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.

Hook’s Tale, by John Leonard Pielmeier***

HooksTalePielmeier’s debut novel gives poor, maligned Captain Hook an opportunity to share his side of the story. The teaser promises a “rollicking” story, and at first it seems to be exactly that, but it runs out of steam early on. Nevertheless, thank you, Net Galley and Scribner, for the opportunity to read and review.

At the outset, Captain James Cook (his name isn’t Hook!), named for the famous sea explorer, describes himself as looking nothing like the “unbearably pompous actor”, a clear reference to the hilarious Cyril Ritchard, who played Hook in the twentieth century complete with high heeled boots and a beauty mark; however, our pirate assures us, those periwinkle blue eyes do fit the bill. There is an assumption that the reader is well steeped in both the stage and cinematic depictions of the character, and it seems like a fair one. I love reading Hook’s fond and hugely original description of Smee, and our introduction to Hook’s pet crocodile.

“I named it Daisy, after my mother.”

Unfortunately, somewhere between the ten percent and twenty percent mark, the narrative founders, and the most frustrating part for this reviewer is that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong. The concept is strong, the voice clear, and yet my interest is gone before the quarter-mark is reached, and at that point I am reading for duty rather than pleasure. I came away with two considerations.

The first is the linear quality of the prose. The formal, old-school language is fun at the outset, but it might be more powerful if alternated with a present day narrative. Hook could have a grandson or other present-day relative that contributes; since Hook marries Tiger Lily, that might be a way to get there. Readers of the digital era may not have the patience to read the rather Victorian-sounding dialect all the way through. An alternating narrative would probably pick up the pace and make for a more compelling arc.

The second consideration is audience. There are two characteristics here that suggest completely different types of reader, and they don’t overlap very well, which may make for a small readership. We have the Boomers and those that came right after them, folks that may have seen the Cyril Ritchard version of Captain Hook on television. It was a childhood favorite of this reviewer, and you can watch the entire thing here:…

The assumed knowledge and detailed descriptions jibe with this audience. But then there is the other sort of detail, the gore and guts that are more suited to a young reader, perhaps one in his early teens. Older readers may wince at the graphic gore here, decapitations and intestines and fountains of blood—I certainly did—but younger readers that are more likely to love it are unlikely to tolerate the formal prose style adopted. It’s hard to tell whether the writer had a particular audience in mind, but if so he shot wide of the mark.

Another possibility is that the story really is better as a visual medium. Reading about people flying is not as enjoyable as seeing them do it, and I say this as a person that prefers the printed word over film almost always. J.M. Barrie’s work itself is difficult to plow through, and also racist as hell; the story took wing on stage and screen. In addition, the stage version was the first time an actor had been hooked to cables and “flew” in front of a live audience; what seems like corny, ancient technology now, was new and exciting then.

All of this notwithstanding, you may love this book. It was released July 18, and is for sale now.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?


Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

Watching the Detectives, by Julie Mulhern*****

“’There’s been an incident…Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

Mulhern is on a roll. This is the fifth book in the Country Club Murders series, but I plunged in without having seen the first four, and it was still a treat. Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I snagged free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It is now available to everyone.

The story is set among the Caucasian upper middle class of the 1970s, and Mulhern renders the period—when this reviewer was a mere, blushing wisp of a girl—so well that I checked twice to see whether it was an older title being re-released.

Ellison Russell is our protagonist, and people keep dying at her domicile. It’s become a nuisance, and there’s a cop that thinks it’s too great a coincidence. Ellison’s in a jam, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Grace isn’t helping. She sulks when they are told they must leave the house for a few days because it’s a crime scene, exclaiming that people have died at their house before and they didn’t have to leave. It’s just not fair!

Ellison is a widow, and a merry one at that; she has a flirtation going with a local cop whose name is Anarchy—a guy who believes in rules– but her main man is Mr. Coffee. He’s always there for her.

I moan when Ellison’s mother is introduced—yet one more overbearing mother, I thought, and authors always blame everything on mothers, just like everyone else does—but then I am surprised by where she takes it. I won’t say more lest I ruin it for you. But I will say this: every overused or overworked plot element is here for a reason, either to take it apart, or to make fun of it. Mulhern considers every word in this dandy novel carefully, and the result is splendid.

As the story unfolds there are other witty tidbits tucked in here and there, such as a character named Margaret Hamilton who is such a witch. But the frippery and snarky humor aren’t the whole package; while the mystery is a romp, serving up the snobbery of the petit bourgeoisie with a sharp skewer, this excellent novel is also a nicely turned feminist manifesto. While the mystery is a fine 4-star beach read, the author’s purpose is a strong one that’s delivered well. It is for this aspect that the fifth star is given.
Highly recommended for strong women and those that love them.

