Pickard County Atlas, by Chris Harding Thornton*****

What a way to start off the new year! Chris Harding Thornton has written one of those debut novels, the sort that makes an author reluctant to publish a second book, lest it fail to live up to the first. Lucky me, I read it free; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It’s for sale tomorrow, and those that love excellent working class fiction should get a copy right away.

The setting is rural Nebraska, for a single week in 1978. It’s one of those tiny towns where not only does everyone know everyone else, but also just about every single thing that has happened in the lives of everyone else. Or at least they think they do; gossip takes on a life of its own. We have three protagonists, and their points of view alternate, always in the third person omniscient. Harley Jensen, the deputy sheriff, opens the story; then we meet Pam Reddick, a miserable, trapped, 24 year old housewife living in a singlewide trailer with her baby and a husband who’s always working; and Rick, the man Pam is married to, who works for his father, buying and renovating old mobile homes. Now there’s a job for you.

Both of the men, Harley and Rick, are leading lives of avoidance. As a child, Harley found his mother on the kitchen floor after she blew her own face away with a shotgun. The table was set, and the gravy was just beginning to form a skin on top. Gravy boat; bare, dirty feet facing the door after she fell over; cane bottom chair, shotgun, and…yeah. So now Harley is middle aged, single, childless; he maintains a careful distance emotionally from everyone. He does his job, but he’s no Joe Friday. He maintains a stoic, lowkey demeanor most of the time, putting one foot in front of the other, so that people won’t look at him with pity, which is intolerable:

People evidently needed that. They needed to know that you could overcome a thing like what happened here and keep going. That or you were just broken—more broken than they’d ever be.  That worked fine, too. The one thing they couldn’t abide was that you just lived with it. You drank and slept and did laundry with it. You waited at the DMV and clocked in and out with it.

The opening scene in which we meet Harley finds him driving his usual patrol, eager to pass the last homestead he routinely checks for prowlers, vandals, or partiers. It is his parents’ home, now derelict and unsaleable. He prefers to zip past it, but he can’t today because there’s a truck down there. Turns out to be Paul Reddick, the wily, sociopathic brother of Rick, whom we’ve yet to meet. This scene is as tense and still as the air right before the tornado hits. It’s suffused with dread, and we don’t fully understand why yet. It sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Pam Reddick is too young to be so bitter, but it isn’t stopping her. She doesn’t love her husband, and if she ever did, we don’t see evidence of it. They are married because of Anna, their now-three-year-old daughter. This fact gives me pause, since Roe v. Wade came down in 1973; abortion is legal. But then I realize, first, that the Supreme Court made a ruling, but it didn’t furnish clinics, and an out-of-the-way place like Pickard County may never have had access. Pam and Rick have so little money that a trip to the nearest clinic and the payment for the procedure was about as likely as an all expense paid trip to Europe. No, she’d have that baby all right. And she has. But she has no enthusiasm for parenting or her daughter, who looks just like her daddy. Pam goes through the barest motions of motherhood, and only that much because her mother and her mother’s friends always seem to be watching.

 Rick, on the other hand, is a guy you can’t help but feel sorry for. The entire Reddick family is a mess. Their father, who is a shyster, has more or less abandoned their mother, who has mental health problems, the severity of which depends on who is talking. The whole town knows about the night when, following the murder of her eldest son, she was seen in the backyard, stark naked, burning clothing in a barrel. His younger brother, Paul, whom we met earlier with Harley, uses street drugs and steals his mother’s prescriptions; he’s been in and out of trouble most of his life. Worse still, perhaps, is the fact—and it isn’t spelled out for us, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes evident—that Paul is smarter than Rick. Nobody tells us Rick is stupid; rather, his inner monologue fixates on the mundane and tends to turn in circles. And here, we can see also that poor Rick loves Pam and Anna deeply, and considers them the very best part of his young life; he counsels Paul to settle down, find someone like Pam so that he can have a good life, too. And while Rick knows that Pam is unhappy, he tells himself that she’s mad about nothing, that she’ll settle down. He’s working hard, and we can see that; the guy is a slob, but he’s industrious, on his back in the dirt ripping fiberglass out of an old trailer, stripping wallpaper, replacing pipes. And when he goes home, exhausted and reeking, his feet are sore and itching, and the thing he finds most soothing, and which makes Pam crazy, is rubbing his feet on the radiator until pieces of dead skin come off in strips, which he of course doesn’t clean up.

At this point, I’m ready to get my purse out and give Pam some get-away cash. I couldn’t live that way, either. The worst of it is that Rick is already doing his very best.

The plot unfolds like a burning tumbleweed descending a dry hillside, and it is masterfully written. Much of its brilliance lies in what is not said. There are probably half a dozen themes that bear study, for those so inclined. The violence and poverty are obvious, but more insidious is the way this county chews up the women that live there.

