Now Is Not the Time to Panic! by Kevin Wilson****-*****

Now is Not the Time to Panic is, according to its author, Kevin Wilson, “a book about friendship, about memory, and about what it means to hold on to the person who we were, even as we become someone else. It’s about the ways in which art is the door that lets us walk into a new life, one that never seemed possible.”

Frankie is kind of a quirky kid, friendless and grieving her parents’ divorce and her father’s abandonment of his kids. She has nothing but time this summer, and so when Zeke, an even quirkier new kid, moves into the tiny town of Coalfield, Tennessee, the two are drawn together.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Ecco Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Frankie invites Zeke over one day; her dad has flown the coop, and her mom is at work, so in order to make it clear that she hasn’t invited him over for carnal purposes, Frankie talks to him about her love of writing. Zeke says that he likes to draw, and so together, they make a poster. The words are Frankie’s, and they are indeed well written for a kid of sixteen years: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Zeke fills in the rest of the page with his artwork, and for good measure, they prick their fingers and comingle their blood on the poster. Then they dig out an old photocopy machine in Frankie’s garage, and make copies with which to furtively festoon the whole town. (After all, Coalfield isn’t a big place.) They don’t tell anyone it’s theirs, and enjoy the reactions to their guerilla art as sly observers.

The two teens share a lot in common. Both are outsiders; both are creatives; and both are living through the implosions of their families, with fathers that cheat and then leave, and mothers that are beside themselves with anger and shame.

Once the posters become noticed around town, rumors begin, and then copycats come along and make improvements, sometimes. There’s a hysterical piece in the local paper suggesting that their work is Satanic. Frankie and Zeke don’t say one word to anyone. They watch and they listen; they talk about it only with each other.

The crafting of these two characters, and their relationship, is well done, and I ache for both of these kids. The only time I see character slip is with regard to Frankie’s attitude toward sex. Her dispassionate take on it—she isn’t sure she really wants to, but maybe she should just do it and get it over with? Is not a mindset I’ve ever seen in a teenage girl, and believe me, I’ve known plenty of quirky ones. No, that’s a male attitude, and I suspect that Wilson would do better to use male protagonists, or else run his female ones by several very honest females in his chosen field, prior to publication.

As the summer goes on, I keep expecting the two to launch another joint project, but they don’t. She does some writing, and he draws, but there is no sequel, no follow-up. The poster is the poster. Shantytown, gold seekers, fugitives, hunger. Boom. That’s it. But years into the future, Frankie is still putting these damn things up. The heck…? I believe this of her; she is one strange person. Zeke’s mental health deteriorates that summer, and where that goes is completely credible. Those that work in the field will recognize Zeke, who is by far the better drawn of the two main characters.

This fascinating novel can be enjoyed by young adult audiences, because both of the protagonists are teenagers; however, this is also fiction that can be enjoyed by anybody. If you don’t read YA—and the truth is, I don’t, not anymore—you can still appreciate this one, and I recommend it to you.

The Last Hill, by Tom Clavin and Bob Drury***-****

In 2021, Clavin and Drury published Blood and Treasure, an outstanding biography of Daniel Boone, several American Indian tribes, and their relationship to the American Revolution. When I saw a chance to hear their new audiobook titled The Last Hill, I jumped on it. And the early portion of it convinced me that I was missing too much by listening but not seeing, so then I went back and requested the digital version as well. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan Audio, and Net Galley for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

This meaty yet readable book details the fight for Castle Hill, a strategically essential location that leads into the core of Nazi Germany. Several entire American divisions had tried and failed to take it, and so General Eisenhower ordered the Rangers to go in. Rudder’s were the most elite, battle-hardened unit of the already elite group known as the Rangers. Led by Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, they were ordered to fight to the last man, if necessary, and they very nearly did; 130 special operatives, as they were known, ascended the hill, and only 16 were left standing when it was over. Nobody there knew that Hitler’s Wehrmacht had been given nearly identical instructions, as it was through here that a massive number of German troops were slated to descend through the gateway and conclude the Battle of the Bulge for the Axis powers.

The most interesting and enjoyable part of this book, for me, was in the first chapters, where we see the contrast between the misleadership early on, when the Rangers were being trained in rural Tennessee, and that which Rudder provided. The troops were sent on marathon marches without canteens, and their superior officer would be driven alongside them, where they could see him relaxing in his seat and drinking as much water (or whatever?) as he chose. Some men quit; others died.  There were also war games, including “…the pit fighting competitions” that took place in a three foot deep, forty foot square hole in which “…entire platoons jumped in to attack each other like ancient Spear-Danes, screaming lusty war cries that echoed throughout the camp…by the ordeal’s conclusion, the sawdust looked as if it had been coated with red paint and the pit itself smelled like the inside of a leper. Afterward, the medical team—whose members were not spared the crucible—found themselves treating gashes, sprains, dislocations, and a no-inconsiderable number of broken bones, sometimes their own. At the end of these long days the Rangers returned to their tent city too exhausted to make the two-mile, round-trip walk to the barracks showers.” Angry servicemen, when they finally scored passes to the nearest town named Tullahoma, brawled with the locals and left the bars and taverns with splintered wood and broken glass. Lieutenant Colonel Saffarans had to go.

