This installment: SF noir (f); cozy novel with a used clothing theme (f); magical realism in New England (CD-f); Seattle despair/good writing (f); short stories about screwed up folks (f);and returning to Nigeria–corruption galore (f). [These are from 2014.]
Chance by Kem Nunn
The eponymous protagonist is a divorced neuropsychiatrist. Most of his practice involves expert witnessing and writing reports, and his subjects are a miserable bunch. Into his bleak life comes Jaclyn, a woman in serious trouble who turns out to be trouble for Chance, big time. A flamingly gay old furniture dealer and his very odd sidekick, D, play their essential roles. This is SF noir, sometimes a bit unbelievable, but full of suspense and surprise.
Vintage by Susan Gloss
In the “cozy” department, on the edge of Romance, but I enjoyed it despite the predictable material. Violet runs a vintage clothing store in Madison, WI. She’s divorced, tough, and dedicated to her work. Pregnant teenager April finds her way there, as does Amithi, an Indian woman whose marriage is stale. Both need help and end up playing essential roles. The store’s lease is up, things look bleak, but saving graces come by surprise and hidden talents emerge. Each chapter starts with the description of a particular garment and its provenance, which leads into the story. Especially fun–the drag queens who frequent the shop.
Mercy Snow by Tiffany Baker
This came to me on CD first and wrapped me in a New England spell on my commute. The Snow family is anathema in Titan Falls, a small town with only one significant employer, the paper mill. Mercy, brother Zeke, and younger sister Hannah end up in desperate straits on a patch of family land down by the polluted river. A terrible auto accident occurs and Zeke is the suspect. But we soon learn that the mill owner may be the cause. Lots of nasty political and social manipulation to cover things up, but the truth will out. Mercy knows folk medicine, Zeke is an amazing hunter, Hannah can see ghosts. So magical realism rears its head and things are sometimes a tad obvious, but it’s a compelling story full of atmosphere and local lore.
The Free by Willy Vlautin
Lots of stripped down despair in Vlautin’s books. Here are desperate people living almost impossible lives near Seattle. Freddy toils at two jobs, one at a group home and the other for a failing paint company. A deeply disturbed Iraq war vet, Leroy, who lives at the group home, makes a suicide attempt and ends up in the hospital. Nurse Pauline, who also cares for her crazy dad, does what she can and also befriends a young runaway, Jo. As Leroy hovers between life and death, we become privy to his fever dreams of a punitive society that kills everyone with “the mark.” Why would we want to read such sad stuff? Because Vlautin is a very good writer (influenced by Carver) and it’s very moving.
This Is Not An Accident by April Wilder
Short stories about screwed up folks—a reading specialty of mine, or so it seems. Because for all their grotesquerie, the situations feel familiar, someone else’s bad dream. Like the adoption of 5-year old waif who declares she’s bisexual. Or a relationship on the skids that ends up in Denmark’s infamous free-for-all commune. Or the guy who’s supposed to be taking care of the dog where he’s house-sitting but the dog disappears early on. Tough, sad, and witty, and so glad I’m not them.
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
We associate those email scams with Nigeria—the infamous 419 calls, and here we’re right in the source of the phenomenon. Because that country runs on corruption as a way of life, as this visitor discovers. He’s been living in NYC and considering returning to his homeland, weighing the evidence and finding it wanting. Short, evocative chapters with odd, grainy photos convey the surrealism of everyday life there over and over. It’s full of juicy stories, however it’s not enough to keep him there. Reportage in fictional form, from the inside out, my favorite form of discovery.
Back next week.