get the idea. I generally prefer a more complex plot along the lines of Stephen Donaldson or Tolkien, but I was glad I stayed with it when I saw where it ended up.

I am pumped to have a series that has a strong female protagonist, and here we also have a female villain. I would be even more pumped if rape were never even mentioned. I read an interview years ago with movie director Jodie Foster, who said that working with male writers, directors and producers was frustrating, because so few of them were able to imagine motivation for a female character without landing there. Why would this character do [whatever]? Why, she must have been raped. It was rape. She’s afraid of rape.

Still, after all of the scriving, running, chasing, hiding, fighting and fleeing, we come to an ethical quandary that makes it worth the wait. And of course, the series is still in its infancy, so it’s fun to get in on the ground floor.

Bennett’s fans will be delighted, and those that love fantasy should consider adding this book to their queue.

The Line That Held Us, by David Joy****

thelinethatheldusDarl Moody and Calvin Hooper have been best friends forever, and so when Darl has the worst kind of accident, he knows who to turn to. You know what they say real friends will help you bury. The body in question is Carol Brewer; Darl was hunting out of season, and when he glimpsed something moving through the woods he thought it was a wild pig. Turned out he was wrong; turned out to be Carol, poaching ginseng on Coon Coward’s land. But you can’t bring the dead back to life, and you sure can’t call the cops for something like this. Carol is Dwayne’s brother, after all. Dwayne is a huge man, half- crazy and rattlesnake mean. There are no bygones in Dwayne Brewer’s world. There is only revenge.

My thanks go to G.P. Putnam and Net Galley for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

“I’d be lucky if all he did was come after me,” Darl said, “But knowing him, knowing everything he’s done, you and me both know it wouldn’t end there. I bet he’d come after my mama and my little sister and my niece and nephews and anybody else he could get his hands on. That son of a bitch is crazy enough to dig up my daddy’s bones just to set him on fire.”

“[Calvin tells him] “You’re talking crazy, Darl.

“Am I?”

So Carol disappears…for awhile. But Dwayne won’t be satisfied till he knows what has happened to his brother, who is all the family he has left. Once he finds out, of course all hell breaks loose.
Joy is a champion at building visceral characters and using setting to develop them further. I know of no living writer better at describing hard core rural poverty to rival anything the Third World can offer:

“The house had been built a room at a time from scrap wood salvaged and stolen. Nothing here was permanent and as each addition rotted away, a new one was hammered together from plywood and bent nails off another side so that slowly through the decades, the five-room shanty shifted around the property like a droplet of water following the path of least resistance. Red Brewer was no carpenter. Chicken coops were built better. So were doghouses. But this place had been the roof over their heads and had kept the rain off the Brewer clan’s backs all Dwayne’s miserable life.”

The murderous rage of Dwayne Brewer contrasts with the tender, poignant love that exists between Calvin and his girlfriend Angie, who has just learned she is pregnant. Calvin understands throughout all of this that he has a lot to lose, and this makes the conflict between Dwayne and Calvin a more unequal one.

I would have liked to see Angie better developed, and I blanched a bit at the line where she thinks that the only important thing is what’s growing in her uterus. But the story isn’t really about Angie, and I have seen Joy develop a strong female character in one of his earlier books. I hope to see more of that in his future work.

Meanwhile, the passage where Dwayne visits Coon Coward—some four or five pages long—just about knocks me over. This is what great writing looks like.

I struggled a bit with the ending, and this is where the fifth star comes off. The first 96 percent of this tale is flat-out brilliant, but I feel as if Joy pulls the ending a bit, and I can’t see why. None of the rest of the book points us toward this conclusion.

Last, the reader should know that there is a great deal of truly grisly material here. We have a torture scene; we have numerous encounters with a decaying corpse. If you are a person that does most of your reading during mealtime, this might not be the best choice.

For those that love excellent literary fiction or Southern fiction, this story is recommended. It will be released August 14, 2018, but you can pre-order it now.

Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin***

PaperGhostsGrace is convinced that Carl Feldman killed her sister Rachel. The once celebrated photographer was tried for the murder of a young woman and acquitted; now he is very elderly, and residing in assisted living due to dementia. Grace poses as his daughter, and she wants to take him on a road trip.

My thanks go to Ballantine Books and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This book is now for sale.

The outset feels delightfully creepy, as in small bits and pieces Grace tells us what she knows and what she wonders about. We don’t know where she plans to take him, or what she intends to do with him, only that she isn’t who she claims to be and her intentions aren’t what she says they are.

