“Len Joy is solid Americana…”  Sandra Scofield – National Book Award Nominee

 A high school basketball coach deals with small town secrets. The setting feels real, like North Bath, in Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. Joy avoids the temptation to wrap everything up too cleanly after introducing many complications. A character-rich, skillfully plotted Midwestern drama.”  

                                                                                   -  KIRKUS REVIEWS
“…The moral and ethical questions raised by his own actions, and those closest to him, are what keep these pages turning: the reader is keenly interested in finding out what choices Darwin will make. A great read by a writer who keeps getting better and better.”
   – Sands Hall, author of the memoir FLUNK.START. Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology, and of the novel Catching Heaven.

“Len Joy combines lyrical language, unflinching insight, and a kind of rough-edged masculinity to unique effect. His work is a nuanced study of small town life and the deceptive allure of the American dream.” 
     – Abby Geni, Author of the novels, THE WILDLANDS and the LIGHTKEEPERS.


Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5

Better Days is a bighearted, wry, and tender novel that focuses on love and loyalty.

Len Joy’s Better Days is an attention-grabbing crime story in which unexpected upheavals result in welcome second chances.

What’s the penalty for blind trust and loyalty? That’s the question Darwin Burr must answer when the FBI announces that his lifelong friend and now missing boss, Billy, is a person of interest. Mysterious envelopes stuffed with money, diamonds, and gold coins turn up out of nowhere, and Darwin’s leisurely work life at an auto parts distribution center becomes anything but—particularly since he’s always signed the papers Billy passed across his desk, no questions asked. Soon, everything in his life is called into question, including his marriage, his family, and his career.

Darwin narrates his tangled web with amusing slang and witty observations. His voice is a counterpoint to the story’s serious legal accusations and dark romantic temptations. Winning, laid-back prose belies the seriousness of Darwin’s situation, but turns up the tension to eleven as he seeks truth from those who say they are only trying to protect him.

Detailed scenes set in familiar bars and sweaty high school gyms are juxtaposed to spirited dialogue, resulting in a rhythmic text that moves at a clip. Through capable foreshadowing and well-timed revelations, the story negotiates absorbing subplots—especially around an endangered young girl, Toni, who is in Darwin’s charge, and her basketball coach for whom Darwin develops feelings. References to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, with its themes of racism and incest, bring in weightier topics than the novel’s primary themes of guilt and innocence, perhaps hinting at things happening offscreen in Toni’s life. This layered undercurrent adds more to contemplate, though such secondary story lines slow the novel’s pace, and the denouement feels delayed as a result.
There are many characters in this book, but they are all complex and realistic. Sympathy is secured when even the villains exhibit humanity, from a lawyer sent to take Darwin down who helps him instead, to a misanthropic prepper neighbor who becomes a powerful ally. This caring lineup of secondary characters is drawn with optimism that fits the story’s tone.

Appropriate punishments and rewards are meted out by the end, with puzzle pieces clicking into place to reveal the entire picture. Some characters’ secrets, now known, remain unacknowledged, and that silence reads as an act of love.
Better Days is a bighearted, wry, and tender novel that focuses on love and loyalty.

Reviewed by Drema Drudge
November 30, 2018

A high school basketball coach deals with small-town secrets.
From the outset of this novel, just about every aspect of Darwin Burr’s life in Claxton, 60 miles from Chicago, is set up for possible upheaval. He works at AutoPro, a nationwide car parts retailer, for his childhood buddy Billy Rourke, who has been involved in some increasingly questionable business practices. Darwin has a stable but cold relationship with his wife, Daina, who thinks he lacks ambition. Their daughter, Astra, is getting ready to try out for the high school varsity basketball team. 
That’s when the changes start. The team’s coach becomes ill, suffering chest pains. Billy arranges for Darwin, a former Claxton basketball star, to assist the school’s guidance counselor, Fariba Pahlavi, in coaching the team. Then Billy disappears as representatives from the corporate office show up looking to fire him and turn him over to the FBI. One of those reps, Stephanie Washington, steps in as the interim boss to audit Billy’s records. Adding to the turmoil, Darwin takes an interest in recruiting Toni, a young girl, for the basketball team and soon winds up trying to help her out of a difficult home situation. Everyone he knows has secrets, and they all seem to be revealed at once, forcing Darwin to figure out who he is without his support group. There are a lot of characters swirling around Darwin, the center of this story, and Joy (Letting Go, 2018, etc.) makes them all count. They each have distinct personalities, from the guy who owns the breakfast place to Daina, Fariba, and Darwin himself. The author has a good eye for telling details and exchanges between characters. At one point, when Darwin is trying to find out more about Daina’s past as a Latvian immigrant, he observes, “I learned that when she put my name at the end of her speech it meant our discussion was over.” This version of Claxton feels real, like North Bath, New York, in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that Joy avoids the temptation to wrap everything up too cleanly after introducing so many complications.
A character-rich, skillfully plotted Midwestern drama.
Publisher: Moonshine Cove Publishing
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online: Sept. 20th, 2018



