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.

To Have And To Hoax, by Martha Waters**-***

Oh well.

Martha Waters spans three genres here: historical romance, rom-com, and satire. I like satire, and the other two, not so much. I am rounding my rating up to three stars, because I stepped out of my comfort zone with this novel, hoping for light entertainment; those that enjoy rom-com books may be more enthusiastic than I. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lady Violet and Lord James found instant chemistry at a grand ball. Almost as instantly, they were married; then they quarreled and have been estranged ever since. Yet even the stupidest and most imperceptive reader will see that they are still crazy for one another. If one is in doubt, turn the page so the author can hit you over the head with it again. Again. And again.

I enjoy smart satire that leaves something to the imagination. This book tries too hard to be funny. I tried reading the DRC, and when I couldn’t get through it, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This made it, if possible, even worse. Overdone prose is made worse by an over-the-top voice actor.

I had been reading too much that was dark and serious, and then the pandemic broke out and I went looking for relief. I found it, but I didn’t find it here.

But again, I have never liked rom-com. If that’s your wheelhouse, you may appreciate this thing more than I do. I pushed through to the forty percent mark; my usual due diligence requires me, if skipping, to then proceed to the eighty percent mark and see if there are joyful surprises that might change my mind. But no.

Fans of the genre may feel differently, but I have to call them as I see them. Not recommended.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

Becky Mandelbaum is the real deal. In 2016 she published a short story collection, Bad Kansas, which I read and loved. ( You can find my review of it here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2017/09/15/bad-kansas-by-becky-mandelbaum/) And so when I found this debut novel on Net Galley, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Big thanks to Net Galley, and to Simon and Schuster. This book will be available to the public August 4, 2020.

Ariel and her mother, Mona have been estranged for six years. But when she finds a news item about her mother’s sanctuary having been torched, Ariel knows it’s time to go home, to see what has been lost and what can be saved.

The story is told from the third person omniscient, and we hear from three characters mostly. We start with Mona, whose stress levels have become nearly unbearable. She’s getting too old to do so much work, and she never has enough money. She has just one employee, working on site primarily for room and board. Perhaps this is part of what possesses her when she leaps in her truck in the dead of night to steal the neighbor’s Make America Great Again sign. She wrestles the great big thing into the bed of her pickup, and by now we can see that she is a tightly wound person whose impulse control is just a tiny fraction of what it should be.

Meanwhile, Ariel is concerned, not only about the fire, the sanctuary, and her mother, but also about her relationship. Her boyfriend, Dex—the third of the characters we hear from most– proposes just as she has begun to fantasize about ending the relationship. As the story progresses, we can see that Ariel is the sort of person that runs from her problems, sometimes literally. She accepts the ring and then says she has to go home for the weekend, and no, he shouldn’t come with her. After all, she’ll be right back. Probably.

Mandelbaum does a brilliant job of building believable, nuanced characters and complicated relationships. Five percent of the way into my galley, my notes say, “This one is going to be a thinker.” And it is, in the best sense of the word. It isn’t a pretentious piece of writing by a long shot, and it isn’t full of florid descriptions or challenging vocabulary. Instead, we have characters that are dealing with thorny personal issues that have no obvious solutions. And my favorite aspect of it is the way the mother-daughter relationship, which is the heart of the novel, is framed. Mona has made a lot of mistakes in parenting Ariel, but she loves her daughter and is a good person. Ariel is still learning how to solve problems herself. There’s a trend in fiction writing right now to draw villainous mothers as the sources of protagonists’ problems. It’s close to becoming a cliché. Mandelbaum has steered clear of this canard and created something much deeper and more interesting. In fact, there are at least half a dozen stereotypes that she has dodged expertly. The fact that she has done this in her debut novel suggests that a great career is ahead of her.

I love the way she ends this story.

Don’t deprive yourself of this glorious novel. Highly recommended.

Firewatching, by Russ Thomas***

Firewatching is the first in the Adam Tyler detective series, and also the first novel written by Russ Thomas. It’s been praised by Lee Child, and published by Putnam Penguin, an auspicious sign. Thanks go to the publisher and Net Galley for the review copy.

All of the right elements are here for a rip roaringly great tale, but the execution fell short. When I found myself drifting off while reading the digital review copy, I went to Seattle Bibliocommons and checked out the audio book. Sadly, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to all of it, either. I kept with it to the 45 percent mark; skipped to 75 percent in hopes there would be something tantalizing that would reel me back in; and when that didn’t work out, I listened to snippets from there to the end.

