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.

All the Good Parts, by Loretta Nyhan*****

allthegoodpartsThere are times when a novel is more than the sum of its parts, and this is one of those times. Loretta Nyhan combines strong character development, our changing social mores, and sassy, kick-ass word smithery and this is the result. Thank you Net Galley and you too, Lake Union Publishing, for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The title is available today, hot off the presses.

Leona is 39 years old, taking online classes, working part time as a home health aide, and living in her sister and brother-in-law’s basement. She is unchallenged by any real ambition until her doctor—an old school friend—tells her that if she wants to have a baby, she’d better get to it before her eggs are dead. So now Leona—‘Lee’ to her family—is ready to get preggers and pop out a child. Let’s do it!

Leona is the woman I want to grab by the elbow and drag into the kitchen so I can tell her some hard truths. Instead, her sister Carly does it for me. Everything Carly says makes complete sense. She points out to Leona that she is so passive that even the baby idea is not her own; it was her doctor’s. Leona drifts through life letting people tell her what to do, and is that any way to raise a kid?

In addition, since Leona is not dating, she needs a sperm donor. The sperm bank and intro fertilization is crazy-expensive; she really only knows four possible donors. There’s an elderly patient growing accustomed to his status as a double amputee, but although he offers, it would be so unprofessional to take him up on it! There’s an online study-buddy that she hasn’t even met in the flesh; there’s her niece’s tutor, a very bright, handsome homeless man who’s actually even more passive than Leona; and there’s Paul, the son of the patient who dislikes her and fires her.

My, my, my.

This dandy little book is full of interesting philosophical questions and home truths that pop in and out of the narrative and dialogue like fireflies, blinking here and there without slowing anything down or stopping too long in any one place. And in some places, it’s drop-dead funny.  Nyhan uses deft, clever prose to move both the story and the protagonist forward, and in doing so she creates a very visceral, tangible protagonist. I don’t always like Leona, but I do always believe her.

I’ve never liked the category “chick lit”, because women read books featuring men—sometimes men only—and there’s no special category for that, so in the best world, men should want to read this book too. But in the world we have now, this will sell primarily to women. But whoever you are, you should get this book and read it. I have seldom enjoyed a DRC so much; it was my go-to book when I didn’t feel like reading another mystery or delving into George Washington’s past.  I would read something else out of duty, and then turn to this one as my reward. And I was sorry when it ended.

Recommended without reservation to anyone with a pulse.

Tears in the Grass, by Lynda Archer***

tearsinthegrassTears in the Grass marks the debut of novelist Lynda Archer. It tells the story of three generations of Cree women, and in doing so also provides the reader with that tribe’s rich history and culture. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book is available for purchase now.

Elinor is old. She is old enough to have been through the shameful period in North America in which Native children were forcibly wrenched from the arms of their parents and forced to attend boarding schools in order to become assimilated and indoctrinated into the dominant culture. Her traumatic memories are harsh reading, but it’s the only way that story can be shared with any degree of honesty. And there’s something she has held back from her daughter Louise and her granddaughter Alice: she has another daughter out there somewhere. She was raped by a Caucasian man, carried the baby to term, and then it was stolen from her. She knows that baby, now a woman, is out there somewhere, and she wants to meet her before she dies. She turns to Alice to get the job done:

 

“’Are you listening? I want you to find that child.’

‘ I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Your mother’s sister. Your aunt. My daughter. I was raped in that damned school.’”

 

The point of view shifts throughout the narrative, with the dominant one being that of Elinor, but also including those of Louise, Alice, and a bison. It doesn’t always flow in a way that makes sense; sometimes we are rolling right along through one of the women’s narrative and suddenly the thoughts being voiced are clearly those of an animal, with no transition to mark the change. The first time, it is that of a taxidermied bison in a museum, and the effect strikes me as somewhat cartoonish rather than reverent. At other times, there is no possible way that the animal in question could be a bison, unless we allow for some magical realism.  Remember, however, that I read a DRC, and sometimes details that are going to be present in the finished work, such as lines that mark a change of setting or point of view, are missing.  Your copy may make these changes clearer.

A lot of social justice issues are worked into the flow of these three generational narratives. Louise recalls the Vietnam War, which makes her a senior citizen also. She remembers the slaying of Dr. King, and if these details are to be utilized to establish setting and develop the character, they might be more effective if included earlier in Louise’s narrative.

Alice seems the easiest for the reader to relate to, even though my own age is closer to that of Louise. Her contemporary spin and flexible thinking are more in line with what most young people of any age are likely to resemble. Her affection for her grandmother comes through the page, and although all three women are effectively developed, she seems the most tangible. Alice is lesbian, and so there is also this aspect of social justice as a subscript, though it stays primarily in the background.

