The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker*****

Our story is set in the imaginary town of Santa Lora, California, a college town in the hills of Southern California. It’s sunny, green, and beautiful; parents feel safe bringing their children here…until one by one, they fall sick. No one can identify the illness; it’s “a strange kind of slumber, a mysterious, persistent sleep.” 

I read this book free and early in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Random House; this title will be available to the public tomorrow, January 15, 2019. 

Kara is the first, and roommate Mei, who is shy and hasn’t made friends yet with Kara or anyone else, is shuffled from her original dorm room to another. Then other students fall sick, and those in charge can’t decide what to do, so they do what administrators do best: they craft rules that change often and invent multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape. There’s a quarantine imposed. Parents aren’t allowed in; students aren’t allowed to leave. But they do it anyway. These are college kids. You can’t really tell them what to do, and even under guard, some are ingenious enough to escape.

Under guard! Now the parents are going nuts. Lawyers are called; who wouldn’t?

Meanwhile the illness spreads into the town anyway, because the college employs instructors, cleaning staff, and other adults that don’t live in dormitories. At first it’s kept quiet, since the trustees don’t want negative press getting out about their fine institution of learning, but of course eventually word gets out anyway. The kids have phones, after all. 

It doesn’t take much time for all hell to break loose. 

Walker is a gifted writer, and the story sucked me in and didn’t let me go till it was over. Conceptually it isn’t all that remarkable, but there are two standout features here that elevate it and make it a standout. The first is the prose style, lyrical and accessible, that makes it read like a truly creepy bedtime story for grownups. Some of it is created by short sentences that use repetition expertly, and the rest is probably just plain magic. 

But the main thing that makes me love this book is the dead accurate character development. Those that read my reviews know that nothing makes me crankier than a novelist that uses child characters that don’t act like children, or that don’t act the age they’re assigned. Here, the reverse is true. Every single character, from pre-teenage Sara and younger, mid-elementary age Libby; to the late teen and young adult college students; to the young professors with the newborn; to the older resident with a partner in assisted living are written in age appropriate thought and deed. I confess I was surprised to see how young this author is, because I could swear she had personally experienced each of these age groups. 

All eight characters that we follow are so well developed that I feel I’d know them on the street, and I care about what becomes of them. The impulsive, judgmental, occasionally reckless yet heroic Matthew, who steals Mei’s heart and then crushes it is the sort of kid I have taught in years gone by, and for that matter, so is Mei. And oh how my heart aches for Sara and Libby, whose father’s conspiracy-oriented paranoia is difficult to separate from his genius. I’ve known this guy too; when he speaks, you never know how to tease apart the brilliant parts from the crazy. With their mother dead, Sara and Libby have been sworn to silence about any number of things and told never to trust outsiders. Their home is in disrepair, and he tells them that if others can see inside, social workers will cart them away and they will never see him or each other again. And so when he falls asleep and they cannot wake him, they have a real dilemma. I want to dive into the book and carry those girls away—together—myself. 

And then I remember—oh yeah, they’re fictional. 

Other compelling characters are Catherine, the psychologist called in as a consultant and then not permitted to go home to her toddler when the quarantine is imposed; Ben and Annie, who try to protect their newborn; and Nathaniel, whose partner, Henry, is in assisted living. And though I ache for all of these characters, there are moments when humor is salted in, and so it remains a fun read. I thought the ending was perfect. 

There’s a lot more I can say, but I can’t say it like Walker does. This is a fast read and the ultimate in escapist fiction. I highly recommend it. 

Best Novels of 2018

If I had prize money to bestow, I would divide it between the authors of these two matchless works of fiction, which in my eyes are the best of 2018. Interestingly, both feature strong women as main characters, and both are Southern fiction. If you haven’t read them yet, do it now.


Best Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.

 

Going to the Mountain, by Ndaba Mandela*****

GoingtotheMountainNelson Mandela’s hundredth birthday approaches. His grandson Ndaba, whom Mandela raised following his release from prison, talks about growing up with the titan that led the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. He reflects on Xhosa culture and the role that it played in the struggle and in his own development, and it is within this framework that he talks about his grandfather, and about the future of his people.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early.

Ndaba spent his early years moving between his parents’ households. His mother struggled with alcoholism and other disorders; his father was ill, and would later die from AIDS. He tells of the surreal juxtaposition of the slum that had been his entire experience with his grandfather’s house, where he had his own room, food that was healthy and prepared for him, clothing, and even a video game system; it was just about everything a child could ask for, but it came at the price of separation from his mother, and he rebelled and acted out in response. As a man with a wider view of the past, he recognizes that this was by far the best outcome, but for many years he resisted, yet was safe because of his grandfather’s stable influence and wisdom.

