Best Fiction by a Pacific Northwest Author 2018

Seattle Book Mama counts it down. For the genres already named, see the separate link at the top of this page.

Findyouinthedark

Soul Survivor, by G.M. Ford*****

SoulSurvivorLeo Waterman is one of my favorite fictional detectives. Lucky me, I scored this eleventh in the series free courtesy of Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer in exchange for this honest review.

Leo has changed, and yet he hasn’t. He came into his old man’s ill-gotten fortune awhile back, so he doesn’t have to work anymore, and since his knees are going, it’s just as well. But an old family friend comes calling on behalf of a grieving parent who wants to know how her boy, Matthew, turned into a mass shooter. Matthew died too, so nobody can ask him. Waterman goes to the funeral, where hysterical gun law advocates start a ruckus, and somehow Leo finds himself in the middle of it. From there, it’s all downhill.

Waterman runs afoul of some serious thugs, and they nearly kill him. He wakes up in the hospital and learns that his assailants have carved a symbol into his chest, one associated with white supremacy.

At first the plot seemed, once we were past the hospital portion, a little too familiar. Waterman always seems to find himself opposing right-wing nut jobs, and in chasing a resolution, he always ends up leaving Seattle in pursuit of reactionary criminals in some hinterland headquarters or bunker. But upon reflection, I decided I’m good with that, since it matches my own worldview. There are some bad apples in every city, every town, but the most progressive parts of society gravitate toward major population centers. Even an elitist place like Seattle contains more laudable elements than the teeny rightwing enclaves that are established in various rural outposts.

It doesn’t hurt that the Waterman series makes me laugh out loud at least once every single time.

I have read too many mysteries in which the sleuth is shot, stabbed, or whatevered, and when they wake up in the hospital, the first thing they do is rip out their IV, hobble into their clothes, and scoot out the door against doctor’s orders, material reality be damned. This inclination is inching its way onto my hot-button list of stupid plot points I never want to see again, and so I am greatly cheered by the way Ford writes this portion of the book. Leo’s in the hospital for a good long while, because he’s hurt. He’s really hurt. At the outset, he’s in a wheelchair, and then he needs additional surgeries and physical therapy. He leaves when he’s discharged. I’m pretty sure I hollered my thanks at least once here.

Ford’s corrupt cop characters are among the best written anywhere. I also love the intrepid desk clerk named Dylan who uses what little power he possesses for the forces of good.

This story is a page turner, and it’s hilarious in places. Last I looked, the Kindle version was only six bucks. If you love the genre and lean left, you should get it and read it. Your weekend will thank you for it.

 

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah****

ThegreataloneI wanted to see what all of the buzz was about, and now I know. Kristin Hannah has a fresh, authentic  voice that transports her readers to a completely different time and place. The Great Alone, set in Alaska in 1974, made a believer of me. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the ARC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Leni Allbright is our protagonist, and she and her mother are inseparable during the early years of her childhood. But when her father, a man she doesn’t know, is released from the POW camp and then sent home, he is volatile, not the man Cora remembers. He has trouble keeping a job; he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He’s paranoid and sometimes delusional, too.

He likes firearms.

Then word comes that a friend, a soldier he served with, has died and left him a plot of land in Alaska. They’ll be away from the stimulation of the city, which seems to trigger Ernt’s anxiety and panic attacks. Cora tells Leni it’s perfect, because once Ernt is happy, everybody can be happy. And so, clueless hippies that they are, they head north in a VW van with little more than the shirts on their backs and of course, Ernt’s weapon collection.

Imagine their surprise upon discovering their new home is at the end of a long unpaved driveway and isn’t really in habitable condition. However, Mad Earl, the father of the deceased soldier that left the place to Ernt, introduces him around, and their new Alaskan friends teach them the ropes. Cora and Leni are accustomed to a passive role, but Ginny “the generator” and Large Marge assure them that if they don’t learn to pull their own weight, they will die before the end of the first winter. Soon Cora and Leni know how to fell trees, use tools, and kill their own meat.

