Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
February has been an excellent month for the short story. Highly anticipated collections from three renowned authors have found their way to library shelves. British writer Neil Gaiman is known for blending reality and fantasy in a way that can be both comforting and unsettling. His often dark, well-crafted prose enticingly draws the reader in, providing just enough familiarity and knowing humor before changing the game entirely. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances represents the writer’s work at its best. Standout pieces include “The Thing about Cassandra,” in which a thirtysomething young man comes face to face with the young woman whose name he wrote over and over again on the covers of his high school notebooks — his first love. The twist? He made her up in order to deflect questions from his friends and his mother over his lack of a girlfriend. In “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” Gaiman offers a mashup retake on “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” imagining the two stories taking place at the same time. He turns these traditionally passive women into active participants in their own fairy tale lives, with their own agendas. A lengthy preface to the collection provides “trigger warnings” for each piece, explaining a bit about their genesis. Readers who want a spoiler-free experience would do well to treat the preface as an afterward.
Consider Kelly Link, the Massachusetts cousin-once-removed of Neil Gaiman, who Gaiman once referred to as “a national treasure.” Get in Trouble is her first collection for adult readers in a decade. To enter the world of Kelly Link is to suspend all disbelief and any preconceived ideas of what a story might be and where you might end up. Get in the passenger seat, buckle up and let Link drive you into the dark corners of her imagination, where reality and fantasy live intertwined. These are bedtime stories for readers who are still intrigued by the possibilities raised by myths, magic and fairy tales. In the opening story, “The Summer People,” teenager Fran is home sick from school, yet she still has the responsibility of gathering provisions for the incoming vacationers who stay in the houses her father maintains. He’s an alcoholic, and their hardscrabble life isn’t a pleasant one. Fran can’t even dream of getting away; she’s bound by magic to the powerful and creative unseen guests who dwell in one of these abodes. Don’t expect to be done with a Kelly Link story just because you’ve reached the end. Tales like “Light” — replete with a world filled with Chinese-owned “pocket universes” and a Florida overrun with iguanas and invasive mermaids and a protagonist born with two shadows, one that grows into her twin brother — will leave you wondering what hit you.
If you prefer realistic fiction, pick up Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do, a collection of 10 interrelated tales set in his native Minnesota. Baxter is considered a modern master of the contemporary short story, and in these wryly intimate, nuanced pieces he comments on human nature and the complexity of relationships. The protagonist of “Loyalty” finds that the ex-wife who left him and their infant son well over a decade ago has returned. What will he do with this woman, clearly in poor mental health, who looks like “she has gone through a car wash?” It says a lot about Wes that he opens his house to her, and his family helps to set her right. But after all, it was his new wife, one of her best friends, who encouraged her to run off in the first place. In “Gluttony,” an overweight pediatrician is forced to endure a lecture about his morally faulty parenting from the overtly religious parents of his son’s girlfriend. His stress-induced eating leads to a near tragedy. Fans of the work of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro will enjoy the storytelling of Charles Baxter.
In an English village, a son awaits the undertaker after the death of his beloved mother. In a Serbian town, the murder of an archduke sends turbulence throughout Europe. Little does Inspector Ian Rutledge know how profoundly these deaths will affect his life.
Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day carries us back to 1914, before the war forever damaged a young inspector and an entire European generation. Resented by his superior for his upper class credentials, Rutledge must convince the obtuse, results-driven Chief Superintendent Bowles there is a pattern in seemingly unconnected murders. On the face of it, they all committed suicide. No one would drink that much laudanum unless they intended to end their life. But too many men of property are dying for no reason. Despite instructions, Rutledge resolves to unearth the common denominator before more innocent people lose their lives. While doing so, he must convince his fiancé that his profession is a true calling, not simply a whim easily discarded.
Rutledge, destined for a brilliant career at the Yard, is in love with Jean Gordon. He is determined to marry her despite advice against it. The daughter of a career Army officer who believes there is no greater glory than to serve King and Country, Jean urges Rutledge to claim that glory quickly, before the war ends. After all, it will all be over by Christmas.
This is the 17th entry in the Inspector Rutledge series by mother and son writing team David Todd Watjen and Carolyn L.T. Watjen. If you are new to the series, it’s the perfect introduction to one of the best characters in historical fiction today. For current readers, it’s deeply poignant to see Ian as he was before the war; idealistic, insightful, confident, composed. The Watjen’s have won the Barry Award and were finalists for the Anthony, Edgar, Dilys, Macavity, Agatha and Nero awards. As we honor the memories of those who served 100 years ago, this outstanding historical fiction truly brings a lost generation to life.