He speaks of having come to Disney World as a youngster, where he was engaged in conversation with a friendly American, who asked him, as they stood in line for a ride, how big the lions are in Africa. Ndaba, of course, grew up in an urban environment and had no more seen a lion wandering around than the questioner had. He came to realize that these are the stereotypes that the Western world has for Africa: lions in rural areas, and crime in the cities. Dangerous animals; dangerous people.  He suggests that the U.S.A.  improve its own police forces before presuming to talk to South Africans about theirs.

He has a point.

The entire memoir is told using Xhosa folk tales as allegory, and the result is glorious and deeply moving. Although I seldom become teary while reading, a good hard lump formed in my throat when he spoke of taking his grandfather on his final journey to Capetown.

Highly recommended to everyone, whether you know the history of the South African Revolution or are new to it.

Smoke City, by Keith Rosson*****

SmokeCityNerds, geeks, and bibliophiles be ready. Marvin Dietz, who in an earlier life was the executioner of Joan of Arc, is leaving Portland, and he’s collected some unlikely traveling companions. Why not join him?  I read this story free and early thanks to Meerkat Press, but it’s worth your nickel to seek it out, because there is nothing else like it. This book is available to the public Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Mike Vale was once a great painter, and now he has been forced out of his record store by a shifty, corrupt landlord, so he heads south to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his ex-wife. En route he picks up Dietz, who is hitchhiking, and further along the way Casper stows away in the back. The voice with which their story is told is resonant and the word-smithery makes me shake my head in some places—who writes like this?—and in others I laugh out loud. Here’s a sample from the passage where we meet Casper:

 

‘I want my money,’ Casper said. “My money or my gear. You pick.’
‘Jesus wept,’ the last counterman said before wheeling around on his stool. Then Gary, our mechanic, walked past me and threaded his way through the tables. He laid his hand on the end of the bat… Casper turned and looked at him. What little fight there was deflated out of him like a balloon. Almost lovingly, Gary put him in a headlock.

‘Casper, Duncan sold your meter for a bag of crank days ago. Give it a break. Getting money from him is like getting Thousand Island from a basset hound’s tits, man. You can squeeze all you want, but it ain’t happening.’

 

As the journey continues, somewhere in California, the Smokes appear. They’re the undead, and they appear as if they are made of smoke. They can’t hear live people or see them, but their personal dramas and torments play out for people in the here and now, and they don’t observe the laws and conventions regarding private safety and property, either.  They show up at random times and in random places, causing traffic accidents and other complications. And so we have to wonder if there’s a connection between Marvin, whose many incarnations are recounted to us in his confidential narrative, and these apparitions. The government and the military are at a total loss; the press is enjoying itself, but even the most ambitious journalist recognizes that things have spun out of control.

The plot is complex, and readers must bring their literary skills along for the ride or there’s no point in coming.  It’s a story that takes awhile to develop, but it’s more than worth the slow build. The playful use of language and quixotic spirit of the prose are reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his finest hour.

Highly recommended; get it in hardcover.

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is drawn to a cottage said to be haunted by a boy that died in a hurricane many years before.

The story begins with a lengthy internal monologue that made me fear I’d regret requesting the review copy. There’s a saying that only those that know the rules of written convention well are entitled to break them upon occasion, and Godwin is one that does, and she does it for a reason. I can promise the reader that if you push through the first twenty percent of the story, complete with very frequently used parenthesis, you’ll be in it for keeps.

Marcus is one of the most resonant characters I’ve read in a long time. He is orphaned, unmoored, and friendless; his one good friend insulted Marcus’s mother, and the friendship was broken. Now his great fear is that Great-Aunt Charlotte, a reclusive painter that values her privacy and has a very small home, may grow weary of the inconvenience of having him with her and send him away. The reader can clearly see this brusque but thoughtful woman grow attached to her young relative, but Marcus is too overwhelmed and depressed to catch a clue. He tries to make himself scarce to reduce his impact on her, and in doing so spends an inordinate amount of time nurturing and watching the nests of leatherback turtle eggs laid on Charlotte’s beach, and walking or biking back and forth to the far end of the island, where the legendary Grief Cottage, Charlotte’s most lucrative painting subject, sits desolate and friendless, not unlike Marcus himself.

A measure of a well written a novel is the way our affection for it lingers after we have finished reading it and look back after we’ve read other things. Because I received a very early galley for this one, I have read and reviewed 24 other books since this one, and yet when I see the cover for this title, I heave a deeply satisfied sigh. Oh yes. Grief Cottage. That one was wonderful!

Those that only enjoy action-packed thrillers will have no joy here; rather, Godwin’s prose is the sort one sinks into, like a deep feather bed or a favorite chair by the fire. For those that love strong literature, I cannot think of a better way to spend quiet spring evenings.

Highly recommended.