Ernt wants his wife and daughter to be survivors; he wants them to be ready when “the shit hits the fan.”  He wakes them from a sound sleep at odd intervals and forces them, bleary eyed and bewildered, to assemble and load weapons in the dark. He assures them that it’s possible the enemy may attack in the small hours; it’s an old ruse. But over time it becomes clear that the most dangerous person they will ever encounter is Ernt.

Hannah is a feminist badass and an evocative, memorable writer. One of the finest things about this story is the recognition that domestic abuse often arrives hand-in-glove with some other challenge that muddies the water. Ernt is abusive, but he can’t help himself; something happened to his mind when he was a POW. Then of course, there’s addiction and straight-up mental illness. Who could just leave a guy that has been through so much and that loves them so hard?

Ernt says he is sorry, and it won’t happen again. Like so many abusers, he says it every damn time. But even when it has become crystal clear to Leni that she and her mother must put their own safety first, Cora won’t leave, and Leni won’t leave her mother.

By the halfway point, it becomes clear that someone is going to die; the three of them cannot continue together indefinitely through the dark Alaskan winters, and yet there they are, and he’s getting worse, not better. But then Large Marge injects new life into their domestic situation with an ingenious plan. It doesn’t last forever, but it buys them some time.

My only disappointment is with the ending. In many ways it is cleverly turned, but it’s a letdown to see such a magnificent young woman warrior take such a well-worn, traditional path. It’s a small quibble though, and it shouldn’t keep you from grabbing the nearest copy of this excellent novel at whatever price you have to pay to get it. It’s for sale now, and I recommend it to you.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford****

“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”loveandotherconsolation

Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.

The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.

But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:

He had never once been near the mysterious part of Seattle that lay south of Yesler Way, a street better known as the Deadline. His teachers had talked for years about sewer rats that plagued the area, and rattlesnakes, and about the wolves that prowled the White Chapel District, waiting to sink their teeth into the good people of Seattle, which a local song had dubbed the Peerless City. Ernest had imagined lanky, sinuous creatures with sharp claws and tangles of mangy fur, but as he looked out at the avenue, all he saw were signs for dance halls and saloons.


Ernest’s years at the brothel prove to be the best of his young life, primarily because the rest of it was so much worse. Every time a rosy glow starts to form around the brothel and the condition of the women that work there, Ford injects an incident that is stark and horrible to remind us that trafficking in human beings and their most intimate acts is criminal and should never be condoned. Miss Flora is a relatively benign madam because it is better for business, not because of any sentimentality toward the women she employs. This comes to us all the more starkly when her own daughter’s virginity is raffled off to the highest bidder.

All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.

I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today. 

The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson****

themercyofthe The Mercy of the Tide is Keith Rosson’s debut novel, and it’s a strong one. Set in a tiny, depressed town on the Oregon Coast during the Reagan Administration, things start out dark, and they’re about to get a whole lot darker. Thank you, Net Galley and Meerkat Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge for this honest review. This book will be for sale February 21, 2017, and those that love good fiction with a working class perspective will want a copy.

The tiny town of Riptide, Oregon is knee deep in grief. A recent head-on collision claimed the lives of Melissa Finster, mother of Sam and Trina, and June Dobbs, the town’s beloved librarian and wife of Sheriff Dave Dobbs. The blow has left everyone reeling and on edge.

Someone else is missing Melissa too, though he can’t say so. Deputy Nick Hayslip–a Vietnam veteran who has no patience for the madness associated with that category, a vet who figures that you go home when the war is over, you put on your clothes and go to work and therapy is for losers–is coming unstuck. Nobody knows about his past with Melissa, and he finds terrible ways to keep her memory alive.

The teaser for this novel tells us that the story centers around Sam and Trina, and since the author generally writes the teaser, that must be his intention. However, I found Trina to be the weakest element here, and it was the other characters that made this story work for me. Part of this is just pure fickle bad luck for the author; I actually taught deaf kids of the same age as Trina, as well as gifted kids that age; and in one instance, a gifted deaf kid that age. It’s true that the gifts of highly capable children vary widely in scope and range, and that every child is unique, but the vocabulary and abstract concepts Rosson bestows on this kid are just not within the realm of the possible, and so Trina isn’t real to me until later in the book, when things other than her obsession with nuclear holocaust are used in the development of her character.