Missing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.
Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.
In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.
Imagine that right this second you could be anywhere else in the world: Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you seek out? Where would your dreams take you?
Cent dreams of space. She can jump anywhere in the world. Space is a whole other set of challenges.
The ticking heart of a Steven Gould book is the hard science underlying a fantastic premise. Yes, Cent and her parents can jump anywhere in the world, but it's underpinned by physics. Playing around with the implications of instantaneous travel is only part of the package. Much of the rest of it comes from examinations of present day and near future space travel. The third pillar of a Steven Gould story is relatively normal characters living through the fantasy.
Exo is the fourth book in Gould's Jumper series, which climbed all the way to the box office in an almost completely unrelated movie. Every single book has looked at the implications of instant travel, and every book has shown new revelations. This is the first to take the concept into space and ponder questions with serious real world implications. We're unlikely to ever have the ability to teleport freely, but any method that could allow for cheap or free launches could change the course of human history in large and small ways. A long, positive look is taken at the idea of letting senior citizens spend time in the comfort of zero gravity, for instance.
It's not all science. There are broken hearts, patchy relationships, awkward family bonding and an organization of spies lurking in the background. But Exo is a fun, fast romp that plays with some big ideas.
It’s hard to root against a 7-year-old named Millie Bird, the charming, precociously wise protagonist in Lost & Found, the heart-tugging debut by Australian author Brooke Davis. Millie just wants to find her mum, who has absconded from the large ladies’ underwear section of a local department store. Fortunately, Millie crosses paths with two peculiar octogenarians who become the unlikely minders for the abandoned Millie. It falls to them to reunite the little girl with her wayward mom.
Millie desperately needs a “Dot Four” since her father has died and now her grief-stricken mother has disappeared. Connecting the three dots from mom to dad to herself meant Millie felt safe. But now the red-gumboot-wearing, curly headed youngster is obsessed with dead things and carries a “just in case” glass jar around. She finds herself on a bumpy road trip through Western Australia suburbia with two elderly companions, who are also thinking about death but for different reasons. Karl the Touch Typist nervously types letters in the air as he speaks. He misses his dead wife. Millie’s neighbor, the sad and grumpy Agatha, has not left her house since her husband died seven years ago. “How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?” wonders Agatha. Indeed, it’s but one of many questions asked in Davis’ irresistible story that fuses the psychological reservoirs of grief with humor and the hopefulness of youthful perspective.
A suggested book club selection, Lost & Found may appear as a lighter read from its colorful, whimsical cover, but don’t be fooled. Inspired by events in the author’s own life, the novel was born out of a doctoral thesis on grief. Davis, whose own mother died suddenly in 2006, was “relearning the world” too, like her three distinctly voiced characters. With steady pacing and brief sectioned chapters, Lost & Found will strike a chord with anyone who has ever considered the many forms of missing someone and the different shapes of acceptance. Fans of The Rosie Project by fellow Australian author Graeme Simsion may also want to give this strong first effort a try.
Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives is the perfect book for customers clamoring for their holds on Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment. Like Klay, Pitre is also a former Marine who served in Iraq before returning home to chronicle his thoughts in writing, using fiction to reveal the realest truths.
Fives and Twenty-Fives reads as an assemblage of harrowing experiences Pitre survived while on active duty, told through three characters whose stories are woven into a moving novel. These three Marines comprise a portion of an Iraq Road Repair Platoon that sweeps U.S. military routes through the desert in search of hidden explosives. Donovan, the lieutenant, tries to lead and represent his squad while combatting the weight of self-loathing and the isolation of rank amidst imminent ambush. Lester “Doc” Pleasant is the platoon’s medic responsible for the lives of his teammates, but after witnessing a Marine overlook a live bomb, he resorts to his field kit for solace. Road Repair’s interpreter is an intelligent third-world post-grad named Kateb, known as callsign “Dodge” by his platoon. Dodge harbors an internal war between morality and loyalty that keeps him distanced from the Marines. Whenever his wall of superficiality is breached by violence, Dodge folds into a disheveled copy of Huck Finn and reflects on the university life that was stolen from him.
