The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

heartbreakhotelThis is #32 in the Alex Delaware series, and Kellerman’s writing just seems to get better with every entry. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Alex Delaware is a semi-retired child psychologist who’s also an adrenaline junkie. His nest is already well padded, his wife still happy in her career, and so he spends most of his time assisting his best friend, an LA homicide detective named Milo Sturgis. The premise is the hardest thing to swallow, but Kellerman makes it easier by letting us know how affluent Delaware is, and recently there’s the added twist that because Sturgis is gay, nobody on the force really wants to be his partner. Thus it seems more natural—for the sake of a good yarn—for Delaware to slip into that position. After all, he’s been doing it for years.

This story involves the homicide of a nearly one-hundred-years-old woman that has consulted Delaware. She paid him generously for his time but confided little about what she planned to do with the information he found for her, and so when she is found dead in her bed, he smells a rat. Sure enough; she was suffocated! Now who would do that to a sweet old lady like Thalia Mars?

Our story takes a million deft twists and clever turns, and in general shows us that what we think we see isn’t always real. We encounter some underhanded, sleazy real estate practices as well as insurance fraud along the way. The case also takes in some interesting LA history.

One aspect of Kellerman’s work that I often forget and then am happily surprised by all over again, is the humor he threads through the narrative, and I laughed out loud more than once.

Although it’s only one page in length, some readers will also want to be aware there’s one graphic, brutal rape. Consider your trigger warned.

At the end of the day, stories such as this one can be curiously comforting. It’s true that tax season is just around the corner, and my toaster just died. But after reading this novel, I can find comfort in knowing that no villains are likely to turn up in my bedroom tonight and burk me in my sleep.  Perspective! There you have it.

This fun story, which went by way too quickly, will be available to the public February 14, 2017. Highly recommended to those that love a good mystery.

Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy*****

gonetosoldiersBrevity isn’t possible here. Settle in and get comfy. Here we go.

The word “epic” gets overused in the world of advertising, and so as a reviewer, I have learned to take the promise with a grain of salt. However, Piercy is renowned, an iconic presence for feminists and for anyone that approaches life from a class perspective. I read this book when it first came out in the 1980’s for no discount whatsoever, and I loved it. Books come and go at my house, since space on the bookshelf is itself a commodity, but Piercy has a permanent shelf all her own; when I saw that Open Road Media had released this book digitally, I jumped on it, even though the release date had passed and even though I already had the book, because I wanted to help promote it, and I was happy to read it again. I rate it 4.75 stars and of course, round it upward.

There are two myths that get told, are believed by others, and then they are retold about World War II. The most recent one is that told by Holocaust deniers, who say that the whole death camp thing was just a huge exaggeration. Yes, there were prisons; yes, guards were mean sometimes; yes, people died, because nobody was getting enough food in Poland and other non-German parts of Europe anyway. This is a lie, but as eyewitnesses grow old and die, it takes a certain vigilance to keep this damnable untruth from gaining a toehold. Piercy tells the truth, and she does it really well. More on that in a moment, but let’s deal with the other lie first.

The second myth, one that’s understandably popular as patriotism grasps the human heart and we wish that our rulers, past and present, were truly noble, is that the USA joined its allies in a quest to preserve democracy and save those poor Jews and other unfortunates tucked away in those hellish camps. Piercy approaches this palace of straw from many different angles and razes it to the ground.  Jews that wanted out faced tremendous obstacles, from nations—the USA included—that were extremely choosy about how many Jews they would take. The US and UK governments were more obstructive than helpful, and countless men, women, and children died because of these exclusions.

Piercy is a brilliant storyteller, and in her hands, the period and its people are so believable, nearly corporal, that I carry them with me still.

This story is told through the eyes of ten characters whose narratives are staggered. There are French characters, British, and Americans; men and women; straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  They hail from a variety of socio-economic circumstances and are affected by the war in different ways. It’s miraculous to see a writer develop even one of these characters as fully and thoroughly as Piercy does; how is it that she does so with a wide range of characters, yet has never been nominated for a prestigious award?

Those of us that are old and perhaps cynical may consider that the very political perspective that makes her prose so rich may be what kept her from landing on a short list. I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Piercy is a scholar and she approaches this historical period with sources in hand. She doesn’t interpret loosely, and her note to the reader tells us in what instance she has taken liberties, for example not wanting to have a whole string of people that have the same first name. Always she is aware of the subtext, the stereotypes that women aviators faced, for example.

