"Summer of the Dancing Bear" by Bianca Lakoseljac

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A past world is revealed to us in Bianca Lakoseljac’s lyrical Summer of the Dancing Bear, a world in which gypsy lore and culture play prominent roles. The author makes the discovery of this world deeply rewarding by using a risky gambit in portraying her heroine’s consciousness.

A girl struggles to come of age in this haunting story set in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1960s, and the struggles arise because of the girl’s unusual abilities. She perceives her idyllic country surroundings unusually deeply for one so young: the harvest-ready wheat fields glow and swirl as though rendered by Van Gogh – her grandmother took her to the museum to see the exhibit – and her dreams reveal events and calamities she could not know of otherwise. Her grandmother is friendly with the gypsies when they pass through, and they respect her as a shaman. Her grandmother also sees the abilities of young Kata, and raises her with loving attention. 

The gypsies play a central role here, first by bringing a bear to perform at the village in the summer of Kata’s eighth year. This vividly-told event sets off the narrative’s tragic spiral. A village woman’s baby disappears, and the gypsies are naturally blamed. Kata, in the midst of an idyllic childhood, plays a role in the events at a climactic event in which her abilities finally become apparent.

Ms. Lakoseljac sets herself a very difficult path: she portrays Kata’s consciousness as a confused and dream-infused vision. Thoughts and images come to her suddenly – sometimes she has been dreaming, and sometimes she finds herself in a remote spot near a marsh or woodland with no idea how she got there. Sometimes it affects her health, and her loved ones and neighbors become alarmed for her. The author always fills us in on the events that lead to the spell, and poor Kata must work through the significance of her visions. Readers will find themselves wishing they could help, because Kata is a very sympathetic character.

Regardless of Kata’s sudden and unpredictable visions, this book is tightly-plotted and rewarding. It honors the oppressed and wandering Romany tribes, effectively portraying their lust for life as well as their humanity and enlightened traditions. Kata learns the part she will play in the tradition, and the reader is treated to a captivating story set in a seeming far-off time and place. Highly recommended.

"Back in the Game" by Charles Holdefer

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Back in the Game packs a solid punch – it’s full of awkward and endearing humanity – with its straight-ahead style and character-driven plot. How some authors work so much believability and sympathy in a slim volume is completely beyond me. This book oddly shares an impressive heart, and a comfortable, reasonable approach to life that belies the desperation of some of its characters.

Stanley Mercer, a former pro ballplayer, has come home to America from France, where he was trying unsuccessfully to find funding for a barnstorming baseball tour. His influential brother secures him a teaching job at an elementary school in Iowa, and Stanley finds himself trying to make sense of it all. He scarcely believes it. Not one to dwell too much dashed dreams, he discharges his new responsibilities reasonably well, making a pretty good teacher for the year, particularly since he never quite got his bachelor’s degree.  He becomes involved with one or two families during the year, and one of them, the Rawlingses, is headed by Reggie, who is unfortunately a meth addict. As always, addicts are unpredictable while high, and Stanley has to deal with the raging Reggie, who may or may not know the extent of Stanley’s involvement with his wife, Amy.

Mr. Holdefer constructs his tale with his protagonist’s point of view once removed from the action that propels the story. His first-person narration captures for us the fairly routine events of the young teacher’s life, but the characters he encounters provide the drama and narrative energy. Through it all, we the lucky readers are treated to pitch-perfect portrayals of resilient small-town Iowans. As Stanley makes his way, the meth plague rears its ugly head, and the large local hog operation sustains an emergency hazardous spill. Events, never under Stanley’s control to begin with, spiral even further outside his ambit: his supposed girlfriend, half a day away in Chicago, may or may not have plans that include him. The local woman he dallies with turns out to be an adversary as events unfold, largely because her daughter is in Stanley’s class, and her husband is the meth addict.

I recommend this book to readers of literate fiction for its unique structure, for its finely-observed humanity, and for its big heart.

"Dire Salvation" by Charles B. Neff

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In Dire Salvation Charles B. Neff uses straightforward, punchy language to unroll a suspenseful yarn of drugs, mental illness, and revenge in central Washington state. In it, he succeeds in gaining our sympathies for his characters, and helps us see, and root for, every shape that salvation may take for them.  It’s a genuine pleasure to read this direct, businesslike book, not only because of the economy of language, but also because of a balancing richness of theme and image.

In small-town rural Washington, a drug mule is murdered, and weak-witted, defenseless Lonny Ogden is held for it. A number of inconsistencies undermine his status as a suspect, and when a second member of the drug underground is killed with Lonny still in custody, focus necessarily shifts in another direction. Lonny and his big sister Calla, who is the story’s fretful protagonist, are part Native American. The inconsistencies and conflicts between the Native and Anglo cultures show, somewhat under the surface, but don’t really break out into the open here except as an alternate approach to the moral principles involved. The other characters, town mayor Phil Bianchi, immigrant policeman Greg Takarchuk, and reformed drug dealer Jason Ferris, all struggle to pick their way through treacherous waters to promising new lives. These subplots provide the gratifying depth that this novel rewards the reader with.

Mr. Neff makes highly effective use of native stories and legends, wielding them to fill the depths of his characters, and make genuine their motivation. They provide a backdrop to current nefarious or virtuous activity, and knowing them gives a character a key to solving the main riddle, and to getting Lonny off the hook. This book is paced brilliantly – characters’ self-examination, when it happens, happens with the same economy as the main action. It’s all handled very deftly indeed. The suspenseful principal story serves as entrée and engine for the personal quests of its main characters. It’s a pleasing, impressive whole, and features an action-packed, perilous climax that is highly satisfying.

On the whole, a highly recommended read.