When “Big Jim” Rudder came in, the pit fights vanished and he marched alongside his own men, not for just a portion of the hike, but for the whole thing. When his feet became blistered, he waved away the medics and took care of himself. Soon morale improved, and so did the quality of the troops.

As we move from training to the European theater, I see less information that I didn’t already know. It’s not badly done, but I was so inspired by the earlier portion that I felt a little let down. I am also chagrined—though this is not the authors’ faults—at the casual way that the US Army threw its soldiers into the line of fire. Why could they not soften the area up before sending these poor men to the slaughterhouse? There were 260,000 grave markers in the hold of their transport ship. Whereas I have never been a proponent of nuclear war, it does seem to me that if someone was going to be hit with the bomb, Hitler’s minions were likely very strong candidates; the Japanese that were nuked at Nagasaki and Hiroshima were nearly beaten already, and the bomb was nearly superfluous. And I’ve said it in earlier reviews but I’ll say it again: it’s too bad that the U.S. Military treated white enemies gently, and its nonwhite ones ruthlessly.

Do I recommend this book to you?  If you are looking for just one book about American forces in World War II, this is probably not the one you’re looking for. It’s specific to just one part of Germany and just one hill, so it’s better suited to those that already have the basics mastered.

I might not recommend it at all, as I personally was offended by some of the remarks intended as humorous in reference to local women, as well as women in the service. Whereas I have no doubt that the misogynistic jokes told here are legitimately jokes that were told back then, there are some things that don’t bear repeating, and surely not in detail. I also wasn’t crazy about the clipped bro-speech of the narrator in the audio version.

For this reason, I recommend the printed version over the audio, for those that are interested.

Twelve Months of Reading

Seattle Book Mama’s Favorite Books for 2021

So many books to choose from! This is the cream of my collection of five star books for this year. So many of these crosses into multiple genres that it makes no sense to break them into categories. Whether you crave mystery, historical fiction, military fiction, suspense, humor, Southern fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, history, or just a fantastic read, I’ve got you covered. What better way to wrap up 2021?

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, by Deepa Anaparra

In India, children keep disappearing; but as is so often true, a missing child from a poor family doesn’t excite a great deal of interest on the part of authorities. But never fear; Jai has been watching Police Patrol, so although he’s just nine years old, he can take care of this business. He’s already got a key advantage over the government and its police force: Jai actually cares.

I read this novel free and early, though my review is disgracefully late. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now.

Anaparra immerses us in the culture of urban India and incorporates two aspects of social justice that cry out to be recognized. By using the voices of children, she tells the story naturally and without preaching. Hundreds of children disappear daily in India. Daily. That’s a lot of milk cartons. Most of these children are never found. So when Jai’s classmate goes missing, there’s consternation, because everyone knows how unlikely it is that he’ll be brought home. There’s discussion among the adults. The boy’s mother wants to hound the authorities, not let up until they find her son; but the neighbors don’t want her to do it, because everyone knows that when you irritate the police, bulldozers will appear and demolish everyone’s house. So if their neighborhood is razed without warning, they figure it will be her fault.


So kids, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a sobering wakeup call, looking at life from the viewpoint of the lower castes of India.

Jai is just nine, though, and when you’re nine, all things are possible. He is sure he can find his friend, if he can just afford the train fare to get further into the city, where his pal was last seen. His family never has much money, but his mother keeps what spare change she has in a kitchen pot, and as it adds up, it is reserved for emergencies—such as bulldozers. She knows that they could lose everything in a heartbeat, and she does what little she can to mitigate such a disaster. And bless his heart, little Jai sneaks into the kitchen and steals his mother’s bug-out fund so that he can take the Purple Line into town to play detective. He figures he can pay her back when he collects the reward money.

This story is a meal. There are a lot of unfamiliar terms, and they aren’t explained to us. We have to figure them out through context. This keeps the plot from bogging down, and that’s good, because it’s not moving terribly fast to begin with. But for those that like a nice whodunit to read as they drowse off to sleep in the evening, this isn’t that book. This is literature. Don’t try to absorb it after you’ve had a few beers or taken your sleeping pill. You need your full brain.

