The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories

by Donald Antrim

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 176

Who is this author?

Donald Antrim is hailed by literary critics as one of the finest contemporary American authors. His novels include Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist, and his memoir, The Afterlife, memorialized his talented and tragic mother and her indelible effect on his life. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where all the stories in The Emerald Light In the Air first appeared, and he is an associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University. He won a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, known informally as a “genius grant.”  Emerald was named as a Best Book of 2014 by The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement and The Independent.

What is this book about?

It’s about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but described in the most extraordinary fashion. This is a compilation of pieces Antrim has written over the past 17 years, and each captures emotionally fragile people at a turning point, and not necessarily a good one. His characters do simple things like trying to buy flowers, taking a walk through the city, coupling and uncoupling, driving through a forest: but nothing ever is simple in an Antrim story. He writes with amazing control and insight, and this collection will add additional gloss to his already shining reputation.

Why you’ll like it:

In 1999, Antrim made the prestigious New Yorker list of the 20 best writers under age 40. Today, he would undoubtedly make any list of 20 best writers over that age. He has been called “one of our period’s true artists of anxiety,” a description you will understand if you read his new collection. He presents deeply flawed people in a unsparing yet empathetic way: you feel for these people, fear for them and hope, with fingers crossed, that they will survive their richly detailed experience intact. Antrim has himself suffered emotional breakdowns and knows the bleak and dangerous territory of anxiety all too well. That he can take such raw and painful material and turn it into such delicately powerful stories is a testament to his considerable talent.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The seven gripping stories gathered in Antrim’s long-awaited debut collection showcase the author’s ability to employ surreal and traditional modes to describe the emotional demons plaguing his characters. The opening story, “An Actor Prepares,” is about a dean at a “small liberal-arts institution” who shares his creepy experiences directing a twisted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The quietly troubling “Pond, With Mud” draws out an awkward chance encounter between a man and his girlfriend’s son’s biological father in a train station. The remaining five stories speak to each other to form a sort of thematic saga, which portrays the nuanced connections between flawed but sympathetic characters. “Solace” highlights the pleasant early stages of a relationship, and follows a couple’s romantic rendezvous in their friends’ New York apartments; more seasoned pairs are entangled and on the brink of collapse, but maneuver around each other to achieve temporary harmony in “Another Manhattan,” “He Knew,” and “Ever Since.” Antrim is well attuned to the idiosyncracies that define the rhythm of a relationship, and is particularly adept at giving shape to the complications that inevitably arise between lovers. A collection of great depth to be read, reread, and above all, relished.”

“In the last few years one of my favorite novelists, Donald Antrim, has devoted himself to short stories—not as finger exercises, but with a combined intensity, delicacy, and feeling for tradition that set him apart from any writer of his generation . . . What is it about Antrim? He writes as if prose were his native language: his sentences have the matter-of-fact pathos and absurdity of dreams . . . His themes are the Chekhovian classics—ambivalence toward the life at hand; yearning for the life that might have been—and he evokes unhappy love with a sensuousness and a subtle, plausible magic that recall Cheever at his best,” says Lorin Stein in The Paris Review Daily.

“No one writes more eloquently about the male crack-up and the depths of loneliness than Donald Antrim; the stories in The Emerald Light in the Air, hopscotching between the surreal and ordinary, comic and heartbreaking, are dazzling,” says Vanity Fair.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Couples unravel and anxieties are revealed in this batch of urbane, wry and interior stories enlivened by Antrim’s talent for gamesmanship with words. Antrim’s debut story collection—his first book of fiction since The Verificationist (2000) — sticks to a remarkably narrow set of premises. In “Pond, With Mud,” a hard-drinking New Yorker is losing his grip on reality and growing distant from his fiancée  and young would-be stepson; in “Another Manhattan,” a mentally ill New Yorker is failing at the simple act of buying his wife some flowers before dinner; in “Ever Since,” a couple grows strained at a boozy New York literary party. This repetition of setups would be tiring were Antrim not so capable of conjuring a variety of tones and surprising amount of subtlety from these common predicaments. In “Another Manhattan,” for instance, the man’s illness is slowly and powerfully revealed by his inability to stop the florist from adding more and more flowers to the bouquet; as the gift absurdly blossoms, his despair falls into sharp relief. “An Actor Prepares” is a more surrealist look at emotional fissures narrated by a college acting teacher whose guidance to his cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals both his sexual fixations and romantic failures. And in the closing title story, a man left suicidal by a broken relationship heads back home and, through a series of misadventures, winds up navigating his car through a forest. “The Emerald Light in the Air” refers to the sickly tint in the air before a storm, which captures the overall mood of these stories, where bad news seems to be just about ready to come raining down. But there’s wisdom and humor here, too; Antrim is attuned to the way couples struggle to make themselves heard or obscure their true feelings. A deceptively spiky set of meditations on romantic failure.”

