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 New 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.

Pride of Eden, by Taylor Brown*****

Taylor Brown is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. His 2018 book, Gods of Howl Mountain is one of my ten best loved books among the 1,300 I have reviewed since 2012, so I have been waiting for this book, and it does not disappoint. My undying thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale today.

Pride of Eden is a wildlife sanctuary in Georgia, owned and run by a Vietnam vet named Anse. Anse has PTSD related to his service, and his most searing memory is of the loss of a service dog that sacrificed its life to prevent a soldier from being killed by an explosive device. Anse is a complicated character with a possible death wish, but this aspect of his character is never overplayed, and after a haunting, visceral passage at the beginning, it becomes a subtle quality that runs beneath the surface, as it likely would in real life.

Anse accepts animals of all sorts; some come from illegal private zoos, or from private owners that are surprised that their adorable lion cub has grown up to be a wild animal. But secretly, he is also a vigilante. When he sees an animal in need of rescue whose owner plans to keep it—or sell its dead body for parts—he creeps in at night and liberates it.

Tyler is the preserve’s veterinarian, a buff no-nonsense woman who is also Anse’s girlfriend. My favorite passage involving Tyler is when a man comes to see Anse, and Anse is in a mood and wants Tyler to get rid of the guy. Tyler pushes back; it might be important, and the man has traveled a long way to see him. Anse grudgingly tells her to “Send him in,” and Tyler fires back that she is “not your fucking secretary, Anse.” At the outset of the story, Tyler does not know that Anse does not acquire all of his animals legally.

The third main character is Malaya, who comes to the sanctuary looking for work:

  “What do you want to do?” he asked.

   “Anything.”

    “What are your qualifications?”

“Third infantry, two tours in Iraq. Honorable discharge. Then I contracted in South Africa, tracking ivory and rhino poachers.”

“You catch any of them?”

She uncrossed her arms, buried her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Anse could see her knuckles ridged hard against the denim. “Yes,” she said.

Malaya is complex as well. But I love Malaya not only for her meaty internal monologue, but for the things she isn’t. Most male authors (and some female ones too) wouldn’t be able to resist these tired elements, and once again I admire Brown’s respect for women, which shows vibrantly in the way he frames his characters. Malaya is not romantically interested in Anse, nor does she try to mother him. Malaya and Tyler are not jealous of one another, and they do not compete. Both characters are buff and intelligent, and at no time do they have to be rescued by men. As a result, I could appreciate this story as it unfolded without the distraction of stereotypes or overused, sexist plot devices. Neither female character is motivated by sexual assaults in her past.  

The other two characters are Horn, another damaged vigilante that collects wild animals, and Lope, Anse’s driver, who helps him move large animals.

This is not an easy read. It will attract Brown’s fans, of course, and also animal lovers; yet those same animal lovers have to wade through an awful lot of sorrow, as the story is rife with tales of animal abuse. Brown’s purpose, apart from writing outstanding fiction, is likely to raise awareness of poachers that kill endangered animals for profit, and of private game reserves that send semi-tame animals to an enclosure so that wealthy ass hats can bag some big game, take that animal’s head home to hang in the den.

 Yet there’s nothing at all here that is included to be prurient or sensationalistic; every word has a purpose, either to develop a character or drive the plot forward, or both.

My emotions run the full gamut as I am reading, and this is a sign of excellent literature. I laugh out loud a couple of times; at others, the prose is so painful that I have to walk away for awhile and then come back. But I am never sorry to be reading it. The ending is so deeply satisfying that I want to high-five someone, but alas, I am reading it alone.

Once again, Brown’s novel is destined to be one of the year’s best reads. I highly recommend it.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

Best Mystery 2019: Never Have I Ever, by Joshilyn Jackson

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Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke*****

Attica Locke is a force to be reckoned with and the first mystery in the Highway 59 series, Bluebird, Bluebird was outstanding, so I jumped when I saw this, the second in the series available to review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mulholland Books for the review copy. It will be available to the public Tuesday, September 17, 2019.

Darren Mathewsis a Black Texas Ranger, and his work is to unmask and prosecute members of the sinister Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. When the story opens we see that our protagonist is still drinking; he and his wife Lisa, who were estranged during the last book, have reached a détente of sorts. He will still drink, but it will be civilized consumption in front of his wife. A glass of beer. There. See, was that so bad? He has it handled. In exchange, he agrees to bring his work off the road, and so he is assigned to a supervisory position directing other officers in pursuit of the ABT. He doesn’t want to drive a desk, but it’s a concession he makes for her.

