Life could be greener on the Emerald Isle these days, where Ireland's economic recession has wreaked havoc upon the residents of one small rural town. There are no jobs, no pension, no unemployment benefits. The effect is a domino-like collapse of livelihood and sanity for everyone in Irish writer Donal Ryan's insightful, darkly humorous debut, The Spinning Heart.
The title refers to a battered and flaking red metal heart on a front cottage gate belonging to the father of well-known resident, Bobby Mahon. Despite its beaten condition, the heart continues to spin on its hinge. It becomes a metaphor for Bobby and the other 20 blindsided souls, who each get a brief chapter to tell their story. They, too, need restoration after the town's big employer abandons them.
Pokey Burke is the corrupt, now-defunct builder who absconds with more than his workers' money. Soon everyone is pondering their hand-to-mouth existence and the fissures emerging in their community. The common thread is Bobby, Pokey's tough but well-respected former foreman whom everyone knows and generally respects. But even Bobby is not above reproach, as his possible complicity in his father’s death has people wondering.
Ryan’s snapshot into the recess of weary minds speaks to a wry, vulnerable sensitivity, and his writing in the vernacular hits home. The prose oozes with spot-on observations of the time, while his use of idioms smartly adds to the authenticity of the first-person narratives. Long-listed for the Man Booker prize, Ryan isn't the first author to swirl Ireland’s economic woes into a novel. Tana French did it in Broken Harbor, and closer to home, Stewart O'Nan did it with Last Night at the Lobster. Best laid plans are never guaranteed. “The future is a cold mistress,” Bobby’s father said. Tomorrow is like that.
Easter Quillby is a caregiver despite her tender age of 12. She takes care of her little sister Ruby as well as her pill-addicted mother, who mostly wanders around in a fog when she’s not passed out. Brady Weller is a disgraced ex-police detective who works for his ex-brother-in-law installing home security systems. Mostly alienated from his ex-wife and daughter, Weller volunteers as a court-appointed guardian ad litem. Finally, meet Pruitt: He’s a bodybuilding, former minor league baseball player recently released from prison, and he’s also a facially disfigured psychotic contract killer. (Is there any other kind?) Easter, Brady and Pruitt take turns narrating author Wiley Cash’s new novel, This Dark Road to Mercy.
Easter and Ruby end up in a children’s group home after their mother dies from an overdose. Weller is assigned to look after the girls’ interests. Easter’s master plan for life, which is college and a career as an FBI agent all the while raising her sister, is at risk when she overhears her foster mother discussing the sisters’ maternal grandparents’ plan to move the girls to Alaska to live with them. When Wade, the girls’ sad sack estranged father, himself a washed-out pitcher, shows up in the middle of the night toting a gym bag filled with ill-gotten gains, Easter impulsively grabs her sister and they take off with not-so-dear-old Dad ... only to find that Weller, Pruitt and the FBI are all in hot pursuit.
Set against the backdrop of the 1998 Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire race to break Roger Maris’ home run record, Cash explores the unbreakable ties of family and the sins from the past, just as he did in his first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. Easter’s voice is especially engaging as she tells her story with a clear-eyed realism. This Dark Road to Mercy will leave the reader rooting for the Quillby sisters and hoping for a grand slam ending.
Be careful what you wish for: a reminder that sometimes wishes are fulfilled in a way not quite anticipated. The desire to turn back the clock or proffer up a desperate bargain in order to keep a loved one with us is universal. Two new novels, The Returned by Jason Mott and Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, explore the consequences of cheating death and getting a second chance.
Lucille and Harold Hargrave are watching a riveting television news story reporting what seems to be an ongoing resurrection of the dead. A knock on the elderly couple’s door reveals a federal agent holding hands with a boy who calls Harold “Daddy.” The child is their eight year old son Jacob who drowned 50 years prior. The Returned explores not only the Hargraves’ reactions to the reappearance of their child, but also the complex societal and governmental responses to this unimaginable and unexplainable global phenomenon. Mott hit the author jackpot with this debut novel. In addition to climbing up The New York Times Best Sellers list, ABC developed the story into a television series entitled Resurrection, which is set to premiere in March.
