The Incredible Winston Browne, by Sean Dietrich****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

The time is the 1950s; the place is Moab, Florida, a tiny town where everyone knows everyone else. Winston Browne is the sheriff; Eleanor Hughes is a frustrated single woman that fears she is headed for spinsterhood; and a small girl, Jessie, is on the lam from a creepy cult that considers her to be “a little abomination.”

I read this book free, courtesy of Net Galley and Thomas Nelson Publishers. It’s for sale now.

The story begins with Winston in his doctor’s office. There’s bad news about his chronic cough. Tests show it’s not only malignant; it’s metastatic. In other words, Winston should put his affairs in order.

Winston is a friendly guy, but he’s also an introvert. He tells no one of his condition. He’s single, and there’s no family to warn, so he goes about his life about the same as before he learned his diagnosis.

Jessie is awakened in the middle of the night by one of the Sisters, who hustles her into a waiting vehicle. She’s being busted out of the Temple compound by softhearted women that know the girl is doomed if she remains. Jessie has an independent spirit, and so when she is dropped off at the train station with instructions of where to go and who to trust, she follows her instincts instead. Her instincts take her to Moab, Florida.

Eleanor—you can call her Ellie—is fed up with Jimmy. They’ve dated for year upon year, and she is so frustrated by his inaction that she can scarcely stand the sight of him. If he is so crazy about her, then why doesn’t he propose? She’ll never have a husband or a family, and it’s all his fault. But then Winston comes along, and the birds sing in the trees.

For the first half of this book, I thought it would be a four star read. It was a good enough tale, but I had my reservations. For starters, where are the Black people in Moab? If we’re meeting the townsfolk—and we surely are—how is it that all of them are Caucasian? A visit from Jackie Robinson is all well and good, but this is Florida, for heaven’s sake. Is Moab a sundowner town?

I run a quick search, knowing that the African-American population during this mid-1900s was much lower than it is now, and I am grudgingly convinced that there might well be a little town in the boondocks with only white residents. Back then, it could have happened, so…okay.

It is during the second half that everything falls together and I am swept away by the characters. No more consulting the Google oracle; the intimacy has become too strong for me to step back.

It’s difficult for me to find a feel-good book without schmaltz. Most books that are billed as heartwarming tend to make me roll my eyes or retch a little. Dietrich works magic, though, and although it takes a minute or two to reel me in, ultimately I am captivated. The droll, understated humor that drops in and out at just the right moments is a key element. The captions that appear regularly make me guffaw more than once; don’t skip over them! They’re terrific. The text is punctuated now and then by contributions from the Moab newsletter, whose minutiae underscores just what a dull place this town usually is.  

However, let me also say a quick word here about the audio version. I began reading this book close to the publication date, and so when I was partway into it, I checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. By doing so, I could extend my reading sessions, switching over to the audio when I had to do something else with my eyes and hands. The author reads his own narrative, and he has a wonderful voice, warm with just the right amount of drawl. The best way to enjoy this book is to access both the print version and the audio; if you must choose one or the other, it’s a toss-up, perhaps with a slight edge toward the audio.

Some readers will be pleased to know that there is no off color language or sex involved. If a movie were made based on this book, it would most likely show a General Audiences rating.

Highly recommended to those that love a feel good story, historical fiction, or Southern fiction.

The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, by Pamela Terry*****

Pamela Terry’s debut novel, The Sweet Taste of Muscadines, had me at hello. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. You can buy it now.

Lila Bruce Breedlove (I even love the characters’ names) hasn’t gone home to Georgia in a good long while, and it’s not accidental, either. Her home in Maine with her dogs and fond memories of her late husband are the furthest thing from her mama’s censorious gaze and the smallminded thinking of the people of Wesleyan, Georgia. But now Mama has been found facedown in the Muscadine arbor, and Lila knows there’s nothing else to do. She packs her bag, gets a friend to look after the dogs, and buys a ticket. Her brother Henry, who has also made a permanent home up north, does the same, but he advises his life partner, Andrew, to stay put. Their sister, Abigail, is the lone family member that didn’t flee. She and Mama were best friends, as they told everyone  constantly, including Lila and Henry. Still,  duty calls. It wouldn’t be fair to leave Abigail to do this on her own.

