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.

Swan Peak, by James Lee Burke *****

Swan PeakThis series began decades ago, when Dave Robicheaux and his best friend and cop partner, Cletus Purcel, were in their prime. Now they are much older, aging along with their creator, the legendary James Lee Burke. Robicheaux is happily married to Molly, a strong, loving woman who can deal with the harsh twists and turns that Dave’s life metes out. Clete continues to be drawn toward women with “disaster, stay away” stamped on their foreheads. It’s nice to know there are some things the reader can depend upon.
Just as the author divides his time between Montana and New Iberia, Louisiana, so does Dave, and this installation is set in Montana. Dave, Molly and Clete are on vacation, staying with friends, but Clete drives headlong into trouble, for once not of his own making, almost immediately. The local cops aren’t entirely sympathetic, nor are the Feds, all of whom know that he has a suspicious history in the area; he may be connected to a flaming plane that took down a nasty mobster and some of his entourage, a crash that may not have been accidental. Nobody has ever proven anything, but the presumption of innocence doesn’t apply to the attitudes that people take. It’s unfortunate, since Clete will need all the help he can get in this one:

 
Clete Purcel had given up on sleep, at least since he had been sapped with a blackjack,
wrist-cuffed to the base of a pine tree, and forced to hear a machine dig his grave out
of a hillside. He kept his nightlight on and his piece under his pillow and slept in fitful
increments. The trick was not to set the bar too high. If you thought of sleep in terms
of minutes rather than hours, you could always keep ahead of the game.

 
Yes, friends, there is trouble to spare on this vacation-from-hell, the bevy of frustrated wanna-be artists, corrupt wealthy baddies, and women with miserable pasts and questionable futures to whom Cletus is invariably drawn, moth to candle flame, that we have come to expect from a colorful, adrenaline packed story like the ones Burke spins when he writes this series.
But not all is rotten and wrong. Dave and Molly are fonder and more loving than ever as they grow older together. The protagonist explains that

 
There are occasions in this world when you’re allowed to step inside a sonnet,
when clocks stop, and you don’t worry about time’s winged chariot and hands
that beckon to you from the shadows.

 
Is the man with the half-melted face someone associated with Sally Dio? Is he Dio himself? Or is he merely a disabled man with a deeply flawed character?
Who killed those teenagers?
To find out, you need to get a copy of this wonderful book, but if you haven’t read the rest of the series, I recommend reading them in sequence. Because nobody writes better than Burke.