The story is uneven in its quality. The first half is superior to the second half; at first I can buy the premise, which is full of holes—why would they release him to her? How could someone her age have enough money to do this, even with saving every penny she’s earned? How is she so careless with his meds, and how can he suddenly behave as if he is much younger and more vigorous than he has been for years? –but as the story continues, I find myself stopping now and then and rolling my eyes. I put it down, then come back to it, and the same thing happens. By the time I reach the ending, which feels cobbled together and not authentic at all, I am ready to be done.

Fans of Heaberlin’s may enjoy this book, but my advice is to wait till you can get it free or cheaply.

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.

 

Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

How to Walk Away, by Katherine Center***-****

howtowalkaway3.5 stars, rounded upward.

Maggie swallows her misgivings and agrees to let her boyfriend, Chip, give her a ride in a small plane. He’s taken lessons, but doesn’t have a license yet. Naturally, he crashes. And naturally, he walks away without a scratch, but Maggie is paralyzed and burnt to a crackling crisp.

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC. This title is now for sale. I missed the release date and am sorry about that; I struggled with how to rate this title and how to review it. More on that in a minute.

Most of the story is set at a hospital, where Maggie is treated for burns and receives physical therapy to help her learn to move again. It’s painful and it’s horrible, and on top of that, nobody will let her have a mirror. Once she has one, she wishes she hadn’t looked.

“I would forever be a person that other people tried not to stare at in the grocery store. I would forever be someone who made other people uncomfortable.”

Maggie develops a crush on her physical therapist, a handsome, abrupt, unfriendly Scotsman whose poor bedside manner is surpassed only by his outstanding skill at helping Maggie learn to maneuver her body. At the same time, Chip—who for no reason I can understand, has not been arrested or cited for flying unlicensed or for stealing an airplane—goes all to pieces, turning his few hospital visits into a pity party for himself.

The story is quixotic in its combination of romance, medical information that is sometimes more detailed and gruesome than I want to read, and a beginning that is more an adventure or disaster tale than romance. 14% of the way in I flipped back to the cover, the tiny, almost unnoticeable plane flanked by giant floral bouquets, and I didn’t get how this story went with that jacket. I think the beginning scene with the plane, the toxic boyfriend turned fiancée, and the crash should have been edited down and presented as a prologue.

When Maggie is astonished to see a “lady firefighter”, I roll my eyes and check the copyright to make certain this isn’t a re-release of a title from the 1960s.

I originally designated this galley as my lunch and midnight snack companion, but soon it became obvious that there were too many detailed descriptions of bodily functions, particularly related to the bowel and the bladder, that I didn’t want to dine with.

The parts I like best here have to do with Maggie’s sister Kitty, who left suddenly many years ago and has been estranged due to a mysterious conflict with her mother. Kitty’s character is developed wonderfully and injects light and humor into the narrative.

The other characters at times seemed overdrawn. Chip is too obnoxious; I already hated him when he patted Maggie’s fanny and told her to get onto the plane. As ugliness is added to more ugliness, I find myself rolling my eyes and saying, yes, he’s a dick, I get it already. Maggie’s mother (is there a novelist out there that is comfortable with a protagonist and her mother having a solid relationship?) is too shallow, too obviously obsessed with surface beauty, and although there is some small redemption for her in the end, I want to see more than one attribute given this character, and I want it sooner.

And there’s the wealth, the privilege, and the wealth wealth wealth. When Maggie’s father brings a printer to her hospital room so he can crank out articles for her to read; when her mother hauls in curtains and lamps and redecorates the hospital room; a thousand times I find myself highlighting passages and arching my eyebrows. The hell?

The romance itself, however, is a winner. As I watch the electricity pop between Maggie and Ian, I can’t help smiling. The romance is what most readers are here for, and I find it heartwarming and satisfying. It’s a quick read, and although I had no trouble putting it down, I also had no trouble picking it back up again, which is not always true of the galleys I review.

Recommended to Center’s faithful readers, and to those that like a light romance.

The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.

The Melody, by Jim Crace****

“We are the animals that dream.”

TheMelodyJim Crace is an award-winning author with an established readership, but he is new to me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Those that love literary fiction should take note.

Alfred Busi is a singer, and he was famous during his prime, but now he’s old, living alone in his villa with just his piano to keep him company. At the story’s outset he hears a noise below late at night and goes down to run the animals or the whoever out of his garbage bins, but instead he is attacked. Something or someone flies out and bites him a good one; he thinks it was a boy, a half-feral child:

“Busi could not say what it was, something fierce and dangerous, for sure…before the creature’s teeth sank into right side of his hand, and, flesh on flesh, the grip of something wet and warm began its pressure on his throat, Busi knew enough to be quite sure that this creature was a child. A snarling, vicious one, which wanted only to disable him and then escape.”