Library Journal says: The stories in Antrim’s engaging new collection have been published . . . in The New Yorker. Many are set in Manhattan, but they are not stereotypically brittle New York stories. Antrim’s city dwellers are perpetual renters of fifth-floor walk-ups with careers they cannot sustain as lawyers or painters or actors. They drink more than they should (one story is called “Another Manhattan”), fall easily into infidelities, have a taste for fine clothing they cannot afford, and check themselves in and out of the city’s psychiatric wards. At the outset of a story called “He Knew,” a husband feels that “he might soon be coming out of the Dread.” He leads his chronically panicked wife on their ritual walk along Madison Avenue, stopping first at Bergdorf Goodman and then working their way “north through the East Sixties and Seventies, into the low Eighties, touring the expensive shops.” The whole story happens as they walk, worry, and lose each other along the way, and we worry right along with them. VERDICT Master storyteller Antrim has an original voice and an acute sensitivity to the spectrum of human emotion. These are stories this reviewer won’t soon forget.”

When is it available?

Antrim’s fine collection of stories is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Story Hour

By Thrity Umrigar

(Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in India and educated there and in Ohio at Ohio State University and Kent State University, Thrity Umrigar is both a journalist and an author, whose five previous novels are The World We Found, The Weight of Heaven, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time. She also wrote a memoir, First Darling of the Morning. As a journalist, she has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Huffington Post and other newspapers. Her awards include a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard and the 2009 Cleveland Arts Prize. Umrigar is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University and lives in Cleveland.

What is this book about?

A psychologist, who knows that it goes against professional ethics to befriend a patient, nevertheless finds herself so caught up in one woman’s problems that they do become close, and that closeness brings with it both good and bad results. That basic outline may sound like a dry case study in the dangers of attachments, but in Umrigar’s capable hands, it is a very moving, human story.

Maggie, a black woman married to an Indian man, is the doctor. Lakshmi, an Indian woman trapped in a bleak arranged marriage, is the suicidal patient. As they become friends they let down barriers, and while the openness and caring are truly therapeutic for Lakshmi, they risk setting up expectations that perhaps are unrealistic, as it turns out that the doctor has some secrets of her own that shock the patient and vice versa. Can forgiveness and willingness to honor second chances win out when the foundations of a relationship are shaken?

Why you’ll like it:

Umrigar makes a strong case here for human compassion and connectedness, for the power of genuine friendship to enlarge the people involved and for the realization that reaching out can sometimes result in painful choices. You will learn from it, and, according to what Umrigar told an NPR interviewer, so did she:

“What happened to me in the course of writing this book is that I came to a new understanding of what the stock therapy model actually means. And it made me realize that it’s really a tribute to the act of storytelling — that it is in telling different stories about ourselves one central narrative emerges, and once that happens, there is potential then to play with that narrative and change it, and that is how personal transformation can perhaps begin to occur, which, of course, is the ultimate goal of therapy. And I do believe there is something extremely valuable and cathartic about telling each other our life stories.”

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “The sixth novel from Umrigar is a deeply moving portrait of connection, disconnection, and missed connections set in an unnamed Northeastern university city. Maggie Bose is a black psychologist married to an Indian man; when an Indian woman, Lakshmi, is admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt, Maggie is assigned the case. She understands the woman’s sense of isolation, and offers to treat her pro bono. Lakshmi is lonely, married to a man who doesn’t love her, and she works without pay in his grocery store and restaurant. Maggie tries to befriend Lakshmi by telling her stories about her life. When Lakshmi brings food as thanks, Maggie and her husband encourage the patient to accept catering jobs in order to earn her own money. Soon, the lines blur between patient and friend. A secret from Lakshmi’s past and the impulsive action that follows her discovery of Maggie’s affair change their lives. Although Umrigar is sometimes heavy-handed, this compassionate and memorable novel is remarkable for the depth and complexity of its characters.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Maggie is normally very careful to maintain professional boundaries in her clinical practice. Yet when she begins treating Lakshmi, a young Indian woman who has been hospitalized after attempting suicide, the woman’s loneliness strikes a chord in the African American psychologist, and Maggie realizes that what she needs more than therapy is a friend.