The Kaminsky Cure, by Christopher New***

thekaminskycureThe Kaminsky Cure is a satire of Nazi Germany previously published and now offered anew in digital format. Thanks go to Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review, and for the DRC, which I received free of charge. This title is available to purchase now.

Who would have thought it possible to satirize such a terrible time and have it come out in anything other than terrible taste? But New carries it off, using a pre-school aged child in a mixed family—with one Jewish parent and one Anglo parent—as his narrator. Several times the precocious tot points out aspects of his own narrative that are actually impossible, as for example when the child tells us exactly what is contained in something written and then blandly points out that he cannot read yet. It just makes it funnier.

The appealing thing about this novel is that it brings up the reality which should be obvious to any thinking person that has paid any attention to this particular time and place: most Germans as well as Austrians were entirely in favor of Hitler’s takeover, and although there were Jewish families, many of them in fact, that wanted out of Nazi-occupied Europe as quickly as they could go, there were others that had never embraced their culture and had converted to Christianity in some cases generations earlier; and such is the case with our protagonist’s family, which wants only to pass itself off as Aryan so that it can join in the party. Young Martin, the protagonist’s older brother, longs to become a member of the fearsome SS, Hitler’s storm-troopers. Ah, the uniforms! The ferocity! The authority!

Our toddler-narrator, meanwhile, observes his own family with platonic remove, contemplating which members have violated one edict or another and should therefore be turned in to the authorities. After all, that’s one of the things he has learned in school. Children are the future, and it’s up to them to weed out those older folk that fail to comply with important social changes.

It’s what Hitler would want him to do.

There’s one twist and then another, but overall I found that the story’s momentum lost steam as it progressed, because there was really just one joke here, and it could only be played so many ways before it became repetitious. Nevertheless, it’s wholly original, and when faced with an event as horrific as the Holocaust, one either has to laugh or cry.

And amazingly, New has created a way to help us laugh, at least for a little while.

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but this one wins the prize. The second story that deals with Judgment Day didn’t work for me; first there were some hyperliterate science references that zinged right over my head, and then the sick factor got the better of me, and so I skipped that one and moved on to the title story. Having read the rest, I am inclined to chalk that second one up to my own quirks rather than Hale’s skill set.

When I came to “The Fat Artist”, I could only bow in awe. I was overcome with frustration because no one else in my household enjoys literary fiction, and so I couldn’t share. In a nutshell, the protagonist, a performance artist, seeks to eat himself to death while setting a worldwide fatness record. I actually gasped several times while reading this one.

Although the writing within this collection provides outstanding examples of every imaginable literary device, those that teach high school literature would be wise not to place it on classroom shelves unless you work at an alternative school. A very alternative school. A very, very, very…well, hopefully my meaning is clear. There is so much edgy material, from language, to explicit sexual description, to sexual roles and gender ambiguity, that I can see the villagers coming with their torches, their hot tar, their feather pillows. Teachers, don’t do this to yourselves. Get a personal copy; take it home and enjoy it; then pass it on to someone that can be trusted to appreciate it. Seriously.

Four more stories follow, and they’re all strong. “Leftovers” deals with a middle aged man in the midst of an extramarital affair when his problem child unexpectedly appears, ready to ransack the family vacation home for valuables to sell in order to feed his addiction. The way this tale unfolds gives me goose bumps.

The next two tales deal with sexual roles and ambiguity. I came away from “Beautiful Boy”, which made me realize, whether by the author’s intention or not, that men that choose to cross dress only as a diversion are looking at the best of both worlds, never having to confront the glass ceiling because they’ll be at that office meeting clad in their conservative suit and tie like always; it reminds me of white actors that wore black face.

The final story of a troubled brother that lands in the basement of his brother, the MIT researcher, and is provided with a job driving squid from the docks to the laboratory, is as brilliant as all the others, and equally esoteric.

Hale is wholly original, but if I were to compare his writing to any other author, it would be to that of Michael Chabon.

Bring your literary skills to the feast that Hale has laid for you; you will need them.  It’s one hell of a banquet.

Waterloo, Waterloo, by Teresa Waugh*****

waterloo waterlooI would have reviewed this title sooner, but I was laughing too hard! Thank you, Endeavor Press, for the complimentary DRC, which I received directly from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. Waugh’s clever, sly satire still has me snickering. Those with a rudimentary knowledge of European history should not let this one slide by unread. Laughter is good for you, and as long as you know the broad contours regarding Napoleon’s life, loves, and battles, I defy you to read this novel without chortling.