But let’s go back to the grandmother for a moment. Along with the need to meet her stolen daughter, Elinor has one more key task on her bucket list: she wants to know what the secret is that Louise has been hiding from her all these years. And Louise doesn’t want to tell her or even think about it. It’s an interesting twist, and adds to the characters of both Elinor and Louise.

Though shaky in places, Tears in the Grass is a worthy debut, and the subscript, the history of the Cree people at the hands of European settlers, is a tough read but an essential one, a story often left out of the core curriculums currently taught. Kudos to Archer, who will be a writer to watch in the future.

For the Dignified Dead, by Michael Genelin****

forthedignifieddeadThere’s a murderer on the loose, one that has killed across international boundaries. The weapon of choice? An ice pick. Happily, the case is assigned to total bad-ass Commander Jana Matinova, the best new female detective I’ve seen in emerge in crime fiction in decades. Thank you to Net Galley and Brash Books for the DRC. This title will be available for purchase November 3.

Part of what initially attracted me to this novel was the setting. Though Matinova finds herself crossing into various parts of central Europe, she is based in Slovakia, a country not even on my personal radar. By way of apology, I will point out that for most of my life, a giant swath of Europe and Asia was designated as USSR, and the satellite states lined up like faithful guardians around its perimeter included Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, both of which have been carved into different nations since the Stalinist realm crumbled. So I thought I’d learn a little bit about the contemporary contours of central Europe in the most enjoyable way possible—through fiction.

Genelin doesn’t disappoint. Along with Matinova, we have a collection of other cops, some of whom garnered truly fetching descriptions, such as this one: “With his thinning hair and lopsided smile he looked like a harmless, slightly unkempt beagle without its long ears.”

In addition we have the sinister Koba, a master criminal that Matinova considers akin, perhaps, to Holmes’s Moriarty. Koba’s role in Genelin’s story is complex and fascinating.

But most of all, I appreciated the development of Jana Matinova, both for her silver-bullet speed and cleverness, and also for that which is not included. We never hear about her hair, makeup, or her figure; we don’t need to know anything about her love life, and if she experiences any ambivalence about her lack of a domestic life, we don’t hear about it. In fact, Genelin treats his protagonist just as he would a male protagonist.

Now isn’t that a breath of fresh air?

The fifth star, which I would have loved to be able to add to this engaging story, is denied because of problematic passages that popped up often enough to warrant ten different notations in my kindle: “Too wordy! Tighten it up!” It seemed either as if there were two writers, one more capable than the other, co-writing the novel, or as if someone whose mother tongue is not English was struggling to say what needed saying. I noticed this was most frequent during passages of narrative, and less likely to occur during dialogue. Whatever it is, it could benefit greatly from either some rewritten passages or strong editing. But every time I found my eyes jerking through one of these verbose areas in the text, sooner or later we would come out slick as a whistle, and everything would commence to flow again. I don’t think a published text has ever confused me so much in this regard.

That being said, I would cheerfully read other books in this series given the opportunity. Because when push comes to shove, Commander Jana Matinova is a champ!

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn ****

gonegirlGone Girl is famous and has had numerous awards heaped on it, made its way to the top of best seller lists, and been lauded by reviewers far more widely read than I am. Rightly so. It’s one hell of a story, and just when I thought perhaps I saw what was happening, I would find that I had merely played into the writer’s clever trap, and that the roller coaster was about to go around a bend or through a tunnel entirely unexpectedly.

Since so many others have reviewed it before me, and since I did not read the book as an ARC, I’m going to approach it in a slightly different way than usual. I want to look at how this story reflects today’s society, because that part of it jumped out at me, grabbed me by the hair and told me that these are tense times, and they aren’t improving any, not right now. And how we deal with certain issues in fiction is perhaps not as well partitioned off from real life as we might prefer to believe.

The assumptions inherent in my definition of “society” are that we are looking at the English-speaking world, and my own experience is limited to North American English-speaking society. I can’t really speak for what lies elsewhere, since the media often distorts the real picture, and I haven’t gone anywhere.

Two things jumped out at me, and one of them is something that is popping up in literature all over the place now. It’s like playing whack-a-mole: there it is! Whoa, there’s another example! And another! And another! Here’s what I see in this book, and all over the place: the police can’t help you. Or they won’t. In many situations they are equal parts disinterested in exacting real justice, and perfectly happy to do what seems easiest and most likely to complete their task with the least exertion and unhappy attention from their superiors. And not only are you not going to get help from the cops, but that means it’s okay to just go take care of it, using whatever means you deem necessary. That’s point number one of two.

