The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.

Everything Belongs to Us, by Yoojin Grace Wuertz****

everythingbelongstousI was invited to read this novel by Random House and Net Galley, and although I read multiple books at a time, this was the one I saved for bedtime, after the lights were out, the hound snoring at the foot of the bed, and everyone else was asleep. This is prime reading time, and this was the story I wanted to follow uninterrupted. You can get a copy for yourself this Tuesday, February 28, 2017.

This story is set in 1978 in Seoul, South Korea, and features the political demonstrations by workers and students against the notoriously repressive Park regime. The main characters are all involved briefly with these protests, either as participants or as witnesses. While the setting is handled competently, the success of this novel is owed to character, character, and character.

We are introduced to three young adults. First is Jisun, a bright young daughter of a ruling scion. Jisun harbors tremendous anger toward her father, and as the story unspools, we find out why, little by little. One hint I’ll offer that doesn’t spoil the ending is that it isn’t about rape or sexual abuse of any kind, and I was glad not to see this overused device employed here. Everything in this story is fresh and original.

Our story comes to us from multiple viewpoints. My favorite character by far is Namin, a striving member of the working class battling to rise through hard work and intellectual talent. An unlikely but wholly believable friendship develops between Jisun, who is trying to grasp what ordinary people experience day to day, and Namin. Namin’s parents labor nearly every waking hour running a food truck, and her sister works in an auto plant so that Namin can attend the university. The choices that are made in order to fuel Namin’s success, and by extension that of her family, are hard ones, and this is just one aspect of the book that would make for excellent discussion in a literature class or book club.

The third main character is Sunam, a young man from a middle class family who finds himself in a love triangle with these two young women. At one point I feared the book would turn melodramatic, but in the author’s capable hands it is deftly maneuvered and is made believable. In fact, while I didn’t always like these characters, by the halfway point I absolutely believed all three of them.

The only weakness here is the way in which the protestors are depicted; they seem addled and the struggle appears to have no political platform whatsoever. Liberal Christian missionaries appear and vanish with no clear role, and although a purpose becomes apparent eventually, I felt they were more of a distraction than a worthwhile component.

The struggle against the Park government was a more worthy one than Wuertz’s narrative suggests. Had this been given firmer contours, this would be a five star read.

For those looking to broaden their literary horizons or just looking for a good story, this novel is recommended.

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.

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.