Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown*****

WatchMeDisappear“…how can you ever really know the truth about another person? We all write our own narratives about the people we know and love…”

Billie Flanagan is living the good life in Northern California. Her husband, Jonathan, has a lucrative career that permits her to stay home, even though Olive is now in middle school. But one day she heads out on one of her favorite hiking trails, the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness, and she never returns. Search and Rescue crews find a single hiking boot and a cell phone far below the trail with its screen smashed. Her bank cards and checking remain untouched. Jonathan and Olive are forced to face the truth: Billie is never coming home again. They hold the funeral, and a year later, Jonathan sits down to write a memoir of his life with Billie. It is here that we join the family.

Many thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public July 11, 2107.

This psychological thriller starts with daughter Olive, who is in middle school, seldom a proud or happy time for any of us. But one day Billie appears to Olive in the hallway and tells her that she should be looking harder; she isn’t trying. Olive is convinced that her mother is still alive and trying to reach her. Eventually Jonathan starts to wonder as well. Neither of them is able to move on effectively without knowing the truth, yet there it is: they have no body and they have no proof of anything. As their journeys unfold, both externally and internally, Brown develops the hell out of both of these characters and through the memories both evoke in word and thought, she develops Billie best of all. An interesting side character named Harmony rounds things out nicely.

As each layer of each character is revealed—I was planning to say it’s like having three sets of Russian nesting dolls, but that’s not right; each has many more layers than that, more like onions–the reader’s viewpoint is forced to shift from one point of view to another, and so we wonder at various times about alternate possibilities. Could Billie really be alive somewhere? Did she just up and fucking leave them? She’s done that before. She is a runner. She has been known to drop people with no warning at all, just ghost them. It was a long time ago, but it’s true.

Or is she dead at the hands of…hmm, the ex-boyfriend that surfaces at the funeral? And we wonder whether maybe Jonathan, whose memories of Billie are not all as rosy as the ones we hear at the outset, did something to harm her. And then we wonder about Billie’s friend Harmony, who moves into Jonathan’s life rapidly enough to disturb Olive considerably. She’s so needy, so hungry for his attention; would she have offed Billie in order to have a crack at him? Many of these ideas are merely hinted at rather than voiced by the narrative, and this is part of what makes it so tasty. At first, I think my idea is original because I am so smart, but then I look back, as a reviewer has to do, and I can see it’s not really about my being smart (darn), but rather about very subtle foreshadowing. Brown uses lights and mirrors to get our minds moving in different directions, and the disorientation is, in its own twisted way, part of the rush.

A last note goes to the tangential but rarely-seen moment when a character muses about why it’s so hard to find an abortion clinic when you need one. This is the reverse side of a pet peeve of mine, the commonly used notion that every accidental pregnancy necessarily must end in childbirth, as if the year were 1950 or 1960 rather than the 21st century. I wonder whether Brown had to fight to keep that reference in her novel? One way or the other, this was going to be a five star review, but when I found that courageous little nugget, I wanted to shout for joy!

As to the end…I can’t tell you what happens of course, but I will tell you that this doesn’t end ambiguously. By the conclusion, the reader knows what happened to Billie.

When all is said and done, this is fiction that every feminist can embrace. If there is a heaven, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is looking down, and she is cheering.

Forever is the Worst Long Time, by Camille Pagan****

 “Each story is different. Every story ends with loss.”

foreveristheworstCamille Pagan is the author Life and Other Near Death Experiences. Thank you Net Galley and Lake Union Publishing for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title is for sale February 7, 2017.

The story starts in the second person, with the narrator speaking to us intimately; he is James Hernandez, and soon we realize that he is speaking to a child about her mother and his memories of her. The narrative is therefore intimate in tone, but also carefully measured and paced, beginning in 1998 when James meets Lou and unspooling toward the present.  I have read oh so many novels in which alternating viewpoints are used to keep the reader’s attention from wandering, and this fresh approach had me at hello.