The problem—beyond the injury itself—is that Busi is elderly, forgetful, and occasionally confused. His wife is dead, and he’s grieving hard. The only people remaining in his life are his sister-in-law and her son, his nephew, and they aren’t sure he isn’t delusional. Medical staff question his reliability as well; soon, a truly nasty journalist writes a smear piece making fun of him, and it comes out just as he is scheduled to perform for the last time at a concert where he’s to receive a prestigious award. It’s all downhill from there.

Concurrently there’s discussion among the locals about the homeless people living in the Mendicant Gardens—a place entirely devoid of foliage, where makeshift shacks are erected from cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else is on hand—as well as the fate of the bosc. I find myself searching Google here because I am confused. I have never heard of a bosc, which turns out to be a wooded area of sorts, and my disorientation is compounded by not knowing where in the world this whole thing is unfolding. If our protagonist lives in a villa, and if we’re not in Mexico, then are we in Southern Europe somewhere? I am following language cues; the names of things and places sound like they could be Italian, or maybe French. Or in Spain. The heck? I go to the author bio, but that’s no help, since Crace lives in the U.S. I try to brush this off and live with the ambiguity, but I continue wishing that I could orient myself. It’s distracting. There’s a social justice angle here involving society’s obligation to its poorest members, but I am busy enough trying to establish setting that the effect is diluted.

Nevertheless, the prose here is sumptuous and inviting. Adding to the appeal is the clever second person narrative; we don’t know who is talking to us about Mr. Busi, and we don’t know whether the narrator is speaking to a readership or to someone specific. For long stretches we are caught up in the plight of our protagonist and forget about the narrator, and then he pops back in later to remind us and pique our curiosity.

I am surprised to see this title receive such negative reviews on Goodreads. To be sure, GR reviewers are a tough lot, but there are some angry-sounding readers out there. What they seem to share in common is that they are Crace’s faithful fans, and if this title is a letdown for them, I can only imagine what his best work looks like; after a brief search I added one of his most successful titles to my to-read list, because I want to see what this author could do in his prime.

And there it is. Many people won’t want to read this, because we don’t like thinking about old age and death. Busi’s whole story is about the slow spiral that occurs for most people that live long enough to be truly old. It’s depressing. Those of us that are of retirement age don’t want to think about it because it’s too near; those that are far from it are likely to wrinkle their noses and move on to merrier things. It’s a hard sell, reading about aging, physical decay, and dementia. And there are specific passages that talk about Busi’s injuries and physical maladies that caused me to close the book and read something else when I was eating. It’s not a good mealtime companion.

Crace is known as a word smith, and rightly so. If you seek a page-turner, this is not your book, but for those that admire well-turned phrases and descriptions as art, this book is recommended.

Social Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton*****

socialcreature“Chop chop, Cinderella.”

Here it is, a story of our time.  Lavinia is spoiled and wealthy; Louise is newly arrived in New York City, and apart from her rent-stabilized apartment and a handful of part time jobs, she has nothing. Wealth and want collide and as Louise is swept up into Lavinia’s world—not to mention her Facebook and Instagram pages—the tension mounts. We know that Lavinia is going to die soon, but we don’t know how or why, and of course we wonder what will become of Louise once that happens. Burton’s story unfolds with sass and swagger, and you want to read this book, which is for sale today.  Get it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

More than anything, Louise wants to become a writer. She has tremendous talent, but between three part time jobs and Lavinia’s endless and unreasonable demands, she has no time for it. Lavinia wants to party, and she’s generous at times, furnishing Louise with expensive dresses, high-end trips to the beauty salon, and eventually, housing. In exchange, she more or less owns Louise.

Louise moves in with Lavinia, but Lavinia has the only key.

Perhaps even more alluring to Louise are Lavinia’s seemingly endless connections to the literary movers and shakers in New York.  Lavinia, you see, has had time to write a book, and she’s done it. It’s terrible, but Louise cannot say as much. She has too damn much to lose.

Burton’s voice is like no one I have ever read, and in some ways the comparisons that have been made to well known writers are unfortunate, because her work is wholly original. The thing I love best about this story is that nothing is overstated. The narrative takes off hell-bent-for-leather, and the reader has to follow closely to find out the basic ground-level information about both both women. It’s as if we have landed as invisible companions in the middle of a party, and we have to hit the ground running, exactly as Louise has had to do.

This is risky writing. The first half has very little plot and little action; its success hinges entirely upon its characters. Burton carries it off brilliantly, with genius pacing and the disciplined use of repetition as a literary device.  This is a novel that should take all of us by storm, but failing that, it has all the makings of an amazing cult classic.

This is cutting edge fiction, written by the most unlikely of theologians. I highly recommend it, even if you have to pay full jacket price.