With a supporting unit of strongly humanized soldiers, Road Repair wages perpetual war with scorching desert conditions and treacherous insurgent traps. Pitre illustrates these losing battles without overwhelming readers with military jargon or trivializing the emotions and dispatches. Even with checks like fives and twenty-fives in place, it’s impossible to return from deployment unscathed.
Sometimes the Wolf: A Novel by Urban Waite is about a small town sheriff and his son. Thinking about Andy Griffith? Only if Andy is in jail for dealing drugs, Opie’s married and a deputy himself, Barney Fife is in charge and Aunt Bea doesn’t exist. In other words, this isn’t Mayberry.
Bobby Drake, deputy in Silver Lake, Washington, has a lot on his plate. He is tracking a rogue wolf through the Cascade Mountains, his marriage is strained and his father Patrick, a former Silver Lake sheriff, is newly free on parole after serving 12 years for his part in a drug smuggling ring. He is also moving in with Bobby. Add in a DEA agent who is determined to pin an unsolved murder and theft of a few hundred thousand dollars on Patrick, as well as a chilling pair of escaped convicts who are chasing after both Patrick and the money, and Bobby is stressed. Trying to understand why his father, an officer of the law, became a criminal strains the relationship between the two men to the point of breaking.
Waite’s writing is sometimes compared to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, with his matter-of-fact prose and tense stories which march along a seemingly inevitable path of increasing violence, creating a sense of both dread and anticipation for the reader. Loyalty and vengeance propel this father and son thriller as Sometimes the Wolf reveals that redemption can come when least expected.
The rugged terrain of Derbyshire provides a melancholy backdrop for Already Dead by Barry Award winner Stephen Booth. The summer rains bring mud, floods and a corpse laying in a shallow ditch. Detective Diane Fry, substituting as team leader for the absent Ben Cooper, gloomily ponders a crime scene as it is inexorably swept downstream. There is more bad news: the victim is an unassuming insurance agent who lives at home with his mother and doesn’t have enough of a personality to like or dislike. Who would want to kill such a person? Struggling to inspire loyalty from another detective’s team, Diane remembers the qualities that make Ben Cooper such a good detective and wonders where in the world he is.
Tragically, Ben Cooper lost his fiancée while they were both investigating a crime scene. Trapped in a fire, Ben desperately attempted to reach her, only to be overcome by smoke and flames. Recovering from his injuries, he is trapped in a nightmare of memories of that deadly night and his single-minded resolve to gain justice for his murdered fiancée. For murder it was – it was arson. Deliberate, callous, reckless disregard for human life to make a profit. But the law doesn’t always provide redress, and the guilty sometimes go free. Devastated, Ben spends his days roaming the Dales, biding his opportune moment for revenge.
This taut police procedural featuring Detective Sergeants Diane Fry and Ben Cooper is the 13th entry in the series. While the other offerings in this series are all equally satisfying, this work could read as a standalone, as the author provides a vivid portrayal of the preceding events. Booth consistently provides deep insight into the inner workings of the British constabulary, particularly the plight of the more rural districts. Well-drawn characters, compelling moral situations and good old-fashioned police work can always be found in Booth’s work. Fans of Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell will find a new friend in this author.
Jonathan Sweetwater is a high-powered executive with two beautiful children and a gorgeous wife, Claire, in Mike Greenberg’s My Father’s Wives. Life is perfect until he comes home early one day and thinks he hears Claire in bed with another man in their guest room. Not bothering to open the door, he flees their home to grapple with this shattering event.
Rather than confront Claire head-on, Jonathan hires a private investigator to track her every move and embarks on a road trip to process this information and figure out his future. He decides to track down his father’s ex-wives in order to learn more about the man who deserted him at age 9 who is now deceased. Percival Sweetwater was a respected and powerful five-time U.S. senator who was beloved by constituents, but had a little difficulty in remaining married. After Jonathan’s mother, Percival married five more times, leading Jonathan to dub him a serial monogamist all while vowing never to adopt his cavalier approach to marriage. In connecting with each of the wives in his father’s life, Jonathon seeks to learn more about this charismatic man, find out why he had so many wives and how he could have deserted his only child.
Greenberg, familiar to ESPN viewers as one-half of Mike & Mike in the Morning, tells this story with clean dialogue, interesting characters and detailed colorful settings from Aspen to Nevis to London. The engaging writing will keep readers intrigued until the very end as they, like Jonathan, are longing to know the truth of Claire’s fidelity and discover the answers Jonathan found from all of his father’s wives.