Gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

godsinalabamaThis book was just what the doctor ordered. Whenever I find myself steeped in too much important-yet-grim literature, I have a handful of go-to authors that are guaranteed to leave me feeling better about the world. Jackson is one of them. I bought my copy of this book used via Powell’s City of Books, online using the gift certificate they bestow on reviewers from time to time. I recently won another one and have ordered some more books by this writer to brighten the winter to come.

Arlene had vowed never to return to her family in Alabama. Dark things have been done there, and she did some of them herself. Let’s examine, for instance, the murder of Jim Beverly. Arlene promised God that if he let her get out of the state after it occurred, she would never return, and despite her family’s hurt inquiries, she never has. Now things are different, though. A visitor from her hometown has come to her apartment asking about Jim. In addition, Arlene’s boyfriend Burr, who is African-American, has told her that if she won’t introduce him to her people, regardless of what they are like or how they will treat him, he will leave her. And so Arlene is forced to break her vow with the Almighty and head south.

Arlene’s family is unforgettable; Aunt Flo, who raised Arlene after her mother’s breakdown, is one of the finest strong female characters of all time. I have read several books since I read this one, and yet Arlene and Flo are still riding around in my head. That’s what excellent literature does.

As to Jim Beverly and Arlene’s vow, there’s more to all of it than meets the eye, and the ending is so surprising yet so completely believable that I can only roll my eyes in admiration. Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction.

Himself, by Jess Kidd*****

himselfbyjesskiddAh, feck me blind now, Jess Kidd’s written herself a novel, and it’s good enough for any ten others. It comes out March 14, 2017, and although I read it free via Net Galley and Atria, there’s surely a chance I will buy one or more copies to give to those I love anyway. You should, too. It’s too clever to miss, and if you don’t mind a bit of irreverence, if you have a heart at all for Ireland and for ordinary working folk just trying to get along as best they’re able, this book is your book. Sly as hell and fall-down-laughing funny, it will put a spring in your step for a goodly while thereafter. That it will!

Mahony has come to the tiny Irish town of Mulderrig, looking to find out what happened to his mammy, who left him orphaned when he was small. The townsfolk aren’t happy to see anyone related to Orla Sweeney, but Mahony is undeniable in his charm, with:

“A face that women can love on sight and men will smile upon. Mahony has the right tone in his voice and the right words to go with it. Mahony has a hand that people want to shake and a back they want to pat.”

But beneath the charm, the voice, and the handsome face, “He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks.”

You see, like Orla before him, Mahony sees the dead, and they’re thick as flies here. They’re sitting on the rafters knitting; they’re smoking a pipe in the roll-top bath; they’re sitting on the cistern, just watching. Because “The dead are drawn to those with shattered hearts.”

But his mother isn’t among them; how can that be so?

As we follow Mahony on his quest, we get to know a number of the townspeople. Shauna runs the only decent boarding house in town, and since Mahony is staying there, we get to know her and her father, Desmond. We get to know Mrs. Cauley, the wealthy senior citizen that keeps the town afloat, ancient, wheelchair bound, and surrounded in her quarters by a “literary labyrinth” that’s positively magical. In her, Mahony finds an unexpected confederate. Though elderly enough to be fragile, when the chips are down Mrs. Cauley is at the ready, declaring that “I’m Miss Marple, with balls.”

We also get to know one of my favorite characters, Bridget Doosey, as well as the “crocodilian” parish priest, Father Quinn.

The lyricism of the text is owed to no small skill on the part of the author, partly with the use of figurative language—and here I tell my readers that are teachers, you’ll find no better passages for teaching the effective use of repetition anywhere, but select carefully, because the text is very spicy—but a certain amount of it is due to the intangible talent that some of us have, and that some of us don’t. I note that every chapter is ended brilliantly and the next also begun as much so.
I could reach into my notes all day long and find more passages that are lyrical, moving, or funny enough to make you wish you’d been to the bathroom first. But in the end I’d be doing you a disservice, because what you really need is the book itself. With a little planning, you can have a copy in your hands before St. Patrick’s Day. And you should do so.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood****

alltheuglyandwonAnd you thought Fifty Shades of Gray was controversial.  Just remember that you heard it here first: if this novel has legs and gets around, it’s going to create a lot of noise.  I could almost smell the book-burning bonfires as I read the last half. And lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

Wavy grows up in the North American heartland, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When you consider it for a moment, that’s obviously the place for a meth lab to be. No sophisticated, well funded cops will sniff around and shut down your operation; there’s plenty of cheap land for the various vehicles and outbuildings such a business might require.