The most interesting character and unlikely hero here is Hayslip. Also beautifully developed are Sheriff Dodds and Sam’s closest friend, Todd, known familiarly as “Toad”. Alternating points of view from the third person omniscient give us ready access to their thoughts, impulses, and feelings.

An interesting side character is zealous Christian wingnut Joe Lyley, who says in a somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, “These are unlovely times.” I also liked Leon Davies, whose role I will let the reader discover, because it’s such a fun surprise.

The setting is almost an anti-tourist brochure. The Oregon Coast is well known for its wild, rugged beauty, but Rosson chooses to introduce the other reality, that of the many local denizens that endure a hardscrabble working class existence in small, chilly, damp coastal communities that rarely see the sun. The moldering smell of rotting wood, porches and floors with a sponge-like give under foot are dead accurate, although the town of Riptide is fictitious; the recession of the 80’s plunged small beach towns into a depression from which there has never been a moment’s relief.

This is a strong story with a tight, tense climax and a powerful resolution. This darkly delicious novel shows that Rosson is a force to be reckoned with; I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Always, by Sarah Jio****

alwayssarahjioAlways, Sarah Jio’s much anticipated new release, takes on the homelessness epidemic using the powerful medium of fiction. I received my copy in advance in exchange for an honest review; thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC. This title is available to the public today, and if you have enjoyed Jio’s other novels, I am confident you’ll like this one too.

Kailey Crane is a journalist living in Seattle during the 1990s, and she has the whole package: a great job, a wonderful city, and a wealthy, handsome fiancée. It’s the life other little girls dreamed of but didn’t get.  Then one night as she and Ryan are leaving a restaurant, she literally bumps into a long lost love. Cade McAllister is the man Kailey had been going to marry until he disappeared. He practically vaporized. Stunned and humiliated, she picked herself up and rebuilt her life, and now here he is, a half-crazed homeless man living downtown on the streets.

What the heck happened?

Kailey wants to marry Ryan, but she also wants to help Cade find housing, medical care, and food. Ryan makes it easier by agreeing that she should do the right thing. Quickly she learns that it isn’t as simple as it seems. There’s a whole safety net in place for people like Cade, except that it doesn’t work. In fact, without her own ready access to Ryan’s money, she can do virtually nothing for Cade. But it’s all right, because Ryan is on the side of the angels; he sees that this cause is a just one, and he’s a generous guy. He’s in love, and he’s feeling expansive.

The problems begin when Kailey starts missing key wedding events because she’s off helping Cade, or trying to. She becomes so involved with one thing and another that before she knows it, she’s over an hour late. There are out of town relatives that are present, but where’s the bride? And before we know it, she’s telling lies, and sometimes they don’t even seem necessary. I want to reach through the pages of the book, yank Kailey into the kitchen and talk to her.

What  are you doing, girl?

Fissures in her relationship with Ryan turn into fractures as he senses the level of her obsession, and he doesn’t see things as she does anymore. His material interest is involved, since a project his development corporation is about to undertake conflicts with an already established homeless shelter in Pioneer Square, a historic part of Seattle’s downtown. He questions why so many resources are required for the homeless; aren’t these mostly drug addicts and crazy people? There ought to be a simple way to dispatch the problem.

A strong story overall is somewhat tarnished by what feels like a glib ending. I recall a favorite episode of the Muppets when Miss Piggy is working a jigsaw puzzle, and she hates to be wrong, so she slams a piece into a hole where it doesn’t belong and howls, “I’ll make it fit!” The ending of this story brought the episode back to me, because Jio seems to be doing more or less the same thing.

Recommended to fans of this successful romance writer.

The Grand Tour, by Adam O’Fallon Price*****

thegrandtourDoctors tell us that laughter improves our health. Now and then, I go in search of laughter in my favorite medium, between the covers of a good book. Thank you to Net Galley and Doubleday Publishers for this DRC. Not only is The Grand Tour achingly funny, it’s also strong fiction. It is available to the public August 9, 2016, and you ought to read it.