's review

it was amazing

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin

It’s 2005 and we are in Claxton, Illinois viewing life through the eyes of Darwin Burr. Yes, his name is Darwin. Three years have passed since 9/11, the disaster that changed our country forever, making us all more paranoid, jittery, easily provoked into mistaken judgements based upon one’s culture and associations. At the same time, small towns’ demographics have changed and everyone in the town has collaborated, improvised and, well, survived. I think Darwin Burr says it best:

“In the 70s, when I was in school, there might have been some parental reservations about having an Iranian Muslim woman as high school guidance counselor. Back then there were no racial issues because everyone was white. And religious diversity, of which the people of Claxton were very proud, amounted to peaceful coexistence of three Baptist churches, two branches of Methodism, and a breakaway Presbyterian church.”

Darwin has done just fine, he’s adjusted, he’s kind of evolved, as everyone has, to the changing world. But well, Darwin is stuck. His marriage is unhappy and a bit strange. His best friend and boss is a funny, friendly good ole boy who’s a wee bit corrupt. Darwin is pushed into volunteering to coach the high school girls basketball team, which has a pretty horrible losing streak and a beautiful Iranian assistant basketball coach he cannot stop thinking about. It’s a struggle to be Darwin because he’s kind of let his life live by itself. He’s not grabbed hold of his life. He’s simply moved out of the way and, well, adjusted.

Then, of course, all hell breaks loose, and the fun begins. Turns out Darwin’s best friend is not just a wee bit corrupt, he’s alot corrupt. And the FBI is so trigger happy they go nutso investigating, jumping to wrong conclusions, eventually targeting Darwin, too. Meanwhile, Darwin’s Russian wife, with a mysterious past, now a social worker, takes on an African American teenager whose family is in trouble with dangerous gangs. Yes, Darwin gets sucked into that too. He struggles with all of this while falling desperately in love with his assistant basketball coach. He kind of survives and kind of struggles. He lands in a messy place, and nothing is perfect. Because life isn’t perfect. But he most certainly evolves.

Len Joy is a clean, fresh writer with a great sense of humor. There is never a cliche character. No one is pure. No one is bad. Everyone is human. You are thrust into a town with many characters but thanks to Len’s detailed eye, we know all of them without being bored with too many details. “Fariba had a clipped, cultured voice where every syllable seems to get its own space.” “I thought he looked like Tip O’neil, but he sounded like Barney Fife.” The best descriptions were of the Russian wife. Little things. I won’t go hunting for them, they are good.

It’s Richard Russo with more energy and funnier plot twists.

This is a fun, fast, entertaining read with heart. Rich characters, lots of twists. And yet, the writer is saying something, something important that only Len Joy can say because he knows what he’s talking about.


rated it it was amazing
Darwin Burr was, once upon a time, a hometown hero – a basketball star who took “the Shot” that gave his downstate Illinois high school the state championship. Even now, as Darwin faces middle age, the luster of his stardom has not entirely faded, even if the local bar – transformed into a real restaurant –no longer offers Dar free drinks and has removed from its wall a commemorative photograph of his shining moment. Yet always, even at the moment of Darwin’s youthful triumph, another figure has been present, supporting him – indeed, making his achievement possible. Billy. Billy, who threw Darwin the pass that set up the Shot. Billy, who convinced Darwin to drive sixty miles to Chicago to hang out on Rush Street, where Dar met Daina, the woman who would be his bride. Billy, the best man at Dar’s and Daina’s wedding. Billy, now in middle age, Dar’s boss at the distribution center at “AutoPro,” the largest employer in town. Billy, a true friend, if ever there was one. Or…was he?

