The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood*****

People talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I had a pair of imaginary bill collectors, so no matter which way I turned, there was somebody to remind me I needed money. That’s how I ended up on a train at four o’clock in the morning with my nephew and a hundred pounds of weed.

Bryn Greenwood met acclaim with All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, which I also read and reviewed, and I liked it a lot, but The Reckless Oath We Made is special, possibly the best novel we’ll see in 2019. The charm of the narrative voice is just as strong as the last if not more so, but there’s greater character development. It’s quirky and groundbreaking, and I will love this story until the day I die. My thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the review copy. You can buy it now.

Zhorzha—you can call her Zee—is in a state of perpetual crisis. Her father is in prison for robbery, and her mother has fallen apart, become a hoarder, massively obese, and agoraphobic to boot. At age 12, Zee was forced to leave home, and has been sofa cruising ever since. Recently she’s been staying with her sister LaReigne, but now LaReigne has been kidnapped. Zee and her nephew Marcus are stranded with nobody left to call for a ride; then her stalker steps forward and offers them a lift, and she takes it.

It’s the beginning of something beautiful.

Gentry has been following Zee for years; he saw her at physical therapy when she was recovering from a serious accident, and the voices in his head told him that he must be her champion. He doesn’t harass her, but he is always there. When all hell breaks loose, Gentry transports her to her mother’s house, but it’s even worse there. She is humiliated to have him—or anyone—see what kind of squalor her mother has chosen, but Gentry  sees her mother entirely differently, and since his narrative is peppered alternately with Zee’s and occasional glimpses of side characters’ perspectives, he tells us:

There, in the inner chamber, reclined upon a throne of red leather that scarce contained her serpentine hugeness, was the dragon Lady Zhorzha called Mother. My lady was blessed with a great mane of fire that ne comb ne blade might tame. Mayhap in the dragon’s youth, she had worn such a mantle, but in her age, her hairs weren grayed.

Fearless, Marcus approached the throne and flung himself upon the lady dragon. For a time, there was kissing and lamenting, for they weren greatly distressed with the fate of my lady’s sister…I would go upon my knee, but the dragon’s hoard was too close upon her.

At one point someone asks Zee whether she talks like Gentry too, and she replies, “Honestly, I don’t always understand what he says. I got a C in English in high school, and we never got to Shakespeare. I wasn’t in the advanced class.”

In fact, the juxtaposition of Gentry’s old world speech and Zee’s contemporary, frank responses that keep the story hopping. I laughed out loud several times when we moved from his speech to hers, for example:

Lady Zhorzha! Art’ou well?

Oh, thank fuck, Gentry. Yes. We’re okay.

But as much as I love Gentry, I love Zee harder. Zee is utterly believable, and she is unlike any other character I have read anywhere. She explains, when she’s asked whether she goes hunting with Gentry, that she wouldn’t know how; she comes from generations of “citified white trash whose main food-related struggle has to do with “opening dented cans of off-brand Spam from the food bank.”  

Zee is a large woman, and I am so heartily tired of tiny-firecracker female protagonists that I am cheered tremendously.  She’s nearly six feet tall, and her uncle says she is “Built like she could hunt bear with a stick.” When she is leaving the emergency room after a scare involving her mother, a staff member advises Zee to lose weight herself. One of Gentry’s friends notes that “Honestly, if she dropped fifty or sixty pounds, she would be pretty hot.”

And the thing I appreciate the most about this is that her weight not our central problem. It isn’t a problem at all. Zee is a romantic heroine who is fat, but this is an incidental part of her character. The problem is the kidnapping, and it’s complicated by all of the other challenges faced by poor people, challenges that Zee has to face without much of a tool kit; but between the kidnapping and the point when LaReigne is found, other life-changing events take place, and the Zhorzha we see at the story’s end is both wiser and happier than she is at the outset.

Greenwood doesn’t just avoid stereotypes in recounting Zee’s plight; she knocks the knees from beneath them and gives us breathing human beings and real world plot points instead, and she does it without being obvious about it. This is no manifesto; it’s more like a magnificent modern-day fairytale.

Take Gentry again, for example. Gentry is autistic, but he is not friendless, and he has some mad skills that take bullies unawares. Also?  Gentry is adopted. He is white; his adoptive mother is Black. Again, this is incidental to the story, but readers cannot miss it; there’s a very brief spot that brings it front and center, and I cheer when I see it.

Those that read my reviews know that I seldom gush, but this story is perfect in so many ways that I cannot help myself. By this time next year, I will have read roughly 140 more books, but I will still remember Zee, and I will still remember Gentry. This is among the sweetest stories of  2019, a new favorite.

I highly recommend this book to everyone that has the literacy skills and stamina to brave Gentry’s prose. Get it at full price or discounted, from the library or stolen. You won’t be sorry.

Heavy on the Dead, by G.M. Ford*****

Leo Waterman is one of my favorite detectives, but the opening of this twelfth entry finds him trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. In Soul Survivor, which precedes this one, Leo and his bodyguard, Gabe more or less destroyed a white supremacists’ compound in Idaho, and now they are both wanted men. They’ve traveled as far south as they can from their mossy, misty Seattle homeland without leaving the country, but even in Southern California, trouble follows them.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, and of course to author G.M. Ford, whose annual entries in this entertaining series have become one of the best parts of summer.