Our story centers around two protagonists in equal measure. Richard Lazar is an author who has written one lukewarm release after another, drunken, cynical, and utterly thoughtless of anyone other than himself. He’s lost his family and his health can’t be far behind, a “smoking Yugo of a body” constantly drenched in alcoholic beverages. Suddenly and unexpectedly, his most recent novel has become a blockbuster. A tender, idealistic young man, a fan club of one named Vance, our second protagonist, quits his job at the Pizza Boy, desperate to get away from home and spend time with the writer he idolizes. He becomes Richard’s roadie, dragging him out of one bar after another, conveying him across the western USA to speaking engagements and book-signings.

His Portland book signing takes him to a fictitious bookstore, a thinly disguised version of Powell’s City of Books, one of my favorite places. Richard manages to disgrace himself there, and it won’t be the last time he does so.

The journey through Las Vegas is the most resonant and brilliantly described I have yet seen in literature; each your heart out, Hunter Thompson.

Often literature billed as dark humor turns out to be merely dark, and I was delighted to discover otherwise here. I laughed out loud in a number of places. At the same time, the author does a tidy job of developing both main characters in much greater depth than I had anticipated. Hoping for a romp, albeit a grim one, I wound up holding my sides at the same time I absorbed a fine novel. It is excellent surprises such as this one that keep me reading galleys by new writers. This one is smart and wickedly clever. Of particular satisfaction was the denouement involving Vance’s character.

All told, it’s a savagely funny read. It comes out today, and you should get it and read it.

Salvation Lake, by G.M. Ford*****

salvationlakeFord is the rightful heir to the late great Donald Westlake, a writer of monstrously amusing mysteries full of quirky sidekicks and kick-ass, zesty dialogue. There’s nobody like him in Seattle or anywhere else. I gobbled up the DRC when it became available via Net Galley and publishers Thomas and Mercer,  so I read this free in exchange for an honest review. But I’ll tell you a secret: if I’d had to, I’d have paid for this one had it been necessary. And so should you. It’s for sale today, and you can get it digitally at a bargain rate.

But back to our story.  We open at a bar called the Eastlake Zoo. The band of misfits to which detective Leo Waterman is tied through bonds of family history and quixotic affection are rocking the house in “well-lubricated amiability”. In fact, there’s a story being told right as we begin, and if it doesn’t hook you, check your pulse, because you’re probably dead. Here:

“Red Lopez was a spitter. When Red told a story, it was best to get yourself alee of

something waterproof, lest you end up looking like you’d been run through the

Elephant Car Wash.

‘So we was comin’ down Yesler,’ Red gushed. “Me and George and Ralphie.’

Everyone had found cover, except the guy they called Frenchie, who was so tanked

he  probably  thought it was raining inside the Eastlake Zoo…”

 

Right?

As it happens, Waterman, who’s inherited his old man’s ill-gotten wealth, has been lying low and enjoying the good life, but now his late father’s hideously distinctive overcoat has been found on a corpse, and  Timothy Eagen of the Seattle Police Department want to talk to Leo. Now.  There’s bad blood between them:

“…he hated my big ass the way Ahab hated that whale…Eagen was a skinny little turd with a salt-and-pepper comb-over pasted across his pate like a sleeping hamster.”

Since SPD has been under the eye of the Feds lately, Eagen can’t give full rein to his attack-Chihuahua impulses. SPD needs to provide “the kind [of law enforcement] that doesn’t look like Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York.” So Waterman doesn’t get shaken down or tossed into a cell, but his curiosity is piqued, and since he has no paying job and time on his hands, he finds himself checking into a few things. One thing leads to another.

What relationship does the victim, known as the Preacher, have to Mount Zion Industries, whose pamphlet is found among his effects? Before we know it, Leo is off and running, checking out Salvation Lake, located at the end of Redemption Road. Events tumble one upon the next, and I found that instead of reading in my bed that evening, as is my usual bedtime custom, I was reading on it, bolt upright and clicking the kindle to go a little faster please.

Waterman may have come into money midway through life, but his perspective is a working class perspective. His take on the city’s thousands of homeless denizens and the relationship that cops have to those in need strike a sure clear note that must surely resonate with anyone that’s been paying any attention at all.

Meanwhile, Salvation Lake is written with warp speed pacing, sharp insight, authority, and the kind of wit that can only come from a writer that has tremendous heart.

Don’t miss it. Get it now.