James is Rob’s best friend; James’s own childhood home was dysfunctional and bleak, and so Rob’s family included him on family vacations and other family-only events. They weren’t just close friends growing up; they were almost brothers. And so when James falls head over heels in love and decides to marry, the first thing he does is send for his BFF. They are introduced and James is asked to be best man at the wedding.  But in one of those blind random moments of fate, James himself falls madly in love with Lou the minute he sees her.

What would you do in a similar circumstance? Get over it and do it fast, of course. It’s just not possible. But years later, when the marriage founders and Lou walks, James can’t help himself.

There is foreshadowing in plenitude here, and the voice at the outset and at the end are what keeps those pages turning. Of course, there’s also mystery, because the speaker is telling us some things, but clearly withholding others.

If you have to like a protagonist in order to enjoy a novel, then this may not be your book. James isn’t merely flawed; in the book’s middle, he’s whiny.  I check my notes and find that in one place I wonder if Woody Allen will option the rights, and in another, I curse and request a violin. Seriously, I want to smack James upside the head and say sure, you shouldn’t have, but you did and it’s done, so man up and get over it already. But around the three-quarters mark, the whole thing takes another turn, one entirely consistent with what has gone before, and once again, it is a book I don’t want to put down till the last page is turned.

Those that enjoy fresh new fiction should consider this book even if romance is not generally a favorite genre. Pagan is an interesting writer, and now that I’ve read this, I want to go back and read the other things she’s written.  She’s already gained a lot of buzz—and a movie deal—with her first title, and I suspect she will be someone to watch in the future.

Don’t get left out.

I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, by Jesse Goolsby ****

idwalkwithmyfriendsifThis fictional memoir chronicles the lives of three men who join the US armed services and wind up together in Afghanistan. It follows them after they leave, coming home but not home, alienated, injured in various ways both tangible and intangible. It’s an important book to read, given the current state of affairs and the ways in which the government denies us information regarding the US war in Asia. Thank you to Edelweiss Above the Treeline and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the DRC. It will be available to the public at the beginning of June.

Dax, Wintric, and Torres come from different parts of the country, but all are members of the American proletariat. Jobs and a future are not abundant in down-at-the-heels America, economically past its prime. Each of them comes to the service not out of a longing for glory or out of feverish patriotism, but pragmatically; where else can they find a job? Who else will train them, send them to school free?

Most of their time in uniform is mind-numbingly dull. But it only takes a few minutes, perhaps even a few seconds to rock someone’s life and forever change it.

All of them return, and no one is the same. Goolsby deserves credit for developing well crafted, if not necessarily likable, characters. The ambiguity as to some of their fates made me a little crazy at times, but that also demonstrates how much I was invested in the story. Interesting to me was the fact that I bonded a lot more with the women in their lives than with any of them. Yes, I am female, but I can’t count the number of male protagonists in other novels that I’ve bonded with. I think it comes down to culture; I have never been able to understand gun nuts (which is how at least one of them comes back), or with those who turn to violence as a necessary aspect of their domestic lives. And yet the story is written in such a way that it is entirely believable.

Although I generally prefer urban settings in my fiction, I appreciated the way the writer cut across stereotypes of California by setting Wintric in the Northeast part of the state, a rural area near Chico. I think a lot of people who have not been to California, or who have flown into a major city and then back out, fail to appreciate how much of it is rural or wilderness. The character of Kristen as a girl who never wants to go further from home than the giant redwoods—doesn’t even need to get as far away as the Pacific Ocean!—was a brilliant stroke.

I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is not a cheerful book or an uplifting one; if you are inclined toward depression and decide to read this timely novel, find a second book that is humorous or heartwarming to alternate with this one. But for those of us here at home who see no film footage of this war, no news articles that show what takes place on the ground or even the coffins that are sent home thanks to the governmental news blackout, it is an important addition. Thoughtfully written, and recommended.