The Whole Town’s Talking, by Fannie Flagg*****

 “Up on the hill, Lucille Beemer said, ‘Good morning, everybody.’

“Two hundred and three people just waking up answered, ‘Morning’.”

thewholetownstalking Fannie Flagg is legendary, and rightly so. In fact, at one point in my reading of this DRC, I reflected that someone with her power to move people has power indeed; how fortunate that she uses her gift to benefit the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I am ready to read something that provides a level of reassurance that all has not gone sour in this world, and that everything passes, sooner or later.  I was  fortunate to read this free and in advance thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it’s one of the very few books for which I’d have paid full freight if it came down to it. It hits the shelves November 29 and is available for pre-order right now.

Our story begins with the first residents of what will become Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom arrives from Sweden, and after months of searching, finds the perfect place for his dairy farm in a pleasant spot in Missouri. The year is 1889. He puts up a house, buys some cows, and then, as a founding father, he decides he will donate a piece of land, because every town needs one thing for sure…a cemetery.

“Lordor guessed that preparing a place to spend eternity and trying to figure out how many places to set aside for himself was what made him think about his future.”

I went back and reread that sentence a couple of times; it begins our second chapter. Oh my but Flagg is droll. If one were to read this gem with half a mind on other things, nuggets like this might be missed.

The years go on, and with brief, colorful chapters, Flagg develops the town, introducing new residents that move in or are born here, and at first it seems as if the story is cotton candy, all fluff and sugar. But just as the impression is formed, it is vanquished, because our author is just warming up. Moments that are poignant, bittersweet, and darkly funny are sprinkled in lightly as we start, because after all, we are new to Elmwood Springs.

But the longer we stay there, the more intimately we become acquainted with its denizens and their peccadilloes, and then the more emotional aspects of the story unfold, almost as they might within your own large family or tightly knit community. Flagg convinces me that these people are my people, and her characters are so brilliantly developed, so utterly convincing that even when one of them does something surprising, I understand how that has come to pass.  And every time I think I see where she is headed with one thread or another, she surprises me.

About a fourth of the way in, someone dies and we find them interred, of course, at Still Meadows. But there’s an engaging twist to this aspect of Flagg’s story: the first person to pass wakes up when someone new arrives and greets them. They may be six feet under, but they can see what’s happening at the cemetery, along with everything that can be seen from the cemetery, just fine. And so the discussions that took place in life continue after death, and the dead look on avidly and wait for word of the loved ones they left behind.

As the story develops and characters’ lives are more deeply explored—always remaining more light than dark, and without a single word anywhere that isn’t needed—it occurrs to me that she just may have done it again.

Some people like to take gadgets apart to see what makes them work; I enjoy doing that with literature. And so I find myself looking back at my highlights and notes, looking for what, apart from a dry, accurate wit, makes this writer’s work so special. Some of it is an alchemy whose elements can never be described perfectly, taking ordinary Americans and spinning them into gold. But part of it is undoubtedly her deep respect for working people, and her readiness to see redeemable qualities in characters that upon first glance seem abrasive and unlovable:

“Ida had always been different. At school, when all the kids used to play church and one would be the preacher, another the preacher’s wife, a deacon…Ida said she wanted to be God, because she was the only one who knew how to do it.”

But later, once she was grown, “Someone else remarked, ‘By God, if Ida had been a man, she would have made general by now.”

She also acknowledges that once in awhile, someone comes along that no matter what heroic effort is made on their behalf, will never do anything good for anyone. Hey, it happens.

The comments that are made by various characters reflect both the character’s outlook and usually, the prevailing attitude of the time period as she rolls the town steadily forward to 2016.

And this leads to one cautionary note: as with all of Flagg’s work, it is essential to read the chapter and section headings, which provide context. This reviewer once taught a group of teenage honors students that were unable to make heads nor tails of Fried Green Tomatoes, and I discovered it was because they weren’t reading the chapter headings, and so they didn’t know what the time period was or whose point of view they were reading. Don’t let that happen to you!