To start with, we have Jack and Peggy on a cruise together off the coast of Greece and through the Corinth Canal; the year is 1974. Jack is retired from the British Navy, and has saved for a long time in order to be able to visit great historic sites. His recent marriage to the glamorous Peggy, a divorcee considerably younger than himself, is the icing on the cake. He’s waited a very long time to see the sites of great historical events; later, he will recreate those of Napoleon with thousands of toy soldiers stored in the garage at home.

History bores Peggy, but she loves shopping whenever the ship docks. Spending money is the thing she loves best…not unlike the Empress Josephine, wife of the French legend Napoleon. In fact, Jack and Peggy have even named their only child Josephine.

I’ve read various other reviews that complain about the dysfunctional relationships within the protagonist’s family, and the shallow character development. I want to personally find each and every one of those clueless reviewers and—metaphorically only, of course—smack them upside the head. It’s not supposed to be about character development, get it? Read the title! Although the story itself is a sharp, satirical romp, you need some background knowledge or it will sail right over your head. You won’t understand the allegory without a frame of reference! If you know nothing about Napoleon, you won’t understand the humor.

None of it.

Once I latched onto what the author was doing, I was eager to see how far he would carry it, and to what extent Jack’s life would mirror that of Napoleon. At the end, as soon as I stopped sniggering, I could only shake my head in admiration. The basic contours are there, but one doesn’t have to be a scholar specializing in French history to enjoy the book; you just need the basics regarding Napoleon’s reign and fall.

Smart, smart satire, well worth your time and money…if you have a working knowledge of European history.

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth Mckenzie*****

theportableveblen“There is a terrible alchemy coming.”

Veblen has led an insular life, focusing her energies on genealogy, a love of nature, and oh dear heaven, her mother. The fact is, her mother is both dominant to an extreme degree, and frankly more than a little bit squirrely. But when Veblen meets Paul, her life changes dramatically; but even more so than most young women, she finds that she needs to be flexible to accommodate Paul, whose needs are different from her own.

A huge thank you goes to Net Galley and Penguin Random House Publishers for permitting me a DRC. I nearly let this title pass unread by me, thinking, because of the cover art, that it was going to be a cutesy animal story, its humor no doubt cloying. I could not have been more mistaken, and so thanks are also due to whatever journalist’s review was posted in my hometown newspaper. Realizing my error, I rushed to the computer to see if it would still be possible, at this late date, to read it free.

It was indeed.

Dr. Paul Vreeland, neurologist and researcher, seeks some normalcy and order in his life. He was raised in a communal environment by parents determined to avoid the rat race and its social conventions as well. All of them. Had he been raised in an urban environment, someone would have probably called the authorities and had him removed from the filth, the drugs, and oh yes, the dreadful embarrassment. When he meets Veblen, he senses that she is fresh and unpretentious, but does not fully grasp just how much she wants to be like his parents—well, minus the drugs.

When Veblen is under stress, she starts anthropomorphizing squirrels. She is certain she can talk to them and that they understand what she’s saying. The stranger her mother behaves, the more Veblen is drawn to squirrels.

And now, a personal note. A good friend of mine took a respite from the grinding, long hours of social work, and for awhile she worked as a wedding planner. It didn’t last long. Having had so much experience dealing with disparate personalities in her initial career, she often felt the urge to hurl herself between the prospective bride and groom, upon whose union tens of thousands of dollars was being lavished. She wanted to cry out, “Just get away from each other, both of you! This marriage will be over before the year is over, so just don’t go there!”

And this is what I wanted to do as of the 33 percent mark. I wanted to haul Veblen back to the rundown cottage she occupied by preference, and haul Paul back to his state-of-the-art medical facility, and have them never see one another again.

Then again, their relationship is hysterically funny, and all of us can use a good laugh, followed by another, and yet another.

The reader can approach this hugely original tale on one of two levels. It can be read as literary fiction, with the squirrel as metaphor. Or one can just read it, and sit back and howl with laughter.

One way or the other, this unbelievably clever, hilarious book is available for purchase now, and it is highly recommended to everyone.

The Fugitives, by Christopher Sorrentino****

The fugitivesSandy Mulligan is a renowned author, but he’s hit a crisis. He’s left his wife and children for someone else, and it didn’t work out. Now he’s taken to the hinterlands to try to write the book he’s contracted to produce. Meanwhile, he runs across John Salteau, who claims to be an Ojibway storyteller, but it doesn’t ring quite true. Like Mulligan, Salteau is hiding from something. And if that isn’t enough, we have Kat Danhoff, herself a refugee of sorts, and she has landed in the same tiny burg, first to write about Salteau, and then to write about Mulligan interviewing Salteau. And before I can say more, I need to tell you that this clever satirical work was given me free of charge by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for this honest review. It goes up for sale on February 9, 2016.

