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. 

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.

Two Miles of Darkness, by Earl Emerson****

twomilesofdarkness Fans of Emerson’s Thomas Black mysteries will be as pleased as I was to see this, the 14th in the series. Black took a very long nap and seemed to have all but disappeared for awhile, but then he was back with Monica’s Sister, followed by this title. There was no DRC for this one, so I picked it up free using my Amazon Prime digital credits. It was a good way to spend them. The book was released in 2015, so of course you can get it also.

We start out with one of my three most tired devices for a mystery novelist: Black and his sidekick, Snake are hogtied in the trunk of a car. I rolled my eyes in the way that made my second grade teacher caution me might make them stick that way forever—an outstanding science lesson that remained with me long after the legitimate curriculum had drifted away—but because I like this series so much, I kept reading anyway. And it was worth it.

Eventually of course Black stops discussing being stuck inside the trunk, and he remembers back, back, back to how all this came about. And that’s the story that is great fun and also well written.

Black grew up in the working class here in Seattle, but his father did errands and handyman work for a wealthy widow that went by the nickname Doda. Dad is long gone, but Doda is still there, and she hires Black to find Pickles, a dog she gave to Mick and Alex Kraft. The Krafts, by peculiar coincidence, had also tried to hire Black recently in order to find out who was harassing them; Mick had experienced a string of terrible luck that he believed was too sudden to be a coincidence. Black told him that sometimes bad luck really is just bad luck, but the next thing you know, they’re both dead. Police are calling it a murder and suicide; Doda just wants the dog back. She’ll pay a pretty penny if Black can find Pickles and bring him safely home.

In this matter, Black’s friend Snake, usually the irresponsible party where the two friends are involved, is the sensible one that points out the truth, a very good reason to turn the dog job down:

“You hate rich people. Think about these guys. The rest of the world works for a living, but these guys have nothing to do all day but drink Mai Tais and sit around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive in the mail. It burns you up. I know it does.”

 

Snake is right. Black hates the rich, and I have a sneaking hunch that Emerson does too.  So in this tale, we have a couple of spoiled men—no longer young enough to be called brats—known as Chad and Binky. One is Doda’s son, and the other is the son’s best buddy. Their massive resources coupled with a life of leisure and surfeit of free time give them the capacity to play elaborate pranks, and both show a solipsistic disregard for the effect their games have upon the lives of others. They fit Snake’s description to a tee.

Nevertheless, Black takes the doggy job, and so we have two mysteries, the official dog-finding mystery, and the unofficial mystery Black’s conscience requires him to tackle regarding the Krafts.

One small fact-checking blooper hit my I-don’t-think-so-button, and that was the widely-believed myth that all juvenile records are sealed once the doer of the crime turns 18. In reality, after a number of years, a hefty filing fee, and a ton of complicated paperwork, the person in question can have the particulars of their crime locked away, but if it was a relatively small offense, that may make matters worse, because anyone running the background check will see that the person did something in their youth that they want concealed. Most juvenile offenders never want to see a courtroom again when they are older, and most don’t have the extra money to throw at a court procedure anyway, so the misdeed stays on the record until they grow old and die. It never vanishes from the record, as some folks, sadly some of them juveniles looking for trouble, believe. At least, that’s the truth in Washington State, and that’s where Emerson lives and where his story is set.

Now back to our story. Emerson is a champ when it comes to pacing, and he’s one of the best there is when it comes to bouncing a straight man off a colorful sidekick like Elmer “Snake” Sleazak. The story would be no fun at all without Snake, but with him, it’s immensely entertaining. The sly banter and the unexpected, off-the-chain behaviors will put a smile on your face; if you don’t find him funny, check your pulse to make sure you aren’t dead.  Add another side character, a neighbor kid named Charlie that was friends with Pickles the dog, and there’s charm all over the place. People often underestimate kids, who are often our best observers: “Charlie knew the neighborhood like a cheating husband knew every creaky stair on his front porch.”

This is a page-turner that will make your own troubles seem oh so small, and for those that find themselves with a long weekend at hand, this book will provide the excuse you may need to just chill for awhile. One way or the other, this is a well written story, deftly handle with just the right balance of mirth and suspense. My records tell me I have read over 700 mysteries since 2012, and that doesn’t even take into account most of what I read during the previous decades of adulthood, and so I am picky. I see a device that I’ve grown tired of, and a star falls of my rating. But as for you, if you lean leftward and love a good private eye story, this could well be a five star read.

Recommended to those that lean left and enjoy detective fiction and comic capers.

 

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.