It’s not as if guests are welcome to drop in.

Guests don’t drop in, in fact, but two children do, one at a time, to proprietors Liam and his estranged and dysfunctional wife, Val. First Wavy arrives, a daughter that grows up with instructions never to let anyone touch her, especially her father; next comes little brother Donal, whom Wavy undertakes to raise as best a small child can do, since nobody else is available for either of them. Val struggles with mental illness and has given in to addiction with no struggle at all. Liam lives elsewhere with a small harem of junkie women that he uses sexually and as part of his drug business. When Wavy sees him, he usually yells for one of the women to get her out of there and take her somewhere else. He doesn’t seem to care who she’s with, or what they do with her.

Wavy lives briefly with her grandmother, a nurturing woman who despairs of Val’s habits but is more than willing to take care of her grandchildren, and slowly Wavy begins to bloom. But Grandma is elderly and sick, and she dies. During the brief time Wavy is with her, Grandma teaches her to read the stars. Wavy has a quick, sharp mind, and with just a little encouragement she learns the constellations. They form her only reliable connection to the world, since they are the sole immutable part of her life. Take her to live here; take her to live there. Put her in school; yank her back out. No matter what happens, she can still find Cassiopeia.

Liam’s mechanic and sometime-employee is a man named Kellen. He sees Wavy left like yesterday’s mail by the side of the road and gives her a lift on his motorcycle. To stay on board, she must touch his jacket in spite of what her mother has told her about never touching other people. We all need to be touched, and children of course most of all, and a bond is formed.

As to Kellen, he’s a strange bird, and the reader is never fully informed what his deal is. Is he, as some say, a slow learner? Is he mentally ill? All we really know comes from the inner narrative we hear from him in alternate chapters, and what others say about him. And we know what he does. When Wavy’s parents don’t show up to pick her up from school or to attend parent conferences, Kellen goes. And we know that other members of Liam’s meth crew consider Kellen to be the kind of man that won’t pull the trigger, but will help move the body when the deed has been done.

Sadly, Kellen really is the best parent figure in Wavy’s life. For those that think this is melodramatic nonsense: teach in a low income school district for a decade or two, and then come back and tell me that. Because these kids are out there.

Greenwood is dead smart when it comes to developing character. The peculiar behaviors that Wavy develops along with the period in which her physical development ceases to move forward are right on the money. The author states that portions of the story are autobiographical, and that sounds about right.

The relationship that develops between Wavy and Kellen will cause plenty of fireworks way after Independence Day has passed. Those that have triggers related to anything at all should steer clear. But for the rest, this novel is worth your time and dime. As the relationship between Wavy and Kellen begins to change, readers may lean in, or may want to hurl the book at a wall, but no one will be left unmoved.

This book is available to the public August 9, 2016, but you can order it now.

City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy*****

cityofdarknesscityoflightPiercy is a legend among feminists, and her writing was pivotal in my own development during the late 1970s and early 1980s as a newly-hatched adult. When this title, a novel based on the French Revolution, came out in 1996, I put it on my Christmas list and read it hungrily once I received it. When I noticed that it was released digitally this spring, I scored a digital copy from Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It’s a novel that is definitely worth reading twice.

Piercy is brilliant not only in bringing characters to life—and she did a prodigious amount of work before doing so, reading piles of biographies, memoirs, letters and other documents—but also in conveying the reader to the time and place In question. I think it’s because of this that her novel helped me to understand how such an amazing, incredible thing, the revolution, the democratic impulse that overthrew a monarchy, could end so badly. Dry history texts chronicle the “excesses” of the Jacobins. Say what? How meaningless is that? And it is by being able to see the roles played by key figures in the revolution, including the women that are usually left out, that I can see why the leadership degenerated as it did. An inexperienced working class with no background in how to organize a struggle ultimately paid the price, but in the end, the nation was still better off than it had been beforehand.

Using the grammar and conversational conventions of today for easier access to a popular audience, Piercy transports us back to a time when a life expectancy was less than fifty years for most people; open sewers flowed through the streets of Paris, causing horrible illnesses and a high infant mortality rate; and a starving seven year old child could be publicly hanged for stealing bread.

In fact, the bread riots led by the women of Paris were where it all began.

