Against all expectation, considering the subject matter, Jankowsky is a more interesting character than the novel in which...

WILLING

After a strong beginning, this novel about a writer on an international sex tour doesn’t show much staying power.

Spencer has long specialized in inspired novelistic setups (A Ship Made of Paper, 2003, etc.), but rarely has he seemed to have more fun than he does here with the introduction of his first-person protagonist. Though scuffling freelancer Avery Jankowsky has traces of Bellow’s Augie March and Roth’s Portnoy in his voice, he’s as unlucky in his career as he is in romance. It seems he only has one real story to tell: that of his mother’s four marriages, which resulted in her son’s four successive surnames. He quickly runs out of steam with his potential lovers—perhaps it’s his fatalistic attitude toward his younger girlfriends that chases them away. Following the confession by his latest that she has been having an affair with a brutish Russian, he finds himself, through an improbable coincidence, booked onto what is supposed to be a first-class sex tour—through Scandinavia rather than the more child-exploitive Southeast Asia. The tour comprises the novel’s second and lesser half, as Spencer introduces so many characters that the reader has trouble keeping them straight, and Spencer (or Jankowsky) proves squeamish at writing about actual sex. What is billed as a fantasy excursion seems more like a farce, one that has the narrator waxing philosophic about his noble instincts and his animal nature, his struggle with good and evil (or at least bad) and his loss of the ability to make “the distinction between what was naughty and what was despicable.” Spencer makes potentially transgressive fare seem pedestrian, with the novel meandering its way toward a finale that feels abrupt and arbitrary—as foreplay ultimately leads to an anticlimax.

Against all expectation, considering the subject matter, Jankowsky is a more interesting character than the novel in which he finds himself.

Pub Date: March 11, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-076015-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2008

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...

FLY AWAY

Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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