In Bellman & Black, handsome Will Bellman is viewed as blessed. He’s inherited the family fabric-making factory where he’s introduced the principles and technology of the Industrial Revolution to great success. He adores his wife and young children and is a beneficent country gentleman. A man in black dogs Bellman, however, appearing at the funerals of his friends and family. When a diphtheria-like illness plagues Bellman’s village and takes the lives of his family, Bellman cuts a deal to save the life of his remaining child, Dora. Who is this man in black? Is it wrong to profit from death? Setterfield, who also wrote the popular ghostly story The Thirteenth Tale, delivers another atmospheric story that looks at the price one pays for a deal with the devil.
Lives will never be the same again in Rachel Joyce’s Perfect when, in the summer of 1972, two 11-year-old boys convince themselves that the British government is adding two seconds to that year. Byron, a heartfelt husky lad, admires his lone friend, James, for his intelligence and diligent approach to life. When James informs him of this addition to time, Byron has no reason to doubt him.
However, when Byron witnesses a shocking incident within these extra seconds, the repercussions prove costly for everyone surrounding him, especially his captivating mother, Diana. Although she delights in nature, theater and small kindnesses, Byron’s thoughtful observations detect a deeper sadness under his mother’s delicate repose. Her husband expects her to dress in the refined styles of the ‘50s and lavishes gifts upon her, like a brand new Jaguar, for the sole purpose of instilling envy in the community.
Fast-forward two decades and we encounter Jim, a man living in a dilapidated trailer who is plagued by obsessive compulsive tendencies. Although he is well-meaning, his stuttering and fear of disasters keep him from developing any real relationships with others. As these alternating stories escalate, the two seconds become more mysterious and questionable, yet are vital to these seemingly unrelated plots in this latest work by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
On March 11, 1948, a fire raged through the main building of North Carolina’s Highland Hospital, killing nine female patients trapped in a locked ward on the fourth floor. Victims included Zelda Fitzgerald, a dancer, artist and writer like her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Highland was a residential treatment facility for the mentally ill and considered quite progressive in its treatment methods. Author Lee Smith takes inspiration from the hospital, the tragic fire and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own life in her newest book Guests on Earth.
Smith’s narrator is 13-year-old New Orleans native Evalina Toussaint. Evalina refuses to eat after the death of her mother and is packed off to Highland for a cure. Now an orphan, the resort-like hospital becomes Evalina’s home, and its caregivers and patients her family. Fresh air and exercise, music and art: Evalina thrives under the care of the enlightened psychiatrist Dr. Carroll and develops into a talented pianist. Swimming and songs aren’t the only therapies employed at Highland, though, and as Smith reveals the darker secrets in the lives of Evalina, Zelda and other patients, she also explores the more invasive and seemingly barbaric treatments employed upon the mentally ill.
Smith, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, imbues her writing with the atmosphere of rural Appalachia. She draws upon both the folklore of the mountains as well as the culture of southern high society in creating compelling characters and an absorbing story. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” Guests on Earth allows a few of the guests to share their memorable tale.
Paul Harding's second novel, Enon, brings back the Crosby progeny in this not-quite-a-sequel to his stunning 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Tinkers. In this latest effort, the grandson of Tinkers' dying protagonist reels over the sudden loss of his only child in the same tiny New England town. It is a story not so much about death as it is about the physical and emotional spiraling into grief's crevasse and the slow, tentative climb out.
Charlie narrates this story with a hand-wringing anguish. His 13-year-old daughter Kate has been struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle to the beach. It's an unimaginable bond lost, not just for Charlie but for his wife, too, who promptly leaves her depressed husband to return to her native Minnesota. Life is at its lowest point for Charlie as he descends into a morass of drugs and alcohol. For him, grieving demands a continual rewind of the past: his time with his daughter, his memories of his clock-enthusiast grandfather, the history of Enon. Soon healing begins to seem uncomfortably overdue.
Harding delivers metaphor-laden prose and rich detail that relentlessly probe Charlie's grief through his hallucinations that are, at once, dreamy and remarkably lucid. At one point Charlie tries to capture "the function of loss'" through a mathematical proof he writes on a wall. "My thoughts quickly became confused as I tried to demonstrate the calculus of grief." Another time he digs out his grandfather's fly fishing rod he intended to show Kate and begins casting off the old oak stump in his overgrown backyard until he crawls, exhausted and defeated, back into his house. With its disquieting tone, this short novel of 238 pages oozes like a scab that will not heal until finally, a choice must be rendered: to heal or not.