Here’s what I like. Conceptually, it sounds promising. Tales of crazed arsonists are generally irresistible, and there haven’t been a lot of them published lately. Fiction writing is as prone to fad and whim as is anything else, as any reviewer can see. This story steers clear of dead, sick, or disabled siblings; Paris; alternate past and present narratives, and struggling alcoholic detectives. Detective Tyler resists his boss’s impulse toward stereotypes. There are two elderly women side characters, one of whom struggles with dementia, and Tyler is told that old women in small towns always love gossip; he refers to them often as “the old dears.” I know I am not the only Boomer that wants to smack that obnoxious character, and so Tyler endears himself to me by not going there. And actually, I like the two older women in this story a great deal. I also like the brief—maybe too brief—passages where we are inside the head of the firebug.

But alas, the story’s protagonist isn’t the arsonist, and it isn’t either of the elderly women. It’s Tyler, and Tyler just bores the snot out of me. I want him to just do something. I don’t need to know what he is wearing, what he is thinking, what he is feeling, wearing, feeling some more, thinking….

During my teaching career, I recall one impatient girl that was sent home for a few days because of her tendency to walk up to a teacher that was standing in her way—tutoring, or speaking to another student—and barking at him, “MOVE!” And I found myself channeling this student as I read and/or listened to this story. I don’t care about your damn wardrobe, Tyler, just move! Move it! Do something, for the love of…

Fine. Whatever.

A possible silver lining occurs to me, and that is that with this first in a series, all of the personal details of wardrobe and emotion may be emphasized in order to introduce the protagonist, and perhaps with the second in the series, the pace will pick up and we’ll be on our way. I surely hope so.

But for now, I can only write about what I know, and I know it would be wrong of me to urge you to purchase this book at full jacket price. If you’re going to read it, get it cheap or free, because most of the joy I see here is in potential, and future maybe-joy makes a thin soup indeed.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera*****

Deb Spera is a force; small wonder that Call Your Daughter Home is the book that bloggers have been talking about. This barn burner of a debut goes on sale today.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Harlequin for the review copy.  It curled its fingers around me on page one, and by page ten I knew it wouldn’t let me go till it was done with me. It ended as powerfully as it began.

The year is 1924. Gertrude Pardee lives with her four little girls in a shack in the swamp in Third World conditions; they are nearly feral. A storm is coming, but Gert has a job to do. Her brutal ass hat of a husband lies dead in the swamp, dispatched by the bullet she blasted into his brainpan. As the storm bears down, she peels off her only dress and strides naked into the muck to deal with his corpse:

“Alligators feed once a week, and sometimes, if the prey is big enough, they don’t need to eat for almost a year. But I don’t know how long it takes a gator to eat big prey. Daddy never said nothing ‘bout that and I never asked.”

Our other two main characters are Retta, the first free woman in her family, and Annie, Retta’s employer. Retta cares for Mary, Gert’s youngest, when Gert is too sick and injured from the broken face she sustained the last time Alvin beat her; Retta’s husband Odell and her neighbors all tell her that it’s trouble to bring a white child into Shake Rag. “Don’t get messed up with that white family. No good can come of it,” and she knows it’s true. What if the girl dies? But Gert coaxed her into it, telling her it would be the Christian thing to do, and Retta is moved by this sick, helpless five year old. She assures everyone it’s just for three days.

Miss Annie is a Caucasian small businesswoman and wife of a farmer, yet she has trouble of her own; there’s some dark family baggage she’s been avoiding for a good, long while. As the storm bears down, evidence comes to light and she is forced to see it. Not one of us would want to be Miss Annie; believe it.

Spera weaves a captivating tale, and we see the world from the disparate points of view of all three women, each of them told alternately in a first person narrative, and we’re also told how they see each other. The setting is dead accurate, brooding and thick with dread, and it scaffolds the development of each character more capably than anything I have read recently.

It is Retta that tells us that as we give birth, we must call out to our child so that “whichever soul is at the gate will come through.” She called out to her girl as she birthed her, but now she is gone. In fact, each of these three women has lost a daughter, and this provides the central theme of the story.

Feminists and those that love Southern fiction have to get this book and read it. There’s nothing like it. Do it.

Best Debut Fiction 2018

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                                                                                           Honorable Mention:

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens*****

wherethecrawdadsKya Clark lives with her family in a shack deep in a North Carolina marsh.  The year is 1969. They are miserably poor, but Kya’s mother tells her it will be alright, as long as the women of the family stick together. But then one day, she leaves. Older brother Jodie tells Kya that Ma will be back, because it isn’t in a mother to leave her children, but Kya isn’t so sure. Ma is wearing her alligator heels, and she doesn’t turn midway and wave like she always has. And one by one, everyone in her family leaves, and they don’t return. Kya is not even old enough to enter first grade, and she is alone.