Finally, I want to thank the author for the kindly manner in which she draws teachers.  Fannie Flagg, every teacher I know that talks about books, loves your work. We need the encouragement sometimes, and your friendly regard means a great deal.

Highly recommended to everyone.

Storme Warning, by WL Ripley****

stormewarningStorme Warning is the fourth and thus far final installment in a terrific series. I have read three, and will read the fourth if I can find it. The snappy patter and nonstop action and suspense make it hard to put down once you’ve begun. I rate it 4.49 stars, and thank Brash Books Priority Readers Circle for providing me with this DRC in exchange for an honest review. The book is available for purchase right now.

Wyatt Storme is retired from football. He divides his time between his cabin in Missouri and another cabin in Colorado; this story takes place in Missouri. He owns a considerable piece of land because after having the press follow him hither and yon for the duration of his NFL career, he craves simplicity and solitude. “Reclusive”, as his best friend Chick explains to an outsider.

Because all of a sudden, Wyatt’s land is chock full of outsiders. Hollywood director Geoffrey Salinger wants to shoot his hot new movie on location; his star has received death threats, and Chick has been tapped as bodyguard. Wyatt doesn’t like it much, but Chick wants the work, so he agrees to tolerate the intrusion, but he sets terms in a way that provide him with an unusual amount of control over industry hotshots that aren’t accustomed to leaving the driver’s seat. Combine this scenario with the smart, snappy patter between Wyatt and Chick; throw some 70’s song lyrics into the narrative as if they are merely part of the story; add some mobsters from out of town; and you have a really fun, fast-paced story.

The final .51 star is denied because of the way the author deals with race. He means well to be sure. But racist terms that are sprinkled in an almost nonstop stream throughout the book are going to make this a prohibitively painful book for most African-American readers. It’s true that Ripley uses the “n” word and other slurs (against other races also, but mostly Black folk) to determine who is a bad guy, but when one is close enough to the heat those terms create, all the fun stops as soon as the word appears. It’s like finding a rattlesnake in the cookie jar; you’re having a good time, expecting good things to continue happening, and then, bam, there it is.

Depending on who you are, it’s enough to take your breath away.

To be sure, I don’t know what it is like to be a person of color; I am not one. But for many years I have been the only Caucasian person in my house, with others here being either Asian, Black, or mixed, and I do know what it is to be the wife and mother of people that don’t enjoy white privilege. The “n” word and others like it are serious, serious things. And insult is added to injury by having the African-American character unable to enter a scene without race issues being the first to fall from his lips. Most Black people don’t really want to engage white people in discussions of race unless it’s in a formal political setting, and even then, it’s more comfortable to talk to another person of color, or a room that is mostly people of color. But LeBeau is clearly in this story for no purpose other than to be the Black character. He isn’t developed, and what is worse, he isn’t capable of much that is positive. As with the Black girl in the brief restaurant scene, a white guy has to come to the rescue. To depict all characters of color as victims and set them up to be saved every stinking time by Caucasian characters is inexcusable. (LeBeau tries to carry off a rescue once, but it doesn’t work out, and Chick emerges the hero once more.)

Should the writer continue the series, I recommend that he simply use white folks, if that’s his comfort zone, or include multiple people of color and develop them. Give them characteristics beyond coming into the room and making readers aware they aren’t white. And don’t diminish them by making them unable to stand up for themselves or others. I further recommend not using that word, ever again. It’s cheap and easy, but it costs some readers dearly. I would not give this book to my son to read. The pain would outweigh the enjoyment; in fact, I guarantee he wouldn’t finish it. There are more subtle yet unmistakable ways to demonstrate that a character is racist, if that is a key goal. There are other ways just to show that a character is a bad guy, too.

Hollywood and television have learned how to create actual characters of color, as opposed to casting someone to “be the Black guy”. Ripley has skill enough to do the same.