The whole story is told by Lila in the first person limited. I find this refreshing. The tone is intimate, confidential at times, and downright conspiratorial at others. Lila lets us know that “Growing up in the South is not for the faint of heart…When you’re the slightest bit different, you stand out like a monkey in a chorus line.”

Before they’ve even touched down, Lila and Henry have questions. For example, why was Mama in the Muscadines at all? The arbor is nowhere near the house, and she never chose to visit it when she was a younger woman. It had been Lila’s special place. Once they arrive in Georgia, they confront more questions, and though not all of them are answered, a plethora of surprises greet them, some of them hilarious, others shocking. Lila tells us that

Secrets are spilled at southern funerals. Death, particularly when its inevitability has been ignored for generations, possesses a power to snap diffidence and dignity right in two, causing those left behind to be overcome with the need to unburden their consciences before they themselves are found sleeping in a slick, shiny coffin in their best Sunday suit.

The first surprise, it turns out, is that Geneva Bruce left an advance directive specifying no funeral at all upon her demise, which she had known to be imminent. For the widow of a Southern Baptist Georgia preacher to bail from her own funeral is unheard of! However, the lack of a proper funeral does not, cannot prevent family secrets from unspooling, and some of them are bombshells, too.

Terry is a gifted wordsmith, and her figurative language is original and at times, drop dead funny. The pacing never flags, and the transitions that take us from raucous levity, to bittersweet reflection, to aching sorrow, and then back again are buttery smooth. It was like hearing from my best friend. I generally read several books at a time, but this one proved to be the one I read when I would not be interrupted, and I was sorry to see it end.

It was only at about the eighty percent mark that I realized that one of my least favorite elements was included here, that of the Bad Mama. This is a trend right now, and I’m ready to be done with it. Novelists far and wide have enjoyed crafting stories centered around unworthy mothers, and when I see one coming in advance, I consider it a deal-breaker. But almost any device, character, or plot point can be forgiven when a novel is of exceptional quality, and that is what I see here.

Highly recommended.

The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

The Dirty South, by John Connolly*****

A few years ago I read and reviewed my first book in Connolly’s Charlie Parker detective series, and I became immediately addicted. Since then I’ve never missed an installment, and after the 17th in the series, A Book of Bones, I more or less stalked the internet to find out when I could find the next in the series. It doesn’t disappoint. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for this, the 18th in the series. It’s for sale now.

Here, Connolly steps away from the crossed-genre, pants-on-fire entries he’s written recently to scribe a prequel. A couple of new readers have inquired whether to read this before all of the other Charlie Parker books, or treat it as the 18th.  The fact is, you can take it in either direction. On the one hand, I have reached back and read a couple of the first in the series and whereas they are perfectly respectable detective novels, they don’t hold a candle to those he’s written more recently. Once I had read the 14th, which is where I began, I was spoiled and a wee bit disappointed by the earliest books in the series. So whereas it makes sense to start reading with this prequel, I fear some readers will notice a dip in quality if they read this masterful literary mystery Connolly has just published, and then dive into his earliest Charlie Parker books. Again, they aren’t badly written. But they aren’t brilliant, and the most recent five in the series, including this prequel, are. So take that and do as you like with it.

Parker is reeling, as the book unfolds, from the vicious murders of his wife and daughter by a killer that intended to slay him, but found them instead. He is convinced that their murderer is a serial killer, and so he has taken a leave of absence from the police force back home and is touring the country by car, chasing down every murder anywhere that bears a resemblance to theirs. He is a dangerous man, because he has no sense of self-preservation. He sees himself as a man that has lost everything, and such men will take risks that more happily situated investigators would consider unthinkable. He also has a source none of the others can access: his wife, his daughter appear to him now and then, and they tell him things that relate to the case at hand, things that nobody else knows.

Those familiar with the series know that Connolly’s most recent Parker books have veered more in the direction of horror, and they include a number of supernatural events that his earlier work does not. Here he steps away from it, and once again his only information from the great beyond is what the spirits of his loved ones share. His adversaries are purely mortal ones. And as to which is better, it’s hard for me to say. His last book prior to this one is a monster, and it includes a tremendous amount of historical research that I find appealing, along with some hugely original, sinister characters that surely must come straight from the bowels of hell. It’s amazing work.

