Reality Boy by A.S. King; Little Brown, 353 pages ($18). Ages 15 and up.
The acclaimed author of “Please Ignore Vera Dietz” and “Everybody Sees the Ants” offers another compelling novel of dysfunction, damage and healing in “Reality Boy.” Gerald Faust had already been traumatized by his psychopath older sister Tasha (who tried to drown him in the bathtub when he was 3) when his mother invites a reality television crew into their home to document the family dysfunction for the television audience. Gerald’s dramatic response at age 5, captured on camera and viewed by millions, earned him a terrible nickname that continues to haunt him years after the cameras left. Now 17 and in high school, he is in special-ed class, seeing an anger management counselor, dreaming of a way to leave his unhappy family behind - and falling in love with a co-worker at the local hockey rink concession stand. King weaves a powerful story, rich in humor and heartbreak, of two tough, funny but damaged souls starting to heal as they connect and give each other the courage to demand the home lives they deserve. King is a master of powerful coming-of-age narratives, of young adults struggling to overcome deep wounds of dysfunction and family trauma. Her portrait of Gerald’s mother may be her most devastating yet.
– Jean Westmoore
Fixing to Die by Elaine Viets; Obsidian, 304 pages ($7.99)
Elaine Viets’ skill at weaving darker tones into an amateur sleuth mystery shines in the highly entertaining “Fixing to Die.”
The ninth novel in this series finds Josie Marcus mystery shopping for her boss as well as for herself. Josie and her husband, Ted Scottsmeyer, have been married a few months and are ready to move into a home of their own. It has to be close enough to Ted’s veterinarian practice and to the private school that Josie’s 11-year-old daughter Amelia attends on scholarship. The couple may have found the perfect place — a fixer upper owned by Ted’s business partner, fellow veterinarian Christine Cormac. The roomy house is in a good St. Louis neighborhood. The neighbors seem nice – one is a college professor, the other has a Parson Russell terrier she is readying to be a champion show dog. Josie is ready to plunge into the world of rehabbers and contractors.
Josie’s helpers find the body of Christine’s sister, Rain, under a dilapidated gazebo in the backyard. Rain was a free spirit, who often disappeared for months at a time. Josie becomes involved in the investigation when Christine is arrested.
Viets’ energetic storytelling keeps “Fixing to Die” on a brisk pace . A solid family dynamic adds texture to Viets’ story.
– Oline H. Cogdill, Orlando Sun Sentinel
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan; Ecco, 608 pages ($29.99).
The prolific and award-winning Amy Tan has delivered yet another sweeping tale of mothers and daughters that spans continents and generations. “The Valley of Amazement” begins in Shanghai in the early 1800s with Lucia Minturn, who owns a high-end courtesan house, and her daughter, Violet, who grows up among the women and their customers.
Through choice — or perhaps by accident — Violet ends up abandoned in Shanghai while her mother sets sail for San Francisco. Left with few options, Violet reinvents herself as a wealthy and much sought-after half-white, half-Chinese courtesan.
As she learns and later plies her trade, Tan brings to life a world with which few are familiar. And it’s fascinating. Her descriptions of the countryside, of the houses, of the lifestyle and the customers are well-drawn and multilayered. Her characters are brought to life as three-dimensional, complicated people.
The only distraction from the near-perfect pacing is the occasional overwrought language – particularly when it comes to sex and intimacy: “We conjoined and separated, conjoined and separated, so that we could have the joy of looking into each other’s eyes before falling into each other again.”
Then again, the language may sound awkward only to modern ears.
Readers also may find themselves wondering throughout “The Valley of Amazement” whether they hadn’t already read this book. It covers no new ground and offers no surprises, but in Tan’s skilled hands that doesn’t detract from the joy of reading it. (Note: Tan will speak at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at Kleinhans as guest of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s BABEL series. Tickets are $35.)
– Kim Curtis, Associated Press