One thing readers should know if they read this novel digitally is that there is a glossary of sorts, a long list of characters and a few basic facts to identify them, but it’s at the back of the book, so you will want to go over it before you start and then refer back to it when you find yourself confused. The topic is huge, and you may need this cheat sheet, so it’s good to know it’s there. There are so many historical characters here, and if you aren’t fluent in this area, you may lose track of Robespierre, Danton, Madame Roland, and oh of course, Marat. And back then, Camille was a man’s name!

Piercy tells the story using the points of view of a wide range of figures important to this struggle. She gives a fair hearing to the perspectives of those that stood left, right, and center in this conflict, denying a sympathetic ear only to royalty—and even Marie Antoinette is treated with surprising sympathy. I came away feeling as if I knew so much more about the French Revolution and its terrible conclusion when I had read it, and rereading it was even more helpful, because it’s a lot to digest all at once, even if one is already aware of the broad contours of this pivotal time in French history.

When I love a book hard, I push it at everyone that comes within my reach, and I have pushed this particular novel at a lot of people over the years. Given how many times I loaned out my own (purchased) hard cover copy, it’s surprising that it isn’t falling apart, and maybe even more surprising that it’s always been returned to me.

Whether you prefer to read digitally or to purchase a paper copy, City of Darkness, City of Light is the most readable, accessible treatment of the French Revolution that I have seen. The fact that Piercy includes the key role played by women, both among the toiling masses and the elite salons of the intelligentsia makes it even better.

Recommended wholeheartedly to anyone that wants to understand the French Revolution!

Saltwater Cowboys, by Dayle Furlong *****

SaltwatercowboysDayle Furlong’s writing is brilliant. This haunting story, visceral and evocative, is wholly original, but if it reminds me of any one other author, it is Russell Banks. My immense appreciation goes to Net Galley and Dundurn Group publishing house for the ARC. The first couple of pages wobbled and I waited to see whether the writing would settle in and be a good read, or whether the writer would struggle. By page three I was no longer watching the writing, because I was hooked on the story, and I needed to know what would happen next.

Jack McCarthy is a miner, and he’s just been laid off. Newfoundland has been home to his family for generations, but there’s just no work there. The place was already depressed before the layoffs, with high numbers of unemployed workers. Now he is just one more of them. What is he going to do? Angela is at home with their three little girls, and good heavens, she’s pregnant again. The pressure is on!

Leave it to his best buddy, Pete, to find the answer. Pete has found a mine that is hiring in Foxville. True, it’s clear across Canada, closer to the Pacific than to the Atlantic, and way far north. It’s near the Athabascan River. But they’ll take Jack, and they’ll have their friends nearby. It seems to be the obvious solution.

My quick Google search helped me find Foxville. Imagine driving all that way to look for work! When the McCarthys arrive, they find that the local workers consider them hicks. A migration has steadily occurred as unemployed miners from Newfoundland make the exodus in search of steady jobs. Their mannerisms are mimicked, and their women are sneered at. It’s humiliating.

If you were looking for something to pick your spirits up, this isn’t your book. It’s a dark story, but it’s one that speaks to the time in which we live. So many are jobless, displaced, and for those of us that are hanging on, sometimes the loss of one single paycheck is all that stands between us and disaster.

Furlong understands the working class. She knows the pride that takes hold of its families. A plastic bowl from a discount store is worth infinitely more than a beautiful old porcelain one from Goodwill or some other charity store, because it is new, and because it doesn’t smell of taking charity from others.

The longing to climb that social ladder, to actually buy an entire house and hold your head high, reaches out from Furlong’s text, reaches into your lungs and sucks out some of the space there. I became so invested in this fictional family that at one point I had to put it down and go read something else in order to gain distance.

Regardless, the setting and characters are so palpable–I underlined several quotes, but then decided you should find them for yourself, because they are made even better by context–I sometimes flipped the pages back in order to re-read passages.

When I wasn’t at my reader, I thought about the McCarthy family. I argued with them. I was the unseen third adult in their vehicle when they were out driving around. Most of all, I wanted to advise Jack. But damn damn and double damn, I could not get through to him. And I had to remind myself to calm the hell down, because…

He’s fictional.

Furlong has the talent to break your heart and feed it to you with a spoon. If you loved The Prince of Tides, if you cried through The Thornbirds, you have to get this book. It comes out early in 2015, and I will run it a second time on my blog when it does.

Jack and Angela are waiting for you, too.