But there’s something to be said for books like this one, too. Most of Connolly’s work is so edgy and so full of violence that I have had to take it in small bites, lest it affect my overall mood. I didn’t have to do that here. I can crawl under a quilt and read for hours without needing to come up for air. I always make sure I read something less malign for a few minutes before turning out the light, but at the same time, this is a much more comfortable read.

Which is not to say that it’s tame. It isn’t. Someone has murdered Black girls in this tiny Arkansas burg, and Parker pulls into town right on the heels of the most recent one. Right away, it becomes obvious that there’s shifty business going on. The town is miserably depressed economically, and the local robber barons, the Cade family, have a deal in the works to bring a large manufacturer to town.  The Cades stand to make a great deal of money, and the locals, poverty-stricken and jobless or badly underemployed, are convinced that better times are just around the corner.

And so it seems that nearly everyone has a stake in keeping the waters calm. The dead girls had to go and get themselves murdered, just when the deal’s about to go through? How inconsiderate. Yes, their killer should be found and brought to justice; but that can wait until the big dogs have signed on the dotted line.  Prosperity is just around the corner. A scandal might ruin everything, and Parker refuses to cooperate, insisting on justice for the murdered children. The nerve of him.

Connolly’s signature elements—the malign, solipsistic, endlessly greedy local bourgeoisie; the poignance of Parker’s grief and his communication with his dead family; and the fast paced, complex plot with a zillion characters and some snappy banter are all here in spades. As usual, his writing style is literary, and so this may not be the best choice for someone whose mother tongue is not English.

As always, highly recommended. This is indisputably one of the year’s best. As for me, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for the 19th Parker book, because nobody else writes like this.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler*****

Therese Anne Fowler is a complete badass. I have never read her before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll read her next book. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. You can buy this book now, and you should.

I don’t usually begin by discussing the narrative voice, but I’m doing it this time because it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this novel. The story is told in the second person, but the point of view shifts seamlessly from that of the neighbors that are friends with a key character—I’ll get there in a minute—to an omniscient narrative, and I never catch the shift; by the time I realize a change has taken place, we’ve been there awhile. So, one minute, the narrative will say things like “All of us thought…” and “Everyone knew…” but later, we’ll be told what a protagonist is thinking. This is a risky way to write, and she’s carried it off so well that I can only bow in awe.

The story is, to some extent, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a tragedy, and we’re told this at the outset. The neighborhood in question is Oak Knoll, an old, established one in North Carolina. Valerie Alston-Holt is a forestry professor with a deep dedication to the environment; her son Xavier is gifted. Xavier’s father was Caucasian, but died when the boy was small, so it is just the two of them, mother and son. The new folks next door, the Whitmans, are a blended family. Julia, the mother, was living a hardscrabble life as a single parent with her daughter, Juniper, when the wealthy, charismatic Brad Whitman, who was her boss, married her. They have a small daughter together, but Brad has also adopted Juniper so that they can be a real family. Julia can hardly believe her good fortune. Her standard of living has risen beyond anything she ever dreamed.

The tension is there from the start. The Whitman home is out of character in comparison to the neighborhood, a garish, over-the-top McMansion built on a large lot created by tearing down the existing home that had been there. And the outcome of the construction is that a tree—a beloved tree—on the Alston-Holt property next door—is now dying.  The forestry professor sees an attorney, and the battle is joined.

Despite the tension between the adults, Xavier and Juniper are drawn to one another. They are teenagers, upperclassmen in high school, and they’re both squeaky clean kids, serious students. Neither has been in a serious relationship before. As we see their romance blossom, the narrator reminds us that this won’t end well.

I began this novel using my review copy, and although I could see it was going to be good, I was falling behind my reading for unrelated reasons. I scooped up the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the reader does a wonderful job, and the story is well suited to this medium.