My most beloved characters were Jacqueline, a hero of the French resistance, along with her lover, Jeff, and her little sister Naomi, one of the fortunate few who’s sent to live with American relatives before it’s too late. I liked Louise’s moxie, and I loved what happened to Duvey. I also really enjoyed the unusual perspective that Daniel and his fellow code-breakers shared, becoming so familiar with the Japanese point of view that they bonded with the men whose communications they were deciphering.

As we discuss the Japanese, we come to the .25 that I deducted. I did this as a token objection to the use of the racist vernacular that I know was commonplace during the time. This reviewer grew up with a father that served during this war, and reminiscences among the guests he and my mother entertained were so frequent that I, in youthful ignorance, rolled my eyes and decided they were impossibly dull. And my mother taught me that the terms he and they used to speak of Germans, of Jews, of Japanese were never, ever to be used in my own conversations with anyone at any time. And so yes, racist references and ethnic slurs were common to this era.

But I note that whereas our author has had the good taste and the good sense not to repeat the ugly terms by which Jewish people were called, and seldom repeats the anti-German slurs, the “J” word is used dozens of times, usually by the character that fights in the Pacific. And I have to say, it really stings.

There were fewer Asian Americans during the period when Piercy wrote this than there are today, particularly in the author’s own New England home. For anyone writing this today, and for anyone less venerable and also less influential for me personally during my formative years, I would lop off at least a couple of stars from my rating. It’s ugly to repeat these epithets, and it’s particularly painful to me to read them. This is my husband we’re talking about; it’s my daughter, too. It’s my in-laws, one of whom fought, as good Japanese citizens were expected to, for the Japanese Imperial Army. So I would not care to see her go back and insert the horrible terms hurled at Jews and Germans for the sake of consistency; I’d just rather see the “J” word used less often. She could mention it in her introduction if she feels the reader needs to know that she’s made an adjustment.  That’s my viewpoint, and I’m sticking to it.

But it’s also true that when I was young and confused, Piercy was one of the bright feminist lights in literature to whom I looked for guidance. So I am moved not only by the excellence of this work, but also by the shining legacy she has provided for women during an uncertain time.

One further note: though I have a degree in history and have taught it, I have seldom seen much written—at least in English—about the French Resistance. This part is arguably the most deeply resonant part of this novel, and though I had read the book before, it’s amazing what one can forget over the course of twenty or thirty years. I don’t read many books twice because there are so many I haven’t read at all yet; and still this is one that I may read a third time, as I feel my recollection of the fine details already slipping away.

For those that treasure excellent literary fiction; that have the stamina for a novel of this length; that love outstanding historical fiction; that enjoy stories that are told from a feminist viewpoint and that recognize social classes and the way they affect us; this story is unparalleled. Get it and read it.

Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but this one wins the prize. The second story that deals with Judgment Day didn’t work for me; first there were some hyperliterate science references that zinged right over my head, and then the sick factor got the better of me, and so I skipped that one and moved on to the title story. Having read the rest, I am inclined to chalk that second one up to my own quirks rather than Hale’s skill set.

When I came to “The Fat Artist”, I could only bow in awe. I was overcome with frustration because no one else in my household enjoys literary fiction, and so I couldn’t share. In a nutshell, the protagonist, a performance artist, seeks to eat himself to death while setting a worldwide fatness record. I actually gasped several times while reading this one.

Although the writing within this collection provides outstanding examples of every imaginable literary device, those that teach high school literature would be wise not to place it on classroom shelves unless you work at an alternative school. A very alternative school. A very, very, very…well, hopefully my meaning is clear. There is so much edgy material, from language, to explicit sexual description, to sexual roles and gender ambiguity, that I can see the villagers coming with their torches, their hot tar, their feather pillows. Teachers, don’t do this to yourselves. Get a personal copy; take it home and enjoy it; then pass it on to someone that can be trusted to appreciate it. Seriously.

Four more stories follow, and they’re all strong. “Leftovers” deals with a middle aged man in the midst of an extramarital affair when his problem child unexpectedly appears, ready to ransack the family vacation home for valuables to sell in order to feed his addiction. The way this tale unfolds gives me goose bumps.