This haunting novel is the best surprise of the summer, and it’s for sale today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the review copy.

Owens is a wildlife scientist of some renown; here she changes lanes with her debut novel. She uses her knowledge base to create an evocative setting that is real and immediate, but she never adds scientific information at the expense of pacing. Instead, the setting is used to reinforce Kya’s character; this is unusual in a researcher turning toward fiction writing. Professors and other specialists tend to shoehorn in every fact that they think the reader ought to know regardless of what it does to the flow of the narrative. Instead, Owens blends setting and character seamlessly, spooling Kya’s life before us with the patience and discipline of the finest master storyteller.

Kya barely survives, digging mussels to eat and selling them at a waterside convenience store owned by an African-American entrepreneur known as Jumpin’.  Little by little, Jumpin’ comes to realize exactly how dire this child’s situation is, and he and his “good sized” wife, Mabel, contrive to provide her with a few of life’s necessities without frightening her or hurting her pride. I would have preferred to see these resonant characters voiced without the written dialect, but there are no stereotypes in this book.

Tate is an older boy that has been a family friend since she was tiny, but she doesn’t remember him, and thinks she is meeting him for the first time after he begins leaving her beautiful bird feathers on a stump in the swamp. It is he that teaches Kya to read, and he becomes her first love.

The narrative shifts between Kya’s life and an investigation of a murder. Chase Andrews, a local football hero and the son of a local bigwig, is found dead at the base of a nearby water tower. Kya, who is poorly groomed, impoverished, and has no family to protect her becomes the focus of the investigation. Townspeople have long considered her to be “swamp trash,” and this discrimination is age old; Kya can remember her mother telling her that she must never run when she goes into town, because if she does someone will say that she stole something.

One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that the mystery of Chase’s death never eclipses the main story. The book isn’t about Chase or his demise; it’s about Kya in the marsh, and as she becomes an official suspect, we only want what is best for her.

I read several stories at a time, now that I am retired, but this is the one that occupied my thoughts when I was doing other things. I kept thinking about that poor little girl out there. I can almost always put a book down; it’s what I do, after all. This one is exceptional.

Those that love excellent literary fiction; Southern fiction; or romance need to get this book and read it, even If you have to pay full jacket price.

 

The Lido, by Libby Page***-****

thelido3.5 stars rounded up. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for inviting me to read and review this charming debut. This book is for sale now.

Kate is a journalist, painfully shy, anxious, and lonely. Rosemary is an elderly widow. When the Lido—which I learned is an open air swimming pool—in Brixton is slated to close, Rosemary is up in arms. She isn’t usually an activist, but she has swum in this pool her entire life, and many of the most memorable events she has experienced took place there. She loves it still, and she cannot abide the fact that the lido is being sold to private developers who want to put up “swish new high rises.” Rumor has it that it won’t even remain a swimming pool; they may pave it over and put in tennis courts. Rich folks love tennis.

Kate smells a story, and she wants to interview Rosemary. Rosemary makes a counteroffer: she’ll do the interview only after Kate has swum at the Lido.

For Kate, this is traumatic. She isn’t crazy about her own body, and the thought of disrobing in front of others in a locker room nearly undoes her. But she swims, and she gets her interview. Over the course of the fight to save the lido, which Kate joins, she and Rosemary become good friends, and Kate’s own life blossoms. At the same time, there’s a bit of history here as we wander back in time with Rosemary to the war years when she met her husband, George.

The text has a soothing quality that you don’t see much of anymore. It’s not a page turner, and gets a bit slow in places, but sometimes a more sedate pace is what’s needed. I found it good bedtime reading, because it helped me unwind. My feminist heart is cheered by a story in which both main characters are female, and neither of them fits the tiny-but-fierce model that so many writers seem to favor. Kate is awkward. Rosemary is a fat old granny. Oh hell yes. Both are white women; there is a side character named Ahmed, but those looking for a truly diverse bit of fiction will have to look elsewhere.

Some readers are disturbed by blue language and sex scenes. Though the story isn’t entirely devoid of these, there’s very little of it.  The text is accessible to anyone with a high school education.

There are moments where the sweetness goes over the top. I gagged when the Brownie troop joined the protest to save the pool, and I wondered how Rosemary could have dozens of sweet memories of George and not even a single resentful or ambiguous one. But these are relatively small concerns.

For those looking for a feel good story, this book is recommended.