Fowler is an experienced writer, and it shows. There are several lazy stereotypes she deftly avoids. The Alston-Holts are middle class, not struggling financially. (Here I think of the new book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, who reminds us that only one in five African-American families is poor.) Brad Whitman, who is a complete horse’s ass, is a charismatic Christian, but he is not a preacher, he’s a businessman.

Of course this story has a great deal to say about race and wealth, and how society empowers us according to these parameters. But because the characters are so intimately developed, so brilliantly fleshed out, the message integral to the story never feels like a manifesto. And reader, I’ll tell you, I’m a tough old granny who rarely is undone by a sad story, but I grew a little misty at the end of this one, and I thought about it for quite awhile afterward.

Highly recommended in whatever form you enjoy.

When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy*****

David Joy writes some of the best Grit Lit published in the U.S. of A, and if you haven’t read him yet, it’s time to get started. This soaring, wrenching tale of addiction, community dysfunction, and miserable unrelenting poverty delivers some hard truths about the distribution of wealth in this country, and about the uneven way that justice plays out. Lucky me, I read it free and early; my thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy. It’s for sale today.

Ray Mathis is a big man with a big burden. His wife, Doris, has been dead for three years, but his grief hasn’t ebbed. A stoic man, he goes in and out of every day carrying out necessary tasks, but he feels as if his arm is missing, all the time. His companionship comes solely from his old hunting beagle, Tommy Two-Ton. His only child is Ricky, and although Ricky is in his forties, Ray still thinks of him as “the boy.” When the boy comes home, Ray is suffused with a sense of dread. Ricky is a hardcore addict, and all those stories you were told in junior high health class are true: a junkie has no loyalties and no shame great enough to override his need for the substance he’s come to crave. When he sees that Ricky is home for a visit, Ray’s first instinct is to check his few valuables that haven’t been stolen and pawned yet to see if they’ve vanished.

Is this all too familiar to some of you? Because it hit close to home for me.

Not long after he arrives, Ricky is gone again, and that’s not unusual; but later he gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know. The caller says that Ricky has failed to meet a payment and will die if Ray doesn’t pay up. Because Ricky has no shame, he has told them exactly how much is in his father’s savings account. And though he understands that it’s only going to postpone the inevitable, Ray pays up, but he tells the men that collect that he will be back for them if they ever sell to his son again. And when Ricky is back on opiates before he has even recovered from the savage beating administered by the dealer’s goons, Ray tells him, “I’ve thrown you ropes till my arms is give out, and I ain’t got no more to throw.”                 `               “            

Meanwhile, our second protagonist, Denny Rattler, a Cherokee burglar, is arrested and offered treatment for his own addiction, but he declines. It turns out that the very purest heroin is sold on the Cherokee Reservation, and so jurisdictional issues complicate law enforcement. Still worse, there are dirty cops right on the other side of the state line. Denny finds himself in the middle of it all.

One of the nastiest villains in literature is Walter Freeman, who goes by “Watty.” “I ain’t calling you that,” Ray tells him. “That’s the stupidest fucking name I ever heard.” Ray confronts Watty after his son’s death to deliver some “backwoods justice,” but Watty is entirely unmoved. He doesn’t even remember Ricky. He leaves the individual users to the minions beneath him. He tells the bereaved father, “Your son is small potatoes. They’re all small potatoes. It’s too much of a headache, dealing with junkies.”

It’s forest fire season in the Appalachian Mountains, and as the conflict between Ray and Watty, between Watty and local law enforcement, and among the addicts, law enforcement and Watty build, a conflagration begins on the reservation, encompassing the “Outlet Mall,” where drugs are sold.  The entire ordeal rises to a fever pitch that leaves me sitting forward, as if the outcome is just beyond my physical reach. At one point I am sure everyone will die, and I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as nothing happens to Tommy Two-Ton.

What Joy does with the conclusion is tremendously satisfying. When I reviewed his last book, I felt as if he had wimped out on the ending, but this time it’s rock solid. It isn’t predictable, yet there are no new people or facts introduced at the last minute to prevent us from foreseeing the outcome, either.

In fact, this may be his best book yet.