The Violets of March, by Sarah Jio

thevioletsofmarchThe Violets of March is a crossover title, part cozy mystery, and partly—maybe mostly—romance.  I purchased it for myself years ago, back when I was teaching, not advance-reading, and buying all my own reading material. It’s not a bad book, but given that I had paid full jacket price for the trade paperback version after reading some rave reviews, I felt let down. It’s a pleasant read, but it didn’t live up to its hype.

Nevertheless, once I had it in my collection, I was glad of it, because at the time, the other books I was reading were the sort that grab the reader by the hair and won’t let go till they’re done. I needed a calmer, more sedately paced novel to read at bedtime, and this was it. It held my attention, but it didn’t keep me awake when it was time to turn out the light.

Our protagonist is Emily Wilson, whose life, up till now, has been lovely. She is a successful author and married to a gorgeous man; what more can she want from life? But then one day he announces he is leaving her for someone else. Boom. Gone. She retreats to the home of her beloved aunt on Bainbridge Island, which is off the coast of Washington State, to lick her wounds. While there she finds herself ferreting out mysteries buried long ago. The plot becomes a story inside a story, and three different narratives are counter posed, two from the past, one from the present.

At the same time, Emily commences dating again. Here I am comfortable, because this isn’t erotica, it is an old fashioned love story, with the protagonist trying to choose between two men, one an old flame from high school, the other a local man she hasn’t known before.

The character development is not what I might hope for, but then this is a debut novel. It’s shallow, but it’s also soothing. It held my attention until I got a little bit sleepy, and then it didn’t anymore, which was exactly what I needed.

In addition, it is the sort of novel one could hand to a bookworm daughter of a fairly young age, if her reading level and interest were there, without worrying about content. Likewise it could grace the shelves of a middle school or high school classroom without a concern that parents would storm the school (as once occurred when I put The Color Purple on my honors shelf).

That said, I won’t pony up full cover price for this author again. But then, I rarely do that anymore anyway.

Those seeking a light romance with some cozy historical mystery elements to read at bedtime or on the beach could do a lot worse for themselves. It’s a matter of taste and priority.

Monica’s Sister, by Earl Emerson *****

monicassisterAh, it’s good to be reading a Thomas Black story again. Black is back with his lovely wife, Kathy, a good-hearted woman who makes some interesting friends. One of them is Angela Bassman, a woman who shows up all the time like a bad penny, making ridiculous charges against anyone and everyone, and bragging about having so many friends in high places, having done such fantastic things, that one is left rolling one’s eyes. And so when Thomas hears Angela’s voice approaching his office, he does what any thinking human being would do: he leaps into the closet and shuts the door. Anything to avoid that woman!

The wheels of the story start moving, and things get more complicated. Angela, whose famous sister is the actress, Monica Pennington, hires Black to help her with what is supposed to be a simple task, but isn’t. He would like to back out, but he smells a rat. Despite the crazy nature of Angela’s claims, she is obviously being followed by someone. Strange things happen, and too many coincidences occur. Whether Angela is crazy or whether she isn’t, his detective’s intuition starts to quiver, and he becomes more entangled in her affairs than he had anticipated, especially when she falls to her death, and he sees it happen. Later, Pennington hires Black to find out why Angela killed herself. Because of course, that’s what happened…isn’t it?

Emerson, a Shamus winning author who sets his stories here in the misty Pacific Northwest, usually right here in Seattle, is one fine writer. Hundreds of interesting, free galleys come my way in a given year, but I wanted to read his story badly enough to put it on my wish list, and luckily, my spouse snapped it up and gave it to me for Mother’s Day. What a fantastic gift!

The overall tenor of the story begins as gut-bustingly funny, and then gradually darkens and becomes more suspenseful. By the story’s end, I was literally (yes, I do mean literally) sitting on the edge of my seat, putting off the family members that wanted my attention with a robotic “…just a sec. Just a sec. Yeah I know. Give me just a minute.”

Emerson also uses the occasion to talk a little bit about bipolar disorder, and the ways it can turn a person’s life upside down, but he does it in a way that prevents the book’s pace from hitching. It’s masterfully done!

If you like strong detective fiction, or fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, or both, you just can’t do any better than this book. Seriously recommended for just about everyone.