If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s prose.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.

Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka*****

GirlinSnow

“’You can only see fifty-nine percent of the moon from the earth’s surface. No matter where you go, in the entire world, you’ll only see the same face. That fifty-nine percent.’
“‘Why are you telling me this?’
“’I’m just saying. We know this fact, but it doesn’t stop us from staring.’”

Half a century ago, a young writer named Harper Lee took the literary world by storm with To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that centered itself on justice, on a child trying to do the right thing, and on a strange, misunderstood fellow named Boo Radley.

Today the literary world meets wunderkind Danya Kukafka. Get used to the name, because I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot of it. Her story also revolves around misunderstood characters with dark pasts, and a small town’s often misdirected quest to see justice done and safety restored.

Thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley for inviting me to read and review in exchange for this honest review. I’ve read and reviewed a lot of galleys this summer, but right now this is the only one I want to talk about.

So back to our story. We have three narratives, all from unhappy characters, all of them watching, watching, watching. Our protagonist is Cameron Whitley, a troubled, “Tangled” adolescent that has spent his evenings secretly following a popular, attractive classmate named Lucinda. He watches her through the windows of her house. He stares at her in her bedroom, and he does other things, too. Cameron has a troubled past, his father gone now after a storm of controversy destroyed his reputation and left his family hanging in tatters. And now that Lucinda is dead, the investigators have to look hard at Cameron. We do, too. We can see that Cameron is grieving, but of course, people often grieve the people they have killed. Grief doesn’t always denote innocence.

“Cameron stood outside Maplewood Memorial and wondered how many bodies it held that did not belong to Lucinda. How many blue, unbending thumbs. How many jellied hearts.”

As the story proceeds, we hear a third person omniscient narrative of Cameron, though it doesn’t choose to tell us everything. Not yet. We also hear two alternate narratives, those of Jade, Cameron’s classmate, and of Russ, the cop that was Cameron’s father’s partner before things unraveled.

Jade is friendless and frustrated, an overweight teen with iffy social skills, unhappy in love. Her home life is disastrous, her alcoholic mother monstrously abusive. Jade could be out of that house in a New York minute if she’d out her mother, but instead she turns her anger toward herself. After all, she provokes her mother. The bruises, the cuts, the blackened eye all signs that she has pushed her mom too far.

And so, bereft of healthier peer relationships, Jade watches Cameron watch Lucinda. She doesn’t have to leave home to do it; she has a box seat, so to speak, at her bedroom window. Standing there and looking down on a good clear night, she can see Cameron sequestered behind the bushes or trees, and she can see Lucinda, who doesn’t seem to know what curtains and window blinds are for. Ultimately Jade befriends Cameron, who is frankly afraid to trust her. And he may be right.
Russ is the third main character whose narrative we follow. As a child, he always thought it would be awesome to carry a gun and put handcuffs on bad guys:

“He memorized the Mirandas…playing with a toy cop car on the back porch…Russ had a lisp as a kid. You have the wight to wemain siwent.”

So his dream has come true; why isn’t he a happier man? Again and again we see the ugly things Russ does and the ugly reasons he does them, but just as it appears he’s going to become a stereotypic character, Kukafka adds nuance and ambiguity, and we see that underneath that swinish exterior is the heart of…no, not a lion. He’s really not that great a guy. But we see his confusion, his dilemmas, the aspects of his “bruised yellow past” that motivate him. He isn’t a hero, but he is capable of loving, and of doing good. And he doesn’t want to frame a kid for Lucinda’s murder, especially not his partner’s kid. He wants to know the truth.

Interesting side characters are Russ’s wife, Ines, and Ines’s brother Ivan, the school custodian that is caught in the crosshairs of the investigation.

Ultimately, though, the story is about Cameron, and Kukafka’s electrifying prose makes my thoughts roll back and forth like a couple dozen tennis balls left on deck when the ship hits choppy seas. Poor Cameron! He didn’t do this…and then, whoa, Cameron is seriously creepy here. Maybe he actually did it. I spend much of my time trying to decipher how deeply troubled this lad is—those of us in education and other fields that work with teenagers would undoubtedly deem him an ‘at-risk’ child—and how far he has gone.

Is Cameron the Boo Radley of 2017, misunderstood and falsely vilified; or is he a Gary Gilmore, a John Wayne Gacy?

Clearly, I’m not going to tell you. That would ruin it for you. The one thing I will say is that the ending is not left ambiguous. This isn’t the sort of book you throw across the room when you’ve read the last page.

In addition, know that there is plenty of edgy material here. Those considering offering this book to a teen as summer reading may wish to read it themselves before passing it on. I would cheerfully have handed it to my own teens, but your standards and mine may differ.

If you can read this book free or at a reduced price, lucky you. If you have to pay full freight: do it. Do it. Do it. It’s for sale today.

The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson****

themercyofthe The Mercy of the Tide is Keith Rosson’s debut novel, and it’s a strong one. Set in a tiny, depressed town on the Oregon Coast during the Reagan Administration, things start out dark, and they’re about to get a whole lot darker. Thank you, Net Galley and Meerkat Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge for this honest review. This book will be for sale February 21, 2017, and those that love good fiction with a working class perspective will want a copy.