I’ll offer a final word about genre. This book is billed as Crime Fiction, and that’s not how I see it. I consider this novel to be gritty Southern Fiction at its finest. The fact that it happens to involve crime as an integral part of the story is almost beside the point. But call it what you will, this book is one of the year’s best, and you should get it and read it.

A Private Cathedral, by James Lee Burke*****

A Private Cathedral is the twenty-third in the immensely popular Dave Robicheaux series, which began in the early 1980s. James Lee Burke has been called “America’s Best Novelist” by the Denver Post, and his books have been made into movies. Lucky me, I read this one free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Fans of this series—and there are many—will recognize all of Burke’s signature elements. Set in New Iberia, Louisiana, a small working class enclave about an hour from New Orleans, we find the usual wealthy, sleazy bad guys, in this case the Shondell family and the Balangie family; their victims, ordinary people with no money that scrape by the best they can; a pair of grizzly murders; and in this instance, a case of human trafficking. There’s always a woman or two ready to fling herself into Dave’s arms, even though he and Clete are supposedly getting old, and as usual, one of the women stands on the tops of his feet before she seduces him, or vice versa. (This has got to be some sort of private joke or reference on the author’s part, because you know that a writer with this level of skill cannot be inadvertently ascribing the identical quirky behavior to all of his protagonist’s romantic interests across over three decades of a series.)

And of course, best of all perhaps, we have Dave’s fiercely loyal best friend, Clete Purcell, a man that looks “like an albino ape” and whose impulse control is even worse than Dave’s, at least most of the time. He shows up in his pink Cadillac wearing his signature porkpie hat, and I smile. I can’t help it. Clete does this to me every single time, and I’ll bet a whole lot of other readers feel just the same way.

                “He was the trickster of folklore, a modern Sancho Panza, a quasi-psychotic jarhead who did two tours in Vietnam and came home with the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts and memories he shared with no one. Few people knew the real Clete Purcel or the little boy who lived inside him, the lonely child of an alcoholic milkman who made his son kneel all night on rice grains and whipped him regularly with a razor strop…Nor did they know the NOPD patrolman who wept when he couldn’t save the child he wrapped in a blanket, ran through flames, and crashed through a second story window with, landing on top of a Dumpster…He hated evil and waged war against it everywhere he found it. I sometimes wondered if he was an archangel in disguise, one with strings of dirty smoke rising from his wings, a full-fledged participant in fighting the good fight of Saint Paul. “

My sole complaint, a key one I probably wouldn’t give any other writer a pass on, is the way the author deals with his female characters. All the women and girls are mothers, whores, lovers, or children, and in some cases more than one of the above. No woman comes into the stories on the merit of her occupation, her character, or her abilities, aside from Helen, a long-running character that is exempted by virtue or being a lesbian and androgynous in appearance. (God forbid she be gorgeous and gay, or gorgeous and straight and completely sexually uninterested in Dave.) But the fact is, Burke has been writing and publishing great novels since 1965, and now he’s an 83 year old author and it seems unfair to expect him to change direction with regard to his female characters, or to suddenly regard them as equals in all respects rather than to nurture the whole pedestal package.

Moving on.

The story commences with Dave suspended from the sheriff’s department, and he’s behaving badly, embarking on a series of “dry drunks,” a term used liberally throughout this series and that I’ve never seen or heard of anywhere else. He’s so far out of line that Clete has to reel him back, when more often it’s the reverse. A teenager named Isolde is being sold by her parents, and Dave is attempting to rescue her. But it’s a useless endeavor because there is so much money and power buffering the offenders. Meanwhile, Clete is kidnapped and hung upside down and tortured by a being that seems otherworldly to him—mostly because it is. And this is a departure for Burke, a good one, as it turns out.

Those familiar with the series and the author know that redemption is at the core of every story he writes, and given the amount of mystic imagery that appears in his prose, it isn’t a long stretch to go from imagined spiritual beings to actual ones, which is what he does here. And I can only bow in awe at a writer—even one with residual sexist attitudes—that can take a long-running, iconic series like this one, a series that has run for more than 30 years, and decide to expand it across genres now. This would be remarkable for anyone, but for an octogenarian, it’s jaw-dropping.