Oprah’s newest selection for her Book Club 2.0 is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Kidd, who’s The Secret Life of Bees remains a perennial book club favorite, is “thrilled and honored that Oprah Winfrey chose my novel as her new book club selection." The title, due out in early January, is sure to be a favorite among book clubs with Oprah calling it “layered and gripping.”
Inspired by the life of early 19th century abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimk, Kidd writes in her author’s note that her aim was to write “a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.” The result is this beautifully written novel with the dual portrait of two women bound by the horrors of slavery as its centerpiece. Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy Charleston plantation owner is desperate to break free from the confines of her time. She is denied the opportunity to pursue her passion of a legal career and struggles to find outlets for her creativity, intelligence and convictions. Hetty, nicknamed “Handful,” a slave in the household, is also keenly intelligent, brave and brandish a strong rebellious streak. Told in first person, the chapters alternate between these women’s perspectives as the reader follows them and their unique relationship from childhood through middle age.
Kidd will not disappoint her legions of fans with this masterly told story of fascinating women striving for liberation and empowerment during a devastating historical time. Check out Oprah’s announcement here to find out more about this exciting literary pick.
On a peaceful summer evening in the town of West Table, Missouri, the quiet of the night was shattered by a thunderous explosion. In 1929, the Arbor Dance Hall blew apart with a force that flattened the two story buildings adjacent to it, with a blast that was felt in the next town some 20 miles away. Forty-two people lost their lives and countless others suffered terrible injuries from either the fire or having been blown from the building. The devastation wrought by the dance hall explosion had an impact on every resident of the town. Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version recounts many of their stories.
The mystery of what caused the explosion and who was responsible was never discovered. Could it have been mob related? Was it the evil deed of a band of Gypsies? Was it just a tragic accident or possibly something more ominous the town leaders wanted covered up? This literary novel is comprised of numerous small chapters, frequently describing the circumstances of individuals who ended up at the dance that fateful Saturday night. Interspersed throughout the minor character vignettes is the story of Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a woman who believes she knows the truth.
This remarkable tale is a fictionalized account of an event that occurred on April 13, 1928 in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Woodrell believably captures the historical and cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of the Ozarks. It is the author’s skillful narration that will mesmerize the reader and bind them to this powerful yet tragic tale.
Charles Palliser, in Rustication, unravels a late 19th century mystery through the uneasy journal entries penned by Richard Shenstone, a 17-year-old opium addict who struggles daily with carnal appetites. Richard, after an abrupt suspension from college, seeks out residency in the drearily neglected English mansion where his mother and older sister reside after the death of their debt-ridden father. However, to much surprise, his early homecoming is unpleasantly received. Not only does he feel unwelcomed, he is refused any information regarding the sudden death in the family or their lack of funds.
Coinciding with his arrival, livestock vivisection begins and vulgar letters are sent to several neighbors which accuse, damn and threaten their recipients. Richard soon crosses paths with peculiar characters that become cagier with every encounter, from vicious socialites to a brutish dogfighter. At the center of much gossip is an earl’s nephew who is both an eligible bachelor and next in line to receive his uncle’s fortune.
Alone in his attempts to make sense of the town’s secrets, Richard feverishly recounts his daily thoughts and conversations. However, his fickle opiate love affair interrupts his stream of recollections. As the crimes increase and worsen, he finds himself as the prime suspect and is determined to discover the identity of the true murderer.
Readers will recognize this marshy bleak town from Palliser’s other Victorian novel, The Quincunx, but will find themselves intrigued as the jarring plot peels away like sour onionskin.
Winners of the 64th annual National Book Awards were announced last night at a black-tie dinner held at Cipriani Wall Street. This morning, the literary world is abuzz about James McBride’s win in the Fiction category for his novel The Good Lord Bird. With a strong list of finalists, many considered McBride’s novel to be an underdog. McBride seemed shocked by the win. He shared that writing the novel became an escape for him during a difficult season of his life. McBride also expressed his pleasure about the win, remarking, “Had Rachel Kushner or Jhumpa Lahiri or Thomas Pynchon or George Saunders won tonight, I wouldn’t have felt bad because they are fine writers, but it sure is nice to get it.”
Mary Szybist was presented with the Poetry Award for Incarnadine: Poems, her second collection of poetry. The award for Young People’s Literature was given to Cynthia Kadohata for her novel The Thing About Luck. George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America won the award for Nonfiction.
Congratulations to all the winners!