In his new novel Better Days, Len Joy paints a convincing picture of a man who, like many fine athletes, reaches the height of his fame very early in life. In middle age, while other men may be coming into their full powers in their chosen professions, Dar is content with an easy job and the “unofficial” duty to be “Billy’s golf partner when he was being wined and dined by AutoPro’s suppliers.” Darwin handles his descent from glory without any particular resentment or noticeable malaise. However, the smooth sailing is destined to become bumpy. In the first line of the novel – before we know anything else about Darwin, we read: “Last October, a few weeks before everything went to hell, Daina told me I lacked ambition.” That opening line reveals tension between husband and wife that will unfold as the story develops, and leaves no doubt that rough seas await.

Darwin’s life in Billy’s shadow has had its appeal. Dar’s position at AutoPro has not challenged him, but has allowed him to feel secure. As Dar tells us, “Billy took care of me.” Dar’s family life, while lacking the intimacy of open communication between husband and wife, also seems secure. The Burrs have a beautiful home and retirement savings. Astra, the couple’s daughter, is thriving and a talented basketball player in her own right. Daina, an immigrant from Latvia, is committed to her job as a social worker, which consumes much of her time and requires the kind of zeal she yearns to see in her husband. Yet, as we know, everything is going to go “to hell.” And we suspect, early on, that the approaching calamity will have something to do with Billy.

Better Days is, above all, a great story. Told in the first person by Darwin, the tale’s twists and turns keep the pages turning. Darwin, while carefully avoiding anything that seems like a promotion at work, at Billy’s prodding takes on the job of assistant to the new coach of the high school girls’ basketball team. That new head coach, Fariba Pahlavi, the school’s guidance counselor, is a triathlete from Iran who, notwithstanding her pedigree as an athlete, has never played basketball. At last, Darwin has found a challenge he actually wants to take on, recruiting his daughter and, later, the fantastically talented Toni, an African American girl who previously avoided this “white girls’ team.” “I have to admit,” Dar reflects, “that the idea of getting back in the game, even as a coach for a team that hadn’t won a game in two seasons, had me stoked.” At work, though, the trouble arrives. Darwin knows something is off when the long-time receptionist addresses him as “Mr. Burr.” Life is about to change. The reader, already hooked, takes a deep breath and prepares for the journey.

The story, good as it is, is only part of the appeal of Better Days. The book explores a number of themes and poses ethical dilemmas, particularly centering on the overlapping themes of loyalty, betrayal, and self-preservation. Darwin faces hard decisions in his relationship with Billy, the patron whose benefactions may not always have come through legal means. He faces them with Daina, whose disapproval needles him, but with whom he barely communicates. Darwin does not wish to face these things – he does his best to avoid having an inner life, but there it is, in spite of his avoidance. “I was overthinking this whole situation,” he once tells himself. He withholds critical information from Daina, presupposing that she will act in a certain way and seeking to deflect rather than discuss. He avoids talking about his own problems and hopes to avoid thinking them through. Indeed, he sums up his attitude toward self-awareness, saying, “They say eighty percent of life is just showing up. That’s what I did. My life was unexamined and that was fine with me. Adam and Eve before they took that bite. I never thought my life was perfect, but it was good enough.” That is pretty darn self-aware, for a guy who has no inner life. Darwin fights against his self-awareness, denying it, perhaps because he doesn’t want to acknowledge that life is going to change.

I loved Better Days. Darwin is a wonderful character, carefully crafted and believable. The plot never disappoints, and the pages turn quickly. The setting in small town Illinois – life just in the shadow of Chicago – is particularly absorbing for those who, like me, have lived there. The ambiance of the mid-2000s also drew me in – complete with allusions to Law and Order, for goodness sake, my favorite show from that era! Len Joy puts his own experience as a triathlete to good use in creating the character of Fariba. The basketball scenes are delightful for any fan of that sport (also my favorite!). For all these reasons, I highly recommend Better Days. Len Joy is a gifted writer, and this is a book to be savored.
George W.Kimble
Nov 04, 2018rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What A GREAT read! I thoroughly enjoyed the story & the twists & turns. Extremely well written! I can't wait for the author's NEXT book.
Kevin Clark
Oct 15, 2018rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I downloaded the kindle version of Better Days with the intent of finishing a hard cover I was reading that was really engaging. I made the mistake of opening the first page on my iPad, though, and that was it. I was quickly drawn into the story and its well-developed characters (starting with Darwin and Fariba) and multiple sub-plots. I loved America Past Time. After Better Days, I am now an official Len Joy fan.

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