According to conventional wisdom novels and short stories are completely different species, and never the twain shall meet. In To Do the Deal: A Novel in Stories, Cathy Baker shows us that, in the hands of a master craftsman, conventional wisdom is wrong.
To Do the Deal is the story – actually ten stories – of Kenneth Bodine, a man in search of himself. It starts in 1991, when Ken breaks up with his girlfriend, known only as Watermelon, and meets Jodine, who is about to break up with her boyfriend. After the two successfully break off their unfortunate hookups and end up with each other, what follows is a series of ten stand-alone short stories that take us to the year 2000 – as Ken moves from job to job, eventually ending up in sales, where he shines, despite his absolute lack of people skills.
Each story is a self-contained episode in Ken’s increasingly chaotic life, but each also segues seamlessly into the next. Baker has created the perfect born loser in Ken, the model put upon housewife/mother in Jodi, and a cast of supporting characters that, if you’ve ever experienced the suburbs of Washington, DC, you’ll swear you’ve lived next door to them. The humor in To Do the Deal is understated, tongue-in-cheek, that sneaks up on you, gently grabs your funny bone, and before you know it, has you clutching your sides and blinking back tears. At times you feel sorry for Ken, and at others, you want to give him a solid kick in the rear – all the while, you’re chuckling at the predicaments he manages to get himself into.
There are no surprises in this book, but it is not predictable. It ends in the best possible way, given the state of mind of the main character and the effect he has on everyone with whom he comes into contact. Despite the lack of surprise, it is satisfying because you find yourself saying, ‘but for the grace of God, that’s where I’d be.’ Baker’s use of domestic banter between Ken and Jodi (which, given the last name she acquired at marriage, is what Jodine prefers to be called) is so realistic, you feel like a voyeur reading it. She does a particularly good job in describing the relationship Ken and Jodi have with their children – just ask anyone who has had to raise kids in today’s economy. Between episodes of humor, the author also describes human relationships in a way that is so spot on, you wonder if she wasn’t a psychologist in another life.
If you want a good weekend read, this is a definite ‘must-read.’ One of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Retail by Joshua Danker-Dake is an easy, fun read. Anyone who’s ever been inside one of those Big Box home improvement stores will instantly recognize the setting, though I doubt my local Home Depot or Lowe’s is hiding sales associates as clever and funny as these. The conversations are the sort we wish we had with our work colleagues, but our colleagues are mere mortals, while the boys and girls of the House Station are bright and witty. The interactions with the customers-from-hell ring true, if sometimes exaggerated for effect.
Main character, Penn, is a recent collage graduate and wannabe writer (Why are these protagonists always wannabe writers, never wannabe lawyers, or wannabe plumbers?) working at the House Station after being denied entrance to grad school. Told in dairy-like episodes, the book chronicles Penn’s 431 days toiling in retail, his interactions with his colleagues, his roommate and his girlfriend, and his budding romance with Chloe, who works in Paint. It’s easy to visualize this story as a film—a young twenties, buddy-film, coming-of-age, romcom.
The book is well edited and fast-paced. There’s nothing deep, profound, or unexpected here, but there doesn’t need to be. Readers looking for a light, enjoyable story won’t be disappointed. A strong four stars.
The First Noble Truth is a tale told in the voices of two women. The author has made the interesting choice of giving us one voice in first person and the other in third person. Counterintuitively, I found the third person voice the more intimate of the two.
Krista, in first person, relates the circumstances of her life with some detachment; Machiko’s story is immersive, full of rich detail. Krista’s suffering is caused by large events—by loss, by grief; Machiko’s by the small injustices of daily life. Krista’s story is grim; Machiko’s is heartbreaking.
Krista and Machiko are very different from each other in superficial ways—race, nationality, family—yet the life of each woman is curtailed by suffering. Krista’s suffering prompts her to become an eternal vagabond, while Machiko’s affliction keeps her close to home, but each woman endures the loneliness imposed by her suffering, and in the end, it is the recognition of their shared experience that allows them to truly encounter each other.
What makes this book extraordinary is the power of the writing. It builds the worlds of these two women little by little, a piece at a time, until the reader finds herself woven into the fabric of the story, until the reader discovers herself in the lives of two strangers. This is a book that will change you.
The writing is exceptional. Pavarti Tyler brings the main character, Chelle, a thirteen year old girl from a dysfunctional family, who turns fourteen during the book, to life in this disturbing novel told from her point of view. She bares her soul in this book, and I really felt for her as she struggled to navigate an existence that no one would wish on any teenage girl, yet is undeniably real for some. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It deals with complex, tough, even taboo subjects, and it does so extremely realistically. Chelle makes some bad choices, but from her viewpoint, her emotional outlook and need, they make sense in a rather disturbing way. That made White Chalk a compelling read, and a story and character I won’t ever forget.
The other characters in the book are also well-portrayed, and as the story is from Chelle’s point of view, the reader must wonder at their motivations. Some of them take advantage of her; some seem to want to befriend and help her. It all adds to Chelle’s emotional confusion and self-doubt, and to my experience as a reader, because I had strong feelings about some of them.
I do not want to add any detail of the plot because that would spoil the story. White Chalk is for readers who want to be challenged emotionally and idealistically, mesmerized by great writing and a unforgettable characters, and be drawn deeply into a disturbed teenage girl’s life as it falls apart around her. I highly recommend it.
A tiny wooden boat crashes onto the rocks and is smashed into splinters by the waves. A lone young girl is rescued by Helena and Jason, who attempt to protect her from the authorities of the Land of Reason. They advise young Kailani to request asylum, in an effort to keep her from incarceration. For this innocent child is from the Blessed Lands—ruled by pure faith, and she has illegally entered the Republic—ruled by reason alone. Her sudden and inexplicable appearance changes everyone’s lives, and most especially Jason’s and Helena’s. Can the two lands cooperate, or will more war ensue?
The story opens dynamically and holds the reader’s attention throughout. The character development is excellent, and I found myself identifying readily with each of the main characters. The plot and pacing are sound, and the editing and proofreading are done to a high standard. I thoroughly enjoyed this read, and feel that any reader who enjoys Literary Fiction, Sagas, and Religion-versus-State dramas, would enjoy the book.
At around 280 pages this is a medium length read, and I read it in a couple of days. The premise of the story is a variation on the dystopian theme, and I felt that the author dealt with an issue pertinent to our culture (religion or reason?) without preaching. Right up until the end I had no idea how things were going to work out. I give a strong 5 out of 5 stars to ‘The Daughter of The Sea and The Sky’.