The other social justice topic, secondary to the missing children yet also important, is that of how India treats its girls and women, and once again, those in the lower castes are slammed by poverty and class bias as well as sexism. Jai’s sister Didi is gifted academically and athletically. She holds far more promise than her squirrely little brother, who is just your average kid, but her needs are always subordinate to his. Didi wants to run track and go to university, but her parents want her home, watching over Jai while they’re at work. They’re afraid (and not needlessly) that he’ll get into trouble. They are so concerned about what might happen to their darling boy that they don’t think twice about Didi. She’s sick of being leered at by the horny old men that sell vegetables, and she’s sick of the contemptuous gazes of shop women. And now, she, the star of the track team, must miss a critical meet so she can babysit:

“It was as if she existed solely to care for her brother, and the house. Afterward, she would similarly look after her husband, her hands smelling of cow-dung cakes. Her own dreams were inconsequential. It seemed to her that no one could see the ambition that thrummed in her; no one imagined her becoming someone.”

I used a combination of the digital galley on my Kindle and the audio book I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons to get through this book. Sometimes I used them simultaneously. The voice actors have Indian accents that add authenticity; at the same time, I sometimes missed that we had shifted from a male character’s inner narrative to that of a female, and I became confused and had to go back. Again, this story is not for wusses. And yet, it’s worth it. It’s a helluva debut, and if you’ve read this whole review, you’re the type of person that can get through this book, and I recommend it to you. You won’t find anything else like it.

Follow Me, by Kathleen Barber****

Audrey Miller moves from New York City to Washington, D.C. to take a position at the Smithsonian. She weaves her many Instagram followers into her professional life, with mixed results that sometimes get a little creepy. She runs into an old friend that’s now an attorney; an old lover; and a skeezy upstairs neighbor that has a key to her apartment. Oh—and she also has a stalker.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, and Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. This book is for sale now.

I signed on to read and review this book because I was looking for some escapist fun, and that’s just what this is.

The story is told from three first person viewpoints, performed by three different readers on the audio version, which makes it easy to keep up with. In addition to Audrey, we hear from Kat, her old friend from college, and we hear from the stalker, whose chapters are playfully titled “Him.” Throughout the story, our prime focus is to figure out which of the several men that weave in and out of the narrative is the stalker. There are plenty of red herrings, and I was fooled more than once.

In looking back, two aspects make this story stand out: one is the terrific yet terrible museum exhibit that oddly mirrors Audrey’s life; and the voice of the stalker, which—if you hear the audio version, which is what I recommend, having tried it both ways—warbles wonderfully, making the listener feel he’s about to completely lose his shit at any given moment.

While not great literature, this kitschy tale is wonderfully distracting and easy to follow. I recommend it for those that need to take a break from their responsibilities and just wallow.

The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye***-****

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, and what’s more, I got it a long time ago. I have struggled with this book and still haven’t read all of it, but I’ve spent enough time on it that I feel equipped to write about it, or at least the part I’ve read.

The story is of a Caucasian woman traveling incognito, on the run from the law during Prohibition. She’s got a bullet wound and is in a bad way when the Negro Pullman porter takes pity on her and drags her home to the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon. But the hotel is for Negroes (the correct term during this time period,) and she isn’t entirely welcome; she looks as if she might draw trouble fast.

There are a hundred reasons I should have loved this book, and I’m still struggling to decide why I don’t. The former: I grew up in Portland and earned half of my history degree there. Portland history is a particular love of mine, and I’ve long been bemused at the way present day Boomers remain so smugly oblivious to the ugly racist history of the city. The Ku Klux Klan once had a chapter in the basement of a Methodist church in Sellwood, a neighborhood in Southeast Portland; I lived less than a mile from that church at one point. Furthermore, I have not found one inaccuracy in Faye’s setting. She’s brought it in like a champ.

Civil rights is another of my passions; I found nothing to object to in the way Faye handles this aspect of the story.

Yet for some reason, I cannot engage with this thing, and furthermore I cannot even stand to listen to all of it. There’s something about the author’s writerly voice that just grates on me. I have tried reading, and I have tried listening to the audio version, which often works for me when reading has failed. Nope. I can’t stand this book. In particular, the dialogue irritates the heck out of me.

If I were to give star ratings on my visceral reaction to this book, I’d probably give two stars. I can’t do that though, because it would be enormously unfair. I cannot pan a book without a specific reason, and so help me, I can’t find one. I think this is just an unusual individual reaction to a stylized, artistically rendered storyteller; and so this is what has held me back from reviewing. At first, I was convinced that with enough discipline, I could finish it; then when I realized that was never going to happen, I couldn’t figure out what rating to use, or what to say. I always have a good reason and a careful analysis, and this time both have eluded me. I am so confused!

If the things I have mentioned—civil rights, Portland, history during the Prohibition era—are in your wheelhouse, you may love this book. It seems just about everyone else does. If in doubt, read an excerpt, or get a copy free or cheap.

Go figure.

Best General Fiction: Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman

Best Romance 2019: The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood

Best Feminist Fiction 2019: Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera

Best History 2019: Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe
Honorable Mention: Sea People