The next two tales deal with sexual roles and ambiguity. I came away from “Beautiful Boy”, which made me realize, whether by the author’s intention or not, that men that choose to cross dress only as a diversion are looking at the best of both worlds, never having to confront the glass ceiling because they’ll be at that office meeting clad in their conservative suit and tie like always; it reminds me of white actors that wore black face.

The final story of a troubled brother that lands in the basement of his brother, the MIT researcher, and is provided with a job driving squid from the docks to the laboratory, is as brilliant as all the others, and equally esoteric.

Hale is wholly original, but if I were to compare his writing to any other author, it would be to that of Michael Chabon.

Bring your literary skills to the feast that Hale has laid for you; you will need them.  It’s one hell of a banquet.

The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.

Tears in the Grass, by Lynda Archer***

tearsinthegrassTears in the Grass marks the debut of novelist Lynda Archer. It tells the story of three generations of Cree women, and in doing so also provides the reader with that tribe’s rich history and culture. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This book is available for purchase now.

Elinor is old. She is old enough to have been through the shameful period in North America in which Native children were forcibly wrenched from the arms of their parents and forced to attend boarding schools in order to become assimilated and indoctrinated into the dominant culture. Her traumatic memories are harsh reading, but it’s the only way that story can be shared with any degree of honesty. And there’s something she has held back from her daughter Louise and her granddaughter Alice: she has another daughter out there somewhere. She was raped by a Caucasian man, carried the baby to term, and then it was stolen from her. She knows that baby, now a woman, is out there somewhere, and she wants to meet her before she dies. She turns to Alice to get the job done:

 

“’Are you listening? I want you to find that child.’

‘ I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Your mother’s sister. Your aunt. My daughter. I was raped in that damned school.’”

 

The point of view shifts throughout the narrative, with the dominant one being that of Elinor, but also including those of Louise, Alice, and a bison. It doesn’t always flow in a way that makes sense; sometimes we are rolling right along through one of the women’s narrative and suddenly the thoughts being voiced are clearly those of an animal, with no transition to mark the change. The first time, it is that of a taxidermied bison in a museum, and the effect strikes me as somewhat cartoonish rather than reverent. At other times, there is no possible way that the animal in question could be a bison, unless we allow for some magical realism.  Remember, however, that I read a DRC, and sometimes details that are going to be present in the finished work, such as lines that mark a change of setting or point of view, are missing.  Your copy may make these changes clearer.

A lot of social justice issues are worked into the flow of these three generational narratives. Louise recalls the Vietnam War, which makes her a senior citizen also. She remembers the slaying of Dr. King, and if these details are to be utilized to establish setting and develop the character, they might be more effective if included earlier in Louise’s narrative.

Alice seems the easiest for the reader to relate to, even though my own age is closer to that of Louise. Her contemporary spin and flexible thinking are more in line with what most young people of any age are likely to resemble. Her affection for her grandmother comes through the page, and although all three women are effectively developed, she seems the most tangible. Alice is lesbian, and so there is also this aspect of social justice as a subscript, though it stays primarily in the background.

But let’s go back to the grandmother for a moment. Along with the need to meet her stolen daughter, Elinor has one more key task on her bucket list: she wants to know what the secret is that Louise has been hiding from her all these years. And Louise doesn’t want to tell her or even think about it. It’s an interesting twist, and adds to the characters of both Elinor and Louise.

Though shaky in places, Tears in the Grass is a worthy debut, and the subscript, the history of the Cree people at the hands of European settlers, is a tough read but an essential one, a story often left out of the core curriculums currently taught. Kudos to Archer, who will be a writer to watch in the future.

The Lion’s Mouth, by Anne Holt****

thelionsmouthWho killed Prime Minister Birgitte Volter? Was it the neo-Nazis? The Satanists? Was it a personal thing, perhaps an angry family member? The answer is cleverly built up to, so that the reader has a fair chance of figuring it out, and yet will most likely be surprised. I was.

Thank you, Net Galley and thank you also, Scribner for the DRC. Anne Holt is an established writer and it shows in the way she expertly crafts character and setting. I was at something of a disadvantage, never having been to Norway; the place names had no meaning to me, apart from the names of major cities, and I struggled with the governmental structure. When Parliament was mentioned I was fine, and likewise the Supreme Court made sense, but then we came to the President of the Supreme Court, a prominent figure—is that like a chief justice, or is it a very different construct from that of USA?—and also there is a President of Parliament. Americans should be prepared to either Google these items or accept a certain amount of ambiguity; I chose the latter, and it worked all right for me. I knew that there would be some new terrain when I began reading, and as part of my goal was to widen my own reading world a little bit, it was worth battling the unknown. A mystery is an accessible way to do this, and I enjoyed it.