But Darren has gotten himself into an awkward spot, a compromising one. His mother—a woman that did not raise him but with whom he has recently developed a relationship of sorts—says it’s a shame that nobody has found the .38 used to kill Ronnie Malvo. Mack, who is dear to Darren, is a suspect in that homicide, and his mother has the gun. He tells himself that his frequent contact with her is a sign that they have a closer relationship and that the money and gifts he brings her are a pleasure for him to provide. But it’s not true; actually, his mother is blackmailing him.

And before you know it, he’s drinking hard, anywhere and everywhere that Lisa can’t see it.

Everyone that reads a lot of fiction in general or mysteries in particular develops a mental list of things they are tired of seeing. I for one could die happy if I never saw another alcoholic protagonist; I am also weary of seeing mean mothers. Why does every author have to take a pot shot at motherhood? But for every item on my list, there’s an exceptional writer that gets a pass because their prose is so solid, their voice so clear and resonant, their pacing so flawless, their characters so credible. Locke is one of those writers. (And to be fair, there are other features on my no-no list that Locke avoids nicely.)

So there’s the iffy marriage; there’s the bottle; there’s the blackmailing mama. But that’s not the half of it. Darren is sent into the field, despite his protests and his promise to Lisa, because there’s a missing child–the child of a member of the ABT– who has last been seen in a historically Black community, and the Rangers need a Black lawman to ease the way of the investigation. The Rangers don’t have a lot of Black officers to call out.

So next thing we know Darren is out in the boondocks, serving as a companion officer to a Caucasian sheriff that doesn’t really want much to do with Darren. In fact, the local power brokers, all of them white, are visibly uncomfortable in his presence, particularly when he enters private homes. And he knows that information is being withheld from him, not only by these people but also by Leroy Page, an elderly African-American man that was the last one to see Levi alive.

Locke is noteworthy for the way she creates a sense of disorientation, a murk that starts with the setting—swampy, dark, wet—and extends into the characters that withhold information and make remarks that are both overly general but also sometimes loaded with double meaning that he can’t decode. And into all of this mess comes his best friend Greg,  a Caucasian FBI man that has been sent in to explore the possibility of a hate crime here.

Part of Locke’s magic is her perceptive nature and the way she segues political events into the storyline. And so the pages fairly vibrate with betrayal when Greg, who knows from Darren that Leroy has not been forthcoming and won’t permit a warrantless search of his home, says that Leroy is guilty of a hate crime. The current administration takes a low view of such matters, Greg points out, and after all, Leroy referred to him as the “HCIC; Head Cracker In Charge.” Darren takes exception:

Cracker and nigger are not the same, and you know it,” Darren said.

“If we don’t prosecute hate crimes against whites—if that’s what this is,” Greg said, just to get Darren to hear him out, “if we don’t prosecute crimes against white lives to the degree that we do those against black lives—“ 

Darren laughed so hard the bourbon nearly choked him.

“They need to see the FBI taking every hate crime seriously.”

“So this is the Jackie Robinson of federal hate crime cases?”

It’s preposterous, of course. For one thing, as Darren points out, there’s no body. The child may be alive. But he is shaken by his friend’s behavior, and when Lisa drives out to visit on her day off, Darren is further concerned by how intimately she and Greg regard one another. It’s one more thing he doesn’t need, and at this point he has nobody left, apart from his very elderly uncle, who tells him the truth and isn’t hiding anything.  He does his best to help Leroy, but Leroy doesn’t trust him and is also not telling him everything, and he’s forced to recognize that this elderly man that reminds him of his uncles and Mack is, after all, another stranger.

Meanwhile, Darren makes a decision that knocks up against the ethics that his upbringing and his profession demand.

The tension builds and there’s no putting this book down. I stayed up late because I couldn’t sleep until I knew the outcome, which I did not see coming.

Locke is brilliant and seems to me like a shoo-in for a Grand Masters Award. This book and the one before it are highly recommended.

In West Mills, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow***

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

Winslow’s debut is set in 1941 in North Carolina. Our protagonists are Azalea Knot, an alcoholic school teacher in an African-American community, a woman shunned by her neighbors and kinfolk for her unconventional behavior and obnoxious personality. Otis Lee has family troubles of his own, but seeks redemption by helping Knot, who has two babies out of wedlock at a time when you really could not do that without terrible social repercussions. Otis is a helpful sort, and ultimately, the story becomes one about the family we choose.

I abandoned and restarted this book three times, and in the end, I never did engage with it much. I read the first thirty percent, the last twenty-five percent, and skimmed the middle. The writing style didn’t speak to me, and I couldn’t understand why Otis would care about Knot. But to be fair, Southern fiction has been a competitive genre for several years, and I was reading books by Attica Locke and Jesmyn Ward at the same time I read this.

I have a hunch Winslow is just warming up. He’ll be one to watch in the future.