Another admirable aspect of the narrative is the restraint with which cultural artifacts are placed. We aren’t barraged with the headlines of 1978, or its music or movie actors. Thornton doesn’t take cheap shortcuts. Yet there are occasional subtle reminders: the television’s rabbit ears that have to be adjusted to get a decent picture; the Corelle casserole dish.

So, is this book worth your hard-earned money? If you haven’t figured that out by now, you’re no brighter than poor Rick. Go get this book now. Your own troubles will all look smaller when you’re done.

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, by Jess Kidd*****

MrFloodsLastWho do I enjoy reading more than Jess Kidd? Nobody.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book, which was also published in UK as The Hoarder, is available today in the US.  And I have to tell you also that although her work is billed as similar to Fredrik Backman, I find it to be better—and that’s saying a good deal.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver, which in the USA would translate as a combination social worker and home health provider. She’s been sent to the large, rambling home of Cathal Flood, a tall, fierce old man who has driven his previous caregiver to a nervous breakdown. Speculation abounds: is he an innocuous old fellow in need of some organization, treatment, and TLC, or is he dangerous—perhaps a murderer, even? What about the missing girl that was last seen at this address?  It’s enough to make even Maud’s staunch heart tremble:

“In the musty depths of Cathal’s lair, one eye flicks open. Noise has pulled on the strings of his web, setting his long limbs twitching. He’ll be slinking out of his trapdoor and threading through the rubbish. Crawling up the staircase with a knife clampled between his dentures and a lasso of fuse wire in his hand, ready to garrot me and hack me to pieces.”

The suspense builds as Kidd moves our point of view from Maud’s by day, to her frightening, confused dreams at night, to those of the missing and the dead. Because Maud is gifted in her ability to see those that have gone before, particularly saints, she receives their cautions and advice in ways that are often truly hilarious. The result is a story so enjoyable that it became the dessert book that I held out to myself as a reward for having finished less enjoyable galleys. Had I no other obligations, I would have gobbled this deliciously dark tale up in a weekend.

As it is, I found myself going back and rereading passages twice, partly for fun and partly to try to pick apart what makes this writing so effective. But although I can point to several components—brilliant development of Maud, Cathal, and friend Renata; some of the finest figurative language in contemporary fiction; a hugely original voice and concept; a soaring climax in which the weight of Western society’s failure to care adequately for its elders comes crashing down before us—ultimately the book is much more than the sum of its parts, an alchemy that is spun magic with a few naughty bits of raunchy humor sprinkled in, and a social justice issue nailed to the wall where we cannot help seeing it.

Should you purchase this title for your magnificent, outrageous mother on her special day, for which there are just 12 remaining days to shop? Should you order a copy for your own fabulous, fierce father, whose day is about a month later? Well of course you can, and you should, assuming you aren’t going to try to force them into a home. But it isn’t nice to break the binding open, and so they’ll be able to tell if you have fudged a free read before gifting it. Better to get a copy for yourself as well, fair and square. You’ll want to read it more than once anyway.

Warm and clever, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort is the most entertaining novel of 2018 to date, hands down.

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin****

TheImmortalistsFour adolescent siblings growing up in New York City learn that a traveling psychic has hit town, a woman that can tell each person the date that he or she will die. Against the wishes of their parents, they sneak out to find her. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. This book is now available to the public.

The book is divided approximately into fourths, a quarter for each of the Gold children and across five decades. To my own way of thinking the first half of the story is far more resonant than the second half. Simon, the “golden boy”, dies of AIDS before the disease has been named, but before he is gone, the San Francisco of that time period is set out in such meticulous, immediate detail that I feel as if I am back there, back then. The portion of the book devoted to Klara, who becomes a magician, is nearly tangible in different ways, and older women that have worked in unconventional professions—before the year 2000, that meant just about all of them—will recognize themselves when they see how she is dismissed, harassed, and stigmatized.

Then I read a review by someone that felt exactly the opposite, claiming that the story didn’t really wake up until the second half. And so I suspect that the age and background of the reader will inform which part of the book stands out best.

However, once I have seen Simon and Klara die, I have other reasons for reading more slowly. If both of them die during the first and second quarters of the book, I have a pretty good idea what is about to happen to Daniel and Varya in the third and fourth quarters.  These characters, a Naval physician and a primate researcher, don’t reach me the way that Simon and Klara do. With Simon and Klara, I am right there with them, and at times I am peeking out and seeing the world through their eyes. With Daniel and Varya, I am along for the ride, checking to see how many pages are left in this thing so I can go write my review and be done.

Benjamin’s  greatest gift is setting. There are aspects of each place and time that I remember, and others that I have nearly forgotten until she brings them back again. But for those expecting to see a fantasy plot, as this has been billed, or magical realism, it’s going to prove disappointing; really it is literary fiction, and some reviewers will be unhappy because of the genre issue.

Those that love good literary fiction are going to want to read this novel. There’s been a tremendous amount of buzz, and there’s nothing else like it.

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.