So when Amy gets gone from home in a small Missouri town, the local cops do a serviceable job and look at all the possibilities. They aren’t crooked or brutal as often happens in large cities, but they also lack imagination. Our male protagonist does not really trust them very long.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but it does bear examining, this trend in contemporary fiction. During the 1950’s, 60’s, even the 1970’s, the police, when depicted in fiction and in film, were 99 percent of the time really decent and extremely clever. They put in extra hours of their own time, went sleepless, and let their personal lives deteriorate because Catching the Real Killer consumed them. But they succeeded, in the end, and the reader (or the viewer) fully expected that to happen. They did it all within the letter of the law, because that was what good guys did. It was fiction, of course, but we believed it.

These days I read story after story, from funny capers like the Stephanie Plum series, to any number of gritty urban tales (you can probably think of half a dozen without trying too hard, if you read a lot of crime thrillers and mysteries) in which someone else has to step in and take care of the job because the cops are not up to the task. These cops aren’t always bad guys; sometimes they are underfunded, understaffed, or just plain dumb as a box of rocks. But it is the vigilante (the word is seldom used; it’s not a nice word, but it’s accurate) who will ultimately solve the crime. Sometimes there are variations, like some of James Lee Burke’s more recent work, in which a rogue cop of sorts gets sick of the rule book and goes off on “vacation” time in order to do the things that cannot be done on the clock.

The oldest story in the book is the I-have-to-solve-the-crime-cause-I’ve-been-framed plot line, although a writer who is fresh and original can still sing that same old song and make it seem brand new, not unlike the-killer-has-got-my-loved-one as a vigilante motivator.

Here’s the part that I hate and try not to think about too often, but because I see it recurring so much right now, I feel as if I have to mention it: in well-written novels such as this one, I just love it when someone who is not a cop takes matters into his or her own hands and metes out justice. That’s not sarcasm. A good writer can sell it to me and make me enjoy it, and I will look for more of that writer’s work. Because I can tell myself it’s just fiction.

In real life, when some frustrated unemployed neighbor takes to stalking the local teens to try to catch them doing something illegal; when Stand Your Ground laws enable some insecure, bumbling ass to follow young Black men around till he’s had the satisfaction of shooting one dead, once he has sufficiently goaded the man into taking a swing at him; it’s absolutely nightmarish.

One could argue that this is what fiction is for; it gives us the chance to see wrong things done right, if only subliminally. But it disturbs me that it has become so popular, and even more so that it has become thrilling to me personally. It can’t be a good sign.

I should end this here because it’s plenty to think about, but I need to talk about the equally disturbing issue number two . In Gone Girl, there are some really amazing, excellent feminist mini-manifestoes squeezed in between the many damning things that our bad-girl protagonist says and does. Again, I find myself bothered that we can’t see a strong, wonderful woman who notes that “I like strong women” is usually said by a man who hates strong women; that expecting one’s husband to tell her why he was out all night is deemed ‘shrill fishwife’ behavior that will destroy a marriage (because goodness knows, the marriage can’t fail over a guy who can’t find his phone or his front door at night.)

In this harrowing so-called era of post-feminism, when the states are shooting down women’s right to control their own bodies with abortion laws that are so restrictive as to be either very expensive or impossible, and ‘personhood’ amendments (which I was happy to see fail) that order the woman to honor a garbanzo-bean shaped spot of tissue and blood more than she values herself, her family, and her future, why oh why must the character who issues some genuinely truthful and brilliant statements regarding the worth of a woman also be a conniving, manipulative, narcissistic monster? With domestic violence not in abeyance and the word “bitch-slap” being considered only slightly edgy when included in a joke, why can we not have real heroes who are strong women—not slinky, young femme fatales who use their bodies as bait, but women who use their brains and social skills to get at the truth?

If I sound like it haunts me, it’s because it does.

If you want to know the standard book review information about story arc, character development, and setting, go and read what the New York Times had to say, or better still, go look at the string of awards garnered by this novel. It’s very strong writing, and of course it is not (as far as I can see) intended to make a political point.

On the other hand, people that live in war-torn nations will tell you everything is political. At dinner time, who eats and who doesn’t, that is political. Who lies, and who tells the truth; who can see a doctor and who can’t; these are every day issues that are also massively political.

As for me, I frowned and flagged the pages when I saw these hot buttons pop up, but I kept turning the pages, because I wanted to see how the story would end. And it’s a great book, sure to keep you up way past your bedtime if you aren’t careful.

But there is no ducking the fact that it is also a product of the time in which we live. Let us come up for air from time to time, and view things as they are, lest we get sucked into the oily abyss of socially sick ideas without even realizing we’ve been had.