Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

The Flood Girls, by Richard Fifield*****

TheFloodGirlsIf Fannie Flagg worries that she has no heir, she can relax; Richard Fifield is here. The Flood Girls is his brilliant debut, and you have to read it! Fifield will cut out your heart and feed it to you with a rusty spoon, and he’ll make you like it, too. Hell, he’ll even make you laugh through it. I got the DRC free via Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review, and I’m going to read it a second time before I archive it as I am supposed to. This is only the second time I have done so after hundreds of galleys have come my way; that should give you a measure of how impressed I am with this title.

From his arresting first line to the deeply satisfying ending, I was completely bound up in this book, only setting it aside as a reminder to myself to delay gratification and make it last a little longer. In the end my e-reader had 177 notes and marks, and every single one of them was there to highlight outstanding imagery, a passage in which yet another character was developed, a place in which he had shown us something important while saying something else, or a place in the text that was drop-dead funny. I would guess the last of these accounts for 100 of those 177 notes.

Let’s start with the premise: Rachel Flood has returned home to Quinn, Montana after many years away. She is here to make amends. It isn’t easy: “A small town never forgets, or forgives.” It’s a tough town, full of people that have survived dozens of harsh 6 month winters. Its people are abrupt and sometimes rude; they don’t suffer fools here.

Rachel’s sponsor has assured her that she doesn’t have to move back to Quinn to make amends; she isn’t here to do penance, after all. Offer the amends and then, whether or not they are accepted, hit the road! But for several reasons, not all of which Rachel understands herself at first, she chooses to stick around, and it isn’t easy. Ultimately, she is cornered into playing in the outfield of The Flood Girls, the local softball team sponsored by the mother she has wronged. She becomes a friend and mentor to Jake, a quirky twelve year old with a fondness for fine fabrics, wardrobe and design, and an intolerant right-wing Fundamentalist stepfather.

Perhaps the most technically impressive aspect of this work is the way Fifield differentiates a very wide cast of characters. I cannot think of any other novel among the 151 books I read and reviewed over the past year in which there were so many characters that were juggled so deftly. When I put down the book, I did a quick finger count of how many characters I could actually name and identify without looking. I stopped at 21, and I didn’t try long or hard. Every single one of these characters, most of whom are wonderfully eccentric, stood out in my mind, apart from two small groups (the silver miners and the Sinclairs) that are treated as such in the text.

It isn’t only the eccentric characters and the small town setting that makes me think of Flagg’s masterpiece, Fried Green Tomatoes; it is also the message. Fifield wants us to know that intolerance will kill us. It is only by accepting and celebrating one another’s differences and quirks that we become part of the human family. We must learn to help and rely upon each other, because we are all we have. That said, The Flood Girls shares Flagg’s spirit, yet it is not derivative, but wholly original.

You don’t have to like baseball to enjoy it.

This hilarious, engaging new novel is for sale to the public February 2, 2016. Very conservative evangelical Christians won’t enjoy it, and it wasn’t written for that audience anyway. It is highly recommended to everyone else. This book will be talked about, and you’ll want to be in on it from the get-go! Put this one at the top of your list.