“What starts out as a project of sorts for Maggie to get Lakshmi to value her own worth develops into a true friendship. The narrative alternates by chapter between the two women as a bond between them develops despite cultural and educational differences – that is, until a revealed secret threatens to destroy how they view each other. Critically acclaimed Indian American writer Umrigar’s most recent novel explores cross-cultural friendships, troubled marriages, love, loss, and forgiveness with her characteristic wisdom, humor, and warmth. VERDICT This satisfying, psychologically complex story will appeal to a wide range of readers. Because its characters are both smart and likable without being sentimental or idealized, it may appeal to the chick lit crowd as much as to readers who enjoy multicultural literary fiction.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Umrigar’s novel begins as a small domestic drama and develops into a forceful examination of identity, cultural isolation and the power of storytelling. When Dr. Maggie Bose first meets Lakshmi after the young woman’s suicide attempt, she can already guess at Lakshmi’s story—abusive husband, familial separation, cultural isolation—a life in America that is so like those of the many other immigrant women she’s treated. They begin weekly therapy sessions, though Lakshmi seems unaware of the purpose—are they not new friends, simply sharing their stories? Lakshmi’s tales of her Indian village, of the time she saved the landowner’s son, her care for the village elephant, her pride at a hard-won education, are shadowed by her current life in a cold Midwestern college town. Her husband treats her with contempt, demands she work long hours at his restaurant and, perhaps worse, forbids contact with her family in India. Maggie suspects Lakshmi is less in need of psychotherapy than autonomy. Maggie and her husband, Sudhir (an Indian math professor, a fact that delights Lakshmi), begin promoting her as a caterer to their friends. Maggie teaches her to drive. Lakshmi’s independence even improves her marriage. And then Lakshmi tells Maggie a story that rewrites her whole narrative; she did a shocking thing, and for these six years in America, she has been the villain and her husband, the victim. Maggie is now repelled, though she has her own secrets. Despite 30 years of happy marriage to Sudhir, she is having a reckless affair. When Lakshmi finds out, this destroys the story of Maggie and Sudhir’s enviable marriage, and so Lakshmi takes revenge. The novel begins with a suicide attempt and ends with the regenerating possibilities of storytelling as a means of healing, of shaping identity, of endlessly re-creating the world. An impressive writer, Umrigar delivers another smart, compulsively readable work. “

Says the Boston Globe: “A taut, suspenseful page-turner with depth, heart, and psychological credibility whose believable and enduring characters ponder the meaning of friendship, the challenges of marriage, and the value of storytelling itself.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory

By Anne Farrow

(Wesleyan University Press, $27.95, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Anne Farrow, a former editor and reporter for the Cape Cod Times and The Courant and itsNortheast Magazine, where she joined colleagues in publishing the 2005 bestseller Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery, now writes about Connecticut’s history in the 18th and 19th centuries and how trading in ivory and slaves connected the state to Africa. Farrow lives in Haddam.

What is this book about?

In Logbooks, Farrow links two true and seemingly disparate stories: how a famous and wealthy Connecticut family profited for many years from the slave trade and how her mother’s life was destroyed by dementia. The unexpected link is the slippery and elusive quality of memory: Farrow writes that if we cannot remember things – if our understanding of our own history is not complete – then we cannot hope to know who we really are. She chronicles how Saltonstall family ships sailed from Connecticut to Sierra Leone in the mid-1700s to pick up fresh water and slaves, all duly noted in logbooks kept by young Dudley Saltonstall, son of the owner,  that document three such voyages. Citing other writers, historians and psychologists, Farrow explores how it is possible to lose or just ignore recollections, and how that capacity for forgetting worked efficiently to hide memories of Connecticut’s complicity in the slave trade and thereby dull the guilt that should have remained sharp.