The tiny town of Riptide, Oregon is knee deep in grief. A recent head-on collision claimed the lives of Melissa Finster, mother of Sam and Trina, and June Dobbs, the town’s beloved librarian and wife of Sheriff Dave Dobbs. The blow has left everyone reeling and on edge.

Someone else is missing Melissa too, though he can’t say so. Deputy Nick Hayslip–a Vietnam veteran who has no patience for the madness associated with that category, a vet who figures that you go home when the war is over, you put on your clothes and go to work and therapy is for losers–is coming unstuck. Nobody knows about his past with Melissa, and he finds terrible ways to keep her memory alive.

The teaser for this novel tells us that the story centers around Sam and Trina, and since the author generally writes the teaser, that must be his intention. However, I found Trina to be the weakest element here, and it was the other characters that made this story work for me. Part of this is just pure fickle bad luck for the author; I actually taught deaf kids of the same age as Trina, as well as gifted kids that age; and in one instance, a gifted deaf kid that age. It’s true that the gifts of highly capable children vary widely in scope and range, and that every child is unique, but the vocabulary and abstract concepts Rosson bestows on this kid are just not within the realm of the possible, and so Trina isn’t real to me until later in the book, when things other than her obsession with nuclear holocaust are used in the development of her character.

The most interesting character and unlikely hero here is Hayslip. Also beautifully developed are Sheriff Dodds and Sam’s closest friend, Todd, known familiarly as “Toad”. Alternating points of view from the third person omniscient give us ready access to their thoughts, impulses, and feelings.

An interesting side character is zealous Christian wingnut Joe Lyley, who says in a somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, “These are unlovely times.” I also liked Leon Davies, whose role I will let the reader discover, because it’s such a fun surprise.

The setting is almost an anti-tourist brochure. The Oregon Coast is well known for its wild, rugged beauty, but Rosson chooses to introduce the other reality, that of the many local denizens that endure a hardscrabble working class existence in small, chilly, damp coastal communities that rarely see the sun. The moldering smell of rotting wood, porches and floors with a sponge-like give under foot are dead accurate, although the town of Riptide is fictitious; the recession of the 80’s plunged small beach towns into a depression from which there has never been a moment’s relief.

This is a strong story with a tight, tense climax and a powerful resolution. This darkly delicious novel shows that Rosson is a force to be reckoned with; I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Small Admissions, by Amy Poeppel*****

smalladmissionsI received an advance reader’s copy of this darkly amusing novel from Net Galley and Atria Books. It’s funny as hell, and even more amusing to teachers, school counselors, and others that have dealt with high maintenance parents and the aura of entitlement they carry with them. I rate this title 4.5 stars and round upward.  It comes out December 27, 2016, just in time to chase away your post-holiday depression.

I sat on this book for more than three months, which is a rare thing for me.  I kept starting it, not liking it, and deciding to set it aside and look again with fresh eyes later. Finally November came, and I realized the book was not going to change; I’d given my word to the publisher I’d review it; it was time to suck it up and get the job done. And this is a little ironic all by itself, since that’s the position in which our protagonist found herself, but more on that in a minute.

The issue with the first part of the book is that it reads like a very lengthy introduction, steeped in character introduction and overlong inner narrative. After I had read—and loved—the rest of the book, I went back and reread that 15%. Was it just me? What was wrong with it? And once I had read the book and become familiar with all of the characters, it seemed perfectly fine. In fact, it seemed a lot like the voice-over at the beginning of a movie. Then I read the author’s biography, and discovered that this novel was first written as a play.

Suddenly, it all made sense.

Our protagonist is Kate, and she’s come undone. Her French boyfriend has dumped her:

“When he’d encouraged Kate to follow her heart, he hadn’t meant she should follow it to Paris.”

Meanwhile, upon departure she’s left her position at NYU.  She was studying anthropology, and now she isn’t, and her family doesn’t know what to do about it. Enter Angela, her sister, who moves heaven and Earth in order to get Kate’s life going again; once Kate’s out of the woods, Angela can’t stop maneuvering and controlling. She’s good at being a white knight, and she can’t give it up. We have Vicki and Chloe, her friends from college, and the old boyfriend from France lurking offstage.

The fun commences when Kate gets a job in the admissions department of a small, private secondary school. She’s misrepresented her skill set to get it, but she’s determined to give it a try:

“Kate viewed Hudson Day as an unknown culture that required her exploration.”

It’s time to start interviewing and selecting students, managing interviews with demanding, sometimes aggressive parents. I’ve taught honors students in a public secondary school, and I thought my experience took fortitude; Kate’s experience was similar to my own, but on steroids.

There are hilariously dysfunctional parents, kids whose folks don’t have a clue what they can do and what they can’t, and in the midst of it all, relationships among Kate’s nearest and dearest become unstuck and reconfigured in ways that mirror those Kate works with, and even Kate herself. I can’t tell you anymore, because it would ruin it for you, but this snarky romp is not to be missed. It’s cunning, wickedly bold humor at its finest.