The book was originally published in 1997; even so, I found a couple of stereotypes unsettling. The fat jokes seemed inappropriate and disturbing; Little Letvik started out a caricature, and even when she was developed a bit more at the end, it didn’t help much. Ruth-Dorthe is a “blonde bimbo” and “slightly worn Barbie doll”. There was also some slut-shaming that I could have done without.

On the other hand, the character for whom the series is named, Hanne Wilhelmsen, is a lesbian and is the hero of the story. She is sensible, even-tempered, (thin,) and very intelligent. Another character I really enjoy is Billy T, a boisterous, funny fellow who lightens the story considerably. In fact, there were a number of places that made me laugh out loud.

Although the book is part of a series—this novel being the fourth—I liked it just fine as a stand-alone.

All told, it’s a strong work of fiction and a good choice for the mystery lover to add to her collection. With the above reservations, I recommend it to you.

It is available for purchase February 9, 2016.

The Flood Girls, by Richard Fifield*****

TheFloodGirlsIf Fannie Flagg worries that she has no heir, she can relax; Richard Fifield is here. The Flood Girls is his brilliant debut, and you have to read it! Fifield will cut out your heart and feed it to you with a rusty spoon, and he’ll make you like it, too. Hell, he’ll even make you laugh through it. I got the DRC free via Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review, and I’m going to read it a second time before I archive it as I am supposed to. This is only the second time I have done so after hundreds of galleys have come my way; that should give you a measure of how impressed I am with this title.

From his arresting first line to the deeply satisfying ending, I was completely bound up in this book, only setting it aside as a reminder to myself to delay gratification and make it last a little longer. In the end my e-reader had 177 notes and marks, and every single one of them was there to highlight outstanding imagery, a passage in which yet another character was developed, a place in which he had shown us something important while saying something else, or a place in the text that was drop-dead funny. I would guess the last of these accounts for 100 of those 177 notes.

Let’s start with the premise: Rachel Flood has returned home to Quinn, Montana after many years away. She is here to make amends. It isn’t easy: “A small town never forgets, or forgives.” It’s a tough town, full of people that have survived dozens of harsh 6 month winters. Its people are abrupt and sometimes rude; they don’t suffer fools here.

Rachel’s sponsor has assured her that she doesn’t have to move back to Quinn to make amends; she isn’t here to do penance, after all. Offer the amends and then, whether or not they are accepted, hit the road! But for several reasons, not all of which Rachel understands herself at first, she chooses to stick around, and it isn’t easy. Ultimately, she is cornered into playing in the outfield of The Flood Girls, the local softball team sponsored by the mother she has wronged. She becomes a friend and mentor to Jake, a quirky twelve year old with a fondness for fine fabrics, wardrobe and design, and an intolerant right-wing Fundamentalist stepfather.

Perhaps the most technically impressive aspect of this work is the way Fifield differentiates a very wide cast of characters. I cannot think of any other novel among the 151 books I read and reviewed over the past year in which there were so many characters that were juggled so deftly. When I put down the book, I did a quick finger count of how many characters I could actually name and identify without looking. I stopped at 21, and I didn’t try long or hard. Every single one of these characters, most of whom are wonderfully eccentric, stood out in my mind, apart from two small groups (the silver miners and the Sinclairs) that are treated as such in the text.

It isn’t only the eccentric characters and the small town setting that makes me think of Flagg’s masterpiece, Fried Green Tomatoes; it is also the message. Fifield wants us to know that intolerance will kill us. It is only by accepting and celebrating one another’s differences and quirks that we become part of the human family. We must learn to help and rely upon each other, because we are all we have. That said, The Flood Girls shares Flagg’s spirit, yet it is not derivative, but wholly original.

You don’t have to like baseball to enjoy it.

This hilarious, engaging new novel is for sale to the public February 2, 2016. Very conservative evangelical Christians won’t enjoy it, and it wasn’t written for that audience anyway. It is highly recommended to everyone else. This book will be talked about, and you’ll want to be in on it from the get-go! Put this one at the top of your list.