Saint X: A Novel

Release Date:  Today, February 18, 2020 / Available here from your local indie bookstore!

There are two sides to everything.  Simple folk wisdom that we use and hear so much it’s almost meaningless.  Nevertheless, it is still wisdom.  And it is this universal dichotomy that Alexis Schaitkin examines in her excellent novel Saint X.  Further, where I am today is rainy, foggy and gloomy, just nasty, so, heck yeah, let’s go to a Caribbean island.  Saint X itself is an island with two sides.  There’s the beautiful side where the resorts are, and the not so beautiful where the islanders go about their lives.  The beautiful side is still relatively unspoiled, not overrun by tourists, so the Thomases congratulate themselves on their choice of vacation spot on Indigo Bay.  Their two daughters, college freshman Alison and seven-year-old Clair, are of two minds about the whole thing.  Pretty, vivacious Alison wants to party.  Clair is a rather odd child, pale and awkward, an observer.  On the last morning of their vacation, Clair wakes her parents and tells them that Alison is gone.  Just gone.  Her body is found sometime later under a beautiful waterfall on an uninhabited island overrun by goats.  And two black men employed by the resort, Edwin and Clive, are suspected.  She partied with them.

Ah, so it’s a murder mystery then?  No, no, it most definitely is not. Certainly it is reminiscent of the famous Natalee Holloway disappearance on the island of Aruba.  In this case, we know that there is a death, but, as in Natalee’s case, we don’t know if it’s a murder.  Unquestionably there’s a mystery, and there are bereft parents, searches, law enforcement, news media, interrogations, witnesses, all that.  However, the depth and unquestionable quality of this book places it well above a “murder mystery” in the customary sense of that term.  Two sides.  Heads, tails.  Concave, convex.  Beauty, squalor.  Edwin and Clive.  Alison and Clair.

Clair is left to grieve and come to terms for the rest of her life – her shining star of an older sister, the beautiful, accomplished girl who snuck out at night to party, drink and dance with Edwin and Clive.  “My sister was an innocent, blameless in her horrific fate.  And it was all her fault.”  Edwin and Clive, too, must start over, and Clive moves to New York where Clair pursues him and, ultimately, develops an odd relationship with this man, built on both suspicion and trust.  “I had to find a way to understand how truth and untruth make each other.”  Saint X  – truly excellent fiction.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Celadon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g

I was loving it.  I did love it.  I do love it, but there’s a but, and we’ll get to that later.  Snarkily self-protective high school student Helen Dedleder (hmm, her dad’s a postman) lives in Rosary, California.  Her mother is deceased, so it’s just Helen and her dad, but her dad is zombified with grief, so her Aunt Bev, a psychic, moves to Rosary and opens the Psychic Encounter Shoppe, henceforth referred to as the shoppe.  Now, Rosary, you see, is home to a giant belching refinery, lots and lots of churches and lots and lots of religious folks that Helen calls Thumpers.  The Thumpers pretty much control Rosary, and they are not happy to have a psychic shoppe in their town.  They’re even more unhappy with Aunt Bev’s second job in the back of the shoppe after hours.

Helen and her friends call themselves the Dickheads and they hang out after school at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage, drinking beer.  Thumpers aren’t happy with the Dickheads either, and the Dickheads aren’t happy with the Thumpers, so there you go.  Me, I was riding the crest – sexually-obsessed teenagers, quirky misfit angst, a rollicking good time.  Then, near the end, almost home-free with a standing ovation, Ms. Hassman throws in an ill-advised scene that gave me the vapors.  I won’t go into it, but I will say that no one is hurt, so there’s that.  It is, however, ugly, unnecessary, and unnecessarily ugly.  Now this particular scene might not bother you; it doesn’t have to.  And, when all is said and done, this is a meaningful book, a raucous riot of a book, but……..it did bother me.  So, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Farrar, Straus and Giroux will put this novel in your hands on August 13 as long as you shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby

On a bitterly cold, windy winter day, Michael and Caitlin meet at Coney Island.  It is deserted, shuttered, “…a place for the damned to drift, wait their turn at nothingness.”  They’ve been meeting here for twenty or so years, spending one afternoon a month (first Tuesdays) in a series of worn motel rooms, and this one particular winter afternoon frames the entirety of Billy O’Callaghan’s poignant novel.  This afternoon is no different from all those that came before, but they are growing older, and for all those years, at the end of all those first Tuesdays, Michael returns to Barb and Caitlin returns to Thomas.  Lives are lived, time passes.  We are bound, and the status quo is durable.  But what about endings?  Will there be a hiding place from endings?  Will we even recognize them when they come?