I’ve given the downside of this novel more space than the 90 percent that I enjoyed, but I have done so because no other reviewer I’ve seen so far has addressed it, and someone has to do it.

With the single clear caveat provided here, this fast-paced, mostly-funny detective story is recommended .

Hail Storme, by W.L. Ripley**-***

HailStormeIn 2015, I reviewed Storme Front, the second of four books in the Wyatt Storme series. I loved it and rated it 5 stars. Given the opportunity to read and review this first in the series, thanks to Brash Books Priority Reviewers Circle, I didn’t have to think twice. Thank you to Brash for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this review.

In this first installment, Storme, a retired football hero and Vietnam veteran, goes bow hunting for deer in Missouri and runs into trouble. Tracking deer, he literally walks into a field of marijuana; before he can decide what if anything to do about it, a snarling Doberman charges him, and he has to kill it. From there, the action unspools, taking him into town and leading the reader to a series of conversations and confrontations Storme has with the local law, the local goons, and of course, women.

The local law can’t quite decide what to make of him:
“’You a wiseass, Storme?’ McKinley asked.
“I shrugged. ‘It’s a gift.’”

Of particular interest is Willie Boy Roberts, a local businessman that has full time body guards, here in this tiny town. So right away, we know there’s trouble a-brewing that extends far beyond a simple field o’ weed.

Storme also meets Chick Easton, who will become his wisecracking, crime-fighting partner continuing on into the series. Easton has been a green beret, has killed people for the CIA, and is also a Vietnam vet. He has considerable regret about the life he has led, but he’s a great guy to have in your corner. He also provides the perfect counterpart for all of the genuinely funny snappy patter in the book.

I also genuinely appreciated, as I did with the second Storme book, having a protagonist that drinks coffee rather than whiskey or beer, but doesn’t constantly agonize over his alcoholism. It seems like two out of three works of fiction these days feature alcoholic protagonists or important secondary characters, and I have had my fill. Just pour the coffee and shut up already! A welcome change.

This first novel started out a little bit uneven, but hit its stride well before the halfway mark. I really thought it would be a four star read till I got to the last ten percent. There, it gets ugly. There’s a steady stream of anti-gay venom. Easton discusses a suspect with Storme, and he deliberately lisps—gee, I’m not laughing—and does the whole limp-wristed thing when he speaks of the character’s possible motivation. I won’t say more here lest I spoil a (small) part of the whole who-dunnit, but there is so much ugliness toward gay men, not just the offensive jokes, but some plot moves that left me feeling as if I’d eaten spoiled food, packed into this last portion of the book that it’s impossible to disregard it and move on.

I checked the copyright date, longing for something that would permit me to give this otherwise really good story the four stars it deserved up to then. It was originally published in the 90’s. No, no, no. Not okay.

Because of this factor, I rate this novel 2.5 stars and round it up with a fair amount of ambivalence.

The writer makes a point, subtle yet distinct, that Storme is a Christian. Fine with me. But if the anti-gay aspect of this novel is tied to dearly held principles Ripley possesses, I can’t become a constant reader. If it was simply a failure of the writer to update his work to reflect a more widely held social view—and here I am thinking of the occasional novel that gets written, sits on someone’s desk for several years, and then sees publication much later—then he and Brash might want to have a conversation about editing. Don’t get me wrong; I support the First Amendment right to express one’s ideas freely. But when those ideas brim over into hate speech and homophobia, I also can’t give a positive review, or consider myself a potential customer of the work presented me.

If you are homophobic and love mysteries, this one is your book, and it’s available for purchase now. Otherwise, consider moving on to Storme Front. You don’t have to have read the first in the series to enjoy the second.

Am I game to read #3 and #4, knowing that #2 is free of these challenging issues? If I can get the DRC’s for them, I’ll dive right in. Everyone is entitled to make a mistake early in their career. But right now, I wouldn’t lay my money down