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.

Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult****

Diana has a high pressure job, and so does her boyfriend, Finn. Thank goodness they’ve made reservations in the Caribbean for a two week vacation. Sun, sand, cold drinks, turtles. But when the pandemic hits, Finn can’t get away. He tells Diana to go on ahead.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Nothing goes as planned for Diana. As her boat conveys her to her destination, everyone else is leaving, rather than arriving. The island is closing, an emergency measure against the pandemic. But Diana is a typical American tourist, and she knows that she has already paid for her stay, so once she is there, of course they’ll accept her…right?

The first few chapters depict our protagonist as such an entitled, smug tourist that I nearly give up out of distaste. But between the promotional blurb and my familiarity with Picoult’s work, I continue, knowing there’s a good chance that Diana will develop into a more likable character. She does.

Soon after she arrives, she runs into a handsome but irate local tour guide turned farmer, and as soon as they collide and conflict erupts, I figure, Ho hum. She’ll end up in bed with him. What else is new? And since this is near the beginning, I will tell you this much: sure she does, and plenty is new! As Diana is forced to live differently, with her luggage lost, very little wifi, no cell coverage, and nobody at her beck and call, she learns some things about herself.

Picoult is early to emerge within the growing body of pandemic fiction—hmm, will this become a genre, sub-genre maybe? And this makes Wish You Were Here all the more appealing.

Again, just before the halfway point, I think I can see how this is going to end, but I couldn’t be more wrong. At about the two-thirds mark, everything changes, and I marvel at the author’s audacity. But she makes it work, and I cannot tell you anything else without ruining it.

Because I was running late with my review, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened alternately with reading the digital review copy I was given. Marin Ireland does a solid job as reader; as to which version I recommend, it’s a complete toss up, so go with your usual preference.

Recommended to Picoult’s fans, and to those that enjoy fiction.

A Long Time Coming, by Aaron Elkin**

ALongTimeComingAaron Elkin has been writing mysteries for a long time, but he is new to me.  When I saw this title listed on Net Galley, I went to Goodreads and found that his work is well regarded by some of my friends; add to this his residence in my own Pacific Northwest, and I am ready to give his work a try. Thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

The story starts well. Val Caruso is an art curator, and his personal life is a mess. He’s stone cold broke, and so when he is approached to do a job involving a stolen-but-found Renoir, his interest is piqued. An ancient Holocaust survivor claims ownership of a painting that has been sold to someone else, and Caruso is hired to help. I particularly enjoy the character of Esther, the domineering but charming friend that connects the two men; alas, we will soon leave her behind when we go to Milan.

At the outset the amount of art related information feels just about right to me. The book is sold as a popular read rather than a niche item for art aficionados, and I am cheered by this, since I have little to no interest in art. As we travel to Milan, however, the art lectures become oppressive. By the forty percent mark I find myself watching the page numbers roll by, oh so slowly, and cursing myself for having taken the galley. Brush strokes? Historical nature of paint color? Who the hell cares? The travelogue aspect of the book also starts well, but eventually the level of detail slooows this story to a crawl. I find myself cynically wondering whether this series is simply a ruse for the author to claim his globe-trotting expenses on his tax returns.

Elkin has a solid reputation built on an earlier series, and at some point I may give that one a whirl, but Val Caruso and I are done.

A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume***

I was gob-smacked by this author’s last book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and when I saw she had another book out—one set in Ireland, one of my favorite settings—I immediately requested a DRC. Thank you to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read it free in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

ALineMadeByWalkingHad I no obligation to the publisher, I might be tempted to write a rare one-word review: bleak. Our protagonist is grieving the death of her beloved grandmother, and the dog died too. She’s stuck in a place she can’t get out of mentally, but since she is an artist, she takes her ennui and lets it guide her through art, and the narrative follows a pattern in which each grim thought leads her to a different art theme mentally. The story is told in the first person, and so we follow her miserable wandering thoughts from one grim topic to another, and then at some point each train of thought ends with “Works about [ fill in noun here: beds, rabbits…whatever].”

“The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed.”

Yup.

I continued reading because it seemed to me that her earlier book started out depressing and it took some time to warm up, but then once it took off I was in love with it. I waited for this to happen here. And waited. At the 16% mark, she notes that getting drunk provides her with a “heightened sense of despair” the next day, and my notes my notes say “Fuck me.”

The protagonist tells us of an instance when she follows her very elderly landlady down a set of steps and pretends this is her usual pace also, and my notes say, “What the hell else you gonna do? Tell her to move her butt? Give her a shove to help her along?”

Each time I have one of these magic moments, I know it’s time to read something else for a while and come back to this story with fresh eyes. This is why it took me so long to read and review. Had I not bailed at 68% and peeked at the end for some sign of redemption, it would have gone even more slowly. Our protagonist has family members that want to help, but she is not interested. Instead, we notice dead animals; we notice garbage. We notice mold and other ugly things, but we can’t get up and deal with them because we are depressed and going to continue sitting here, lying here, not seeking change and wallowing.

In fairness, the word smithery here is strong in places, and I like the figurative language. However, for me the double-whammy of perpetually depressed prose followed, every now and then, by reflections about art and art history, a subject that makes my eyes glaze over, is a powerful repellent, and I am never able to engage; perhaps by now, you suspected as much.

So the third star is here because I know there are readers that have a great love of art, and if you are one of them, your experience with this novel may be completely different from mine. I wanted to tell the protagonist to take her meds and shut up, but there may be some truly redemptive aspect of the art discussion that makes the rest of it flow beautifully for art lovers.

For most readers, I can’t recommend this novel, and if you take it up anyway, put the sharps in another room and lock up your pills and firearms. Seriously. But for those with an affinity for art and art history, this book should be considered.