It’s a tricky thing, braiding dark social issues with humor, and Ford does it expertly. At the outset, Leo and Gabe find the body of a dead child on the beach. They are trying not to be noticed, but they can’t just leave him there. As the story progresses, cop Carolyn Saunders quietly encourages Leo to dig further into the incident, because the official story smells fishy; she can’t do it without risking her job, but Leo is retired, and as long as he can stay out of view of his would-be assassins, he can pretty much do as he likes. When the story concludes, the role of Saunders is left open. She may be back, or she may not. Her role here is to advocate that Leo stand on the side of justice but within sane limits; this is a role previously occupied by Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca. The real fun is had when Leo and Gabe team up, since neither one of them gives a single shit about their social standing or, when it comes down to it, their own personal safety.

As far as I know, the character of Gabe, a sidekick with loyalty, heart, and the tenacity of a pit bull, is the first gender-fluid character to show up regularly (okay, twice so far) in a long-running series. I love this character.

A longstanding hallmark of the Waterman series is the large yet sometimes invisible homeless population. This was true in 1995 when Ford published Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca, and that was before homelessness burgeoned and became a national issue. As far as I know, Ford is the first to feature homeless people in every book of the series; although his characters are often quirky and sometimes bizarre, they are ultimately human beings possessed of worth and dignity. I’ve believed every one of them, and so it’s no surprise that I believe the man with the barcode tattooed on his forehead, the one that bites Leo when he collides with him while running from cops. I like how this thread of the story resolves, too.

As the plot moves forward, we have assassins chasing the assassin that is chasing Leo, and it is simultaneously suspenseful and hilarious. This is important, because the crimes that are uncovered in pursuit of the truth about the dead child on the beach are dark indeed. In less skilled hands, the issue of human trafficking could well trip my ick-switch, that boundary line each of us possesses where the sordid but compelling central focus of a detective story suddenly becomes too sickening to be fun anymore; but the author’s less-is-more instinct is on point, and so once we touch that hot stovetop, we withdraw and move on to other things, circling back—briefly again—at its conclusion.

Anyone that reads the genre unceasingly across decades develops a mental list of overworked character and plot devices that we never care to see again; at the same time, a badass writer can take one of those elements and make it seem brand new and shiny. For me, the place where so many protagonists arrive, the one where they are knocked out, or drugged, or simply overpowered and tossed into the back of a truck (or van, or car) is one that can make me close a book. Nope; done.  But in this instance, the truck abduction is a critical component, and to try to carry off the climax and conclusion in any other way would be artificial and most likely hamper the pace. But to aspiring writers: Ford is an experienced professional; don’t try this in your book.

This book will be for sale July 23, 2019, and earlier entries in the series are selling digitally for a buck each. Get your plastic out now; you can thank me later. Highly recommended.

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 Half-Life of Remorse, by Grant Jarrett*****

TheHalfLifeofRemorseHere is a story for our time. It’s fresh, moving, fall-down-laughing funny in places, and has the best character development I’ve seen lately. I was growing cranky from having to pan other people’s bad books, and I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Sparkpress almost as an afterthought; then it nearly knocked me off my feet with its voice and sheer creative power. It was published last week, and you should get it, read it, and then make other people do the same thing. It’s that strong.

The format is a simple one, and because there’s not a lot of plot or setting, everything boils down to the inner monologues of the three characters here. We start and conclude with a brief narrative in the third person omniscient, and in between we have the staggered monologues of two homeless men and a professional single woman confined to a wheelchair. Sam has blocked out a traumatic past, likely suffering from PTSD and who knows what else. His monologue is a literary sounding one, and indeed, he was once an academic. Now he calls himself a wizard, and at times, we nearly believe him.

The other homeless man calls himself Chick. He is not a young man either, and is running from his own misdeeds, and Sam tells us that Chick “…is a testament to life’s unrelenting desperation to continue.” Chick is not literate, but he manages to communicate brilliantly in his own tumbledown, roughshod, clumsy manner. Every now and then he tries to use a slightly larger vocabulary than he possesses, and ends up referring to “the persecuting attorney” and not wanting to “cast inspersions” upon the characters of others. Though he is thoroughly profane and limited grammatically, in his own way Chick is as eloquent as Sam.

The third character, a less developed but still important one, is Claire. Claire lost the use of her legs when her family was invaded by criminals during her childhood. Both Sam and Chick were there, but at the time, they did not know each other.

Jarrett writes in a way that is wholly original, and the juxtaposition of Sam’s monologue with Chick’s is startling and very funny. Somehow this author manages to slam tragedy and humor right up against one another without diminishing either. Most importantly, he is able to portray both Sam and Chick as men that still have purpose and a personal code of honor despite the horrors they have experienced and the bad choices they have made. Jarrett’s prose is the sort that grabs me by the hair and doesn’t release me until the story is finished. At one point, I found myself lightheaded because I had forgotten to breathe.

This novel is highly recommended to everyone that loves strong fiction.