Why you’ll like it:

Farrow says: “. . .the 80 handwritten pages of Dudley Saltonstall’s logbooks offer a painful glimpse of a vanished past. They are an emissary from that time, proof of something that really happened. They are a powerful form of evidence.”

She provides plenty of evidence in this painstakingly researched and well-written exploration of history and memory. Here are more of her thoughts, written during the troubles in Ferguson, Mo., for www.philly.com:

“Slavery in America was not a footnote, not “the sad chapter” of our history but the cornerstone of our making. Three generations of eminent historians have documented the astonishing scope, duration, economic importance, and savagery of bondage in America, but this key piece of our past still is not prominent in the narrative of our nation.

“In studying a set of 18th-century ships’ logs linking Connecticut and the slave trade, I saw that when we made stolen black labor our national bedrock and created a system where inferiority was identifiable by color, we doomed ourselves to the present day and a nation where justice and parity for black people have not been achieved.

“The best and most educated people owned slaves, promulgated its benefits, and enjoyed the wealth slavery created – the keeper of my Connecticut logbooks was not an obscure mariner but a Saltonstall and the scion of an aristocratic family.

“This comfort level with the omnipresence of human bondage became a cascading series of accepted and pathological untruths: Black people were designed for slavery; they didn’t mind being enslaved; they weren’t really human; and they didn’t recognize degradation and injustice.

“If, as a country, we truly understood the extraordinary human catastrophe we created when we became economically dependent on the oppression of black people, if we took this in all its terrible dimensions into our hearts and then our history, we would not be scratching our heads over Ferguson. We would understand exactly why the legacy of enslavement is raging through our cities and begin to do something about it.”

What others are saying:

For www.truthdig.com,  Paul von Blum writes:

“This especially engaging book examines the impact of the logbooks she discovered in 2004, written by 18-year-old Dudley Saltonstall, a crewman on three voyages of sailing ships owned by an affluent Connecticut merchant in the mid-18th century. Saltonstall and his fellow crew members were on a mission to West Africa to purchase black people as slaves—as he noted in the logbooks, “to take on slaves, wood, and water”—and to sell them to England’s colonial possessions in the Caribbean.

“Some of the residual human “cargo” returned to New England, where their unwilling abduction and forced labor created the foundation of wealth both in that region and in America. These voyages were an integral part of the broader transatlantic slave trade that has forever despoiled Western history and inextricably links American racial politics of the present and recent past to its historical roots. . . .

“Farrow’s inclusion of her mother’s dementia in her book, however, goes far beyond a personal story alone. It is inextricably linked to the broader theme: memory and history. By addressing her mother’s loss of memory, and thus the loss of her personal identity, the author encourages her readers to move from the micro to the macro. The achingly human consequences of dementia transform memory and history from an abstraction into something powerfully human and concrete. By juxtaposing her mother’s story with the logbooks of Dudley Saltonstall, she underscores her central premise: Americans still fundamentally lack a meaningful memory of a slave labor system that held millions of people in savage bondage.”

“A powerful story, heartbreaking, revealing, and redemptive. The Logbooks invites us to join a voyage of discovery into the ‘triangles’ of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—a deeply personal and empathetic exploration of history, memory, and identity. To lose our grasp on the past, Farrow reminds us, is to become unmoored from our selves,” says John Wood Sweet of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Anne Farrow has been on a remarkable journey over the past several years, and this book is a record of that sojourn. In a sense, it is itself a logbook. Farrow’s strong and passionate voice, her deep, even fierce empathy, comes through powerfully as she leads the reader along the path that she took toward a personal engagement with Connecticut’s involvement with slavery—and the slave trade—challenging the reader to really see this aspect of our history as ‘not a chapter but the book itself,’” says author and historian Robert P. Forbes.

“Anne Farrow’s book is courageous, captivating, and necessary. Once again, Farrow has demonstrated that she is a masterful historian, educator, and storyteller, guiding readers through yesterday’s hard truths and making connections to today,” says Olivia S. White, executive director, The Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

When is it available?