I also enjoy the way he develops the side character, Father Julian, who is heroic and who pursues pedophiles and brings them to justice. Way to fight stereotypes.

I love the ending.

Highly recommended to Burke’s many fans, and to new readers as well.

A heartfelt tribute, featuring a lot of famous writers:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cwNHIsoHG0

The Familiar Dark, by Amy Engel*****

When it comes down to it, some people just have it coming to them.

Amy Engel is the author of The Roanoke Girls, a shocking thriller that proves she is a force to be reckoned with. The Familiar Dark is even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Dutton for the review copy. It’s for sale now, and you should get a copy to help chase away your cabin fever.

Eve Taggart was raised poorer than poor in a ripped up trailer in Barren Springs, Missouri; it’s “a slippery part of the world. People dart in and out like minnows in a shadowy pool…Folks here are hard to pin down, even harder to catch…It’s a place for people who don’t want to be found.”  Her mother is an addict with a mercurial temper, and so when Eve gives birth to Junie, she resolves to parent differently from her mama, and to never take Junie to visit her. The more space there is between her present and her past, the better off Junie will be.

But when Junie and her best friend, Izzy are found in a public park with their 12-year-old throats slit, everything changes. Without Junie to provide for, all of the social conventions that Eve has so carefully nurtured, all of the tentative connections she has made with mainstream members of the community are gone in an instant. Eve’s older brother Cal, a cop, tries to provide a buffer between Eve and the town, between Eve and their mother, and between Eve and the disastrous errors she makes as a result of her grief; none of it does any good. And Cal is sitting on a secret of his own.

I am generally a reader that has between six and twelve books going at any given time, but once I was about a third of the way into this one, I read nothing else. Instead of asking myself which book I’d like to read right now, I knew exactly. The suspense is built numerous ways, by foreshadowing, by the little hints given by others in her tiny town, but there’s more to it than that. Part of it is Engel’s unusually vivid word smithery and the frank, unsentimental dialogue that moves it forward. But the meatiest part of this story is in the pathological family triangle that—resist it though she has—forms most of Eve’s world. The further we get into the story, the more layers are peeled away and the more we learn about Eve and mama, mama and Cal, and Eve and Cal. We learn some secrets about Junie that poor Eve didn’t know, but these are almost secondary as they reveal more about the three adults. It is mesmerizing.

Eve thinks she has nothing left to live for now that Junie is gone, but Mama, who’s been drawn to the killing like a vulture to roadkill, assures her she is mistaken. What’s left is vengeance. This resonates with Eve. Pulled into a press conference in which she doesn’t want to participate, standing alongside the other bereaved parents, people that are well groomed and whose social skills make them vastly more sympathetic figures to the public than she will ever be, Eve decides to cut to the chase. After the other two plead for possible witnesses to call in tips to the local cops,

“I pointed out at the cameras, stabbing my finger into the air…’I’m going to find you, you sick fuck. And I’m going to tear you apart.’

“I thought about all the press conferences I’d seen over the years, parents trotted out for missing kids, killed kids, abused kids. Everyone feels sorry for those parents, those mothers, until they don’t. Until the mothers don’t cry enough or cry too much. Until the mothers are too put-together or not put-together enough. Until the mother are angry. Because that’s the one thing women are never, ever allowed to be. We can be sad, distraught, confused, pleading, forgiving. But not furious. Fury is reserved for other people. The worst thing you can be is an angry woman, an angry mother.”

Does this ring as true to you as it does to me? Sooner or later, the mother always gets the blame. And so now I am still riveted and I am nodding. Uh huh. That’s right, Eve. Tell it!

When a novel is as outstanding as this one is, I almost hate to read the last fifteen or twenty percent, because often as not, that’s where it comes undone. Either the solution doesn’t hold water, or a hard cold tale of murder and revenge takes on a sudden sentimentality that doesn’t match the rest of the book; in these I sometimes picture editors and publicists urging the author to provide a feel-good ending, and the author ultimately bending. As I progress, I have figured out what the poignantly sweet ending to this one will likely be, if Engel goes in that direction.

But she doesn’t.

Instead, this story is one of badass female bonding gone dark, dark, and darker. Oh hey. The title.

Highly recommended.