Early in the book we read of Mulligan’s infidelity, and I have to tell you, reader, that the explicit sex scenes and above all, the words selected to describe them, are not words that I am comfortable with. I am from the Boomer generation; if you are younger and don’t mind passages of erotica dropped into your novel, you might find this is a five star read for you. I was horrified, and read through it quickly.

Where are my smelling salts?

Where were we? Ah yes, the story. The dialogue in this thing is absolutely hilarious at times, and although Mulligan’s literary agent is a secondary character, I loved the sly, deliberate way Sorrentino crafted what we must regard as the typical agent, one who just wants him to write something, anything for heaven’s sake, so they don’t lose the deal. If Mulligan needs to retreat to the wilderness of Northern Michigan, then fine. Go. “Go walk in the footsteps of Hemingway, catch a trout or something…”

Mulligan does a lot of walking, alrighty, but what he does not do, is write. The internal dialogue is rich in many places; in a few, I wanted a red pen to edit it down a bit. The fact is, Mulligan is an exasperating character, but that’s okay; he is intended to be so. Not every protagonist is supposed to be lovable.

And so he ruminates endlessly, thinking of everything except his book. He recalls his affair, the one that snapped his already-fragile marriage like a twig. When the whole thing is over, he realizes that he could as easily had a conversation with the other woman’s underwear as he could have with her. But it’s too late now; water under the bridge. A lot of it.

Kat is from Chicago; she is married but also restless. She cheats in her marriage, but doesn’t turn it into a spectacle the way Mulligan does. Her work involves travel, and what Justin doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

Underlying all of this is the question of the storyteller, John Salteau. He’s a fake. Danhoff can smell it a mile away. At one point she witnesses him telling school children a Nigerian folk tale. What the hell? Her journalist antennae twitch, and she is on a mission.

Sorrentino is not a novice, and has been nominated for the National Book Award for Sound on Sound, a novel he published in 1995. His experience shows. His capacity to render setting immediate (and sometimes really funny) is important, because he constantly changes it up, bouncing us back and forth to the points of view of three different characters, switching from first person to third in the wink of an eye. If he isn’t proficient, the reader will get lost. As it is, this is a hyperliterate read, which suits me just fine, but if your mother tongue is not English, you might want to consider something else.

No one could possibly predict the way this story ends!

Recommended for those that love strong fiction.

Everybody Rise: a Novel, by Stephanie Clifford****

everybodyriseAll Evelyn has ever wanted is to please her mother; all Barbara, Evelyn’s mother, has ever wanted is for Evelyn to be accepted into elite Eastern society. Barbara doesn’t care whether Evelyn is well read, but she had sure as hell better know which spoon to use, and what to wear to every occasion…and most of all, she had better know “everybody who’s anybody”. In other words, Clifford’s skewer of high society hits the mark in ways both wry and hilarious. This terribly amusing little tale goes on sale August 18—oh wait, was my rhyme a trifle tacky? Anyway, you can buy it soon, or you can order it in advance, but I was lucky and got a copy free from Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for this humble review. Thank you to both of them.

Evelyn’s parents want different things, and it’s just her luck—she is their only child, so all their expectations fall on her shoulders. Her father, an attorney with egalitarian notions and a folksy Southern manner, is often out of town, working for the clients he represents and sticking it to the big pharmaceutical companies. So most of the time, it’s Evelyn and her mother. And her mother is relentless in her need for social stature.

Evelyn is sent to Sheffield Boarding School, which should provide some relief, but her mother obtains a copy of the student directory, and has tracked the social value of every child there. Evelyn is friends with Charlotte, a young woman of high ideals and great loyalty, but she has pigtails, a social no-no, and the wrong damn family. Evelyn is conflicted, because she is close to Charlotte, but her mother wants her to drop her. Her mother has chosen the people Evelyn should cultivate. Imagine!

Over the course of time, Evelyn manages to worm her way into the upper reaches of the social echelon, but she can’t financially afford the lifestyle she is expected to lead. And worst of all, she comes to realize, once she is rubbing elbows with the cream of society, that her mother is actually pretty embarrassing. Her mother does not have as much upper-crust social sense as she thinks she does.

She’d better avoid her.

You may think I have spoiled the surprises, but you haven’t heard the half of it. There are so many choice bits along the way, and then the ending is something else entirely. At times I felt that I was watching a train wreck I was incapable of stopping, but the thing is, I really liked watching it, and the ending, which seems obvious as it approaches, is a surprise after all.

If you’re heading for the beach this August, or just need entertainment for a good long holiday weekend with the air conditioner cranked and a nice drink ready to hand, this is a gift you should get for yourself. It’s absorbing and vastly entertaining.