Mr. O’Callaghan is an Irishman with a prodigious gift, the gift of words, words that rasp, tumble, lilt, thunder and ravish.  At times, perhaps, a bit self-indulgent, but if you love the magic of words, this is pure pleasure all the same.  In spite of this bounty, I was not totally invested in Michael and Caitlin as a couple, in their relationship, the doggedness of it.  It just seems so unlikely.  Is “why” the central question, the one we’re meant to ask?  If so, then I’m asking it, but the answer is beyond me.

There are three books of short stories and one other novel, The Dead House, by this talented author, and, based on the richness he brings to the backstories of Michael and Caitlin in Coney Island Baby, I’m thinking short fiction may be his forte, but no matter.  He can write the lights out.

Out now so support your local independent bookseller by ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

What wild wretched excess this book is.  A creative furor.  You know how we’re often told that it’s not wise to do something or other just because we can, that some things are better left undone?  Well, Trent Dalton can and does.  He not only pulls out all the stops, he pulls it off, and it is wonderful – over the top, packed to the brim, a real gusher of a read.  We meet Eli Bell at the age of twelve, an old soul with a lucky freckle on his right forefinger.  He is younger brother to Augustus, who is mute by choice and otherworldly.  When too young to remember, both boys were nearly drowned by their biological father and now live with their Mum and boyfriend Lyle, small time drug dealers and users.  Their babysitter is Slim Halliday, a notorious prison escapee, who may or may not have murdered a taxi driver with a hammer, and something of a philosopher.  You tend to get that way when, like Slim, you’ve been through some stuff.  But it’s not all bad ‘cause the boys love and are loved by Mum, Lyle and Slim.

Don’t you know, though, original sin will get you every time.  Lyle gets ambitious and runs afoul of some seriously ugly evil in the drug trade:  “Back Off” Bich Dang, Vietnamese entrepreneur, pillar of the community, supplier to Lyle and a wicked, wicked woman; the wonderfully named Tytus Broz, manufacturer of prosthetic limbs, also pillar of the community, filthy rich drug kingpin and truly heartless bastard; and Iwan Kroll, unlikely llama farmer, cadaverous, shivery, sadistically cruel, and Tytus Broz’s hitman.  Sub-plots, mysterious depths and reflections, secondary twists, back stories, side roads and diversions in abundance, lyrical, silly and gory; but, good gravy, it all works, so let’s not analyze it.  Set in Australia by an Australian.  Some of the best writers on the planet.  Nature or nurture?

Boy Swallows Universe is in bookstores now.  Shop your local indie bookstore for it.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went to the Woods

Ms. Dolan-Leach’s second novel is a good one, well-told and smartly paced.  Its strength, however, is in the characters, a thoroughly unappealing lot, a nest of millennial vipers.  Five self-absorbed twenty-somethings take to an ancient rustic farm/camp in New York State to live a utopian life and show the corrupt and misguided (everybody else, pretty much) a different way to live, how to do it right and save the planet…….in other words.  Why are they the anointed appointed?  Oh, you know.  They are educated, hip, mostly privileged and just all ‘round superior.  They know nothing of agriculture and choose to ignore the failure of previous utopian attempts, but they do have one singular advantage.  The property belongs to the lawyer father of Louisa, the driving force.  Well, hey, now.  That was easy.  And, yet, in Ms. Dolan-Leach’s deft hands, you really want to know what happens to the little snots.  You really, really do.

The story of this ill-fated group is told in the first person by Mack (MacKenzie), the fifth member, and she tells a riveting tale.  The last to join the group, Mack is besotted by them at first and worries whether or not she can truly belong.  With the passage of time, growing hardship and some research, Mack’s perception begins to crumble.  As does the undertaking itself.  You might not like most of these folks, but you will like this book.  You will read, you will care, and you’ll wonder what they’d be like twenty-five years later.

Drops July 2 from Random House.  Shop your local indie bookstore for Caite Dolan-Leach’s intriguing tale.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Sharon Kernot’s The Art of Taxidermy

Australian author.  Beautiful book.  I love my Aussies.  The Art of Taxidermy is described as Ms. Kernot’s second novel, but it’s very short, maybe an hour and a half to read, so…..a novella?  Maybe, but who cares?  It is (drum roll, please) poetry.  Read it as poetry, and let the words sing.  Eleven year old Lottie has lost too many loved ones in her short life, including her mother, and she develops a fascination with death.  She begins to collect dead things as she struggles to come to grips with transformation – from life to death to what?  And what again after that?  I was entranced.  Got in bed one night, started to read, and simply did not stop until this book was done.  Spare, lovely and unforgettable.

You can get this gorgeous book with the gorgeous cover on August 23 from Text Publishing. Shop your local indie bookstore to pre-order this title.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Text Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.