This important book is widely available in the Hartford Library system and can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field, Goodwin, Mark Twain and Park branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


African American Connecticut Explored

Edited by Elizabeth J. Normen  with  Katherine J. Harris, Stacey K. Close and Wm. Frank Mitchell

(Wesleyan, University Press, $40, 452 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth J. Normen is publisher of Connecticut Explored, the nonprofit magazine of Connecticut history, which is created with input from 30 heritage, arts and educational organizations across the state. She lives in West Hartford and holds degrees from Smith College and Trinity College, and has worked in arts management for Hartford area museums, including the Wadsworth Atheneum and Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington and the nonprofit arts-funding Ann T. Roberts Foundation.

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m., Normen and Stacey Close, professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University, will give a free Director’s College Series talk at Farmington Library, 6 Monteith Dr., Farmington. Advance registration is required: 860-673-6791 or http://www.farmingtonlibraries.org.

What is this book about?

Did you know that in the nearly 400 years of its existence, Connecticut allowed slavery for 205 years, until abolishing it in 1848? That is just one of the myriad facts you will learn in African American Connecticut Explored, a book of essays by prominent state historians and others. The subjects include the Black Governors of Connecticut, nationally important black abolitionists such as clergymen Amos Beman and James Pennington, the African American community’s response to the Amistad trial, the letters of Joseph O. Cross of the 29th Regiment of Colored Volunteers in the Civil War and the Civil Rights work of baseball great Jackie Robinson. Singer Marion Anderson and author Ann Petry, as well as business people, community leaders, educators and others are profiled.The book also documents the daily life of African Americans over time, including communities that formed in the early1800s. This book is a collaboration of Connecticut Explored and the Amistad Center for Art & Culture, with support from the State Historic Preservation Office and Connecticut’s Freedom Trail.

The contributing writers are Billie M. Anthony, Christopher Baker, Whitney Bayers, Barbara Beeching, Andra Chantim, Stacey K. Close, Jessica Colebrook, Christopher Collier, Hildegard Cummings, Barbara Donahue, Mary M. Donohue, Nancy Finlay, Jessica A. Gresko, Katherine J. Harris, Charles (Ben) Hawley, Peter Hinks, Graham Russell Gao Hodges, Eileen Hurst, Dawn Byron Hutchins, Carolyn B. Ivanoff, Joan Jacobs, Mark H. Jones, Joel Lang, Melonae’ McLean, Wm. Frank Mitchell, Hilary Moss, Cora Murray, Elizabeth J. Normen, Elisabeth Petry, Cynthia Reik, Ann Y. Smith, John Wood Sweet, Charles A. Teale Sr., Barbara M. Tucker, Tamara Verrett, Liz Warner, David O. White, and Yohuru Williams.

Why you’ll like it:

Here in one volume, told in many different voices, is an aspect of Connecticut’s history too long unknown or ignored by many of its residents. African American Connecticut  history is, of course, everyone’s Connecticut history, as events and issues concerning that community did not arise in a vacuum. Some readers may know some of the facts and stories in this book, but it’s likely that few know all of them. Readers in Connecticut or in any state, for that matter, will learn a great deal from this richly researched and well-told account.

What others are saying:

“African American Connecticut Explored is an ambitious and important book that covers the broad arc of Connecticut’s African American history from the colonial era through the mid-twentieth century. This is a welcomed addition to early African Americana,” says Erica Armstrong Dunbar, associate professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware.

Says historian and author Jeremy Brecher:  “This is the first publication that brings the entire arc of Connecticut African American history together in a single volume based on serious scholarship and a comprehensive, social history-oriented perspective. It is a rich compendium of information and insight.”

When is it available?

This book is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

 

The Ways of the Dead

By Neely Tucker

(Viking, $27.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Neely Tucker is a seventh-generation Mississippian who was the top journalism student in his class at the University of Mississippi. He went on to a stellar career as a reporter, working for Florida Today, Gannett News Service, the Miami Herald, and the Detroit Free Press, for whom he ran the paper’s European Bureau in 1993. He’s been at the Washington Post for the past 14 years and was a foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife adopted a daughter (they also have 4-year-old twin sons). Publishers Weekly chose his 2004 memoir, Love in the Driest Season, as one of the Best 25 Books of the Year. His reporting has taken him to more than 60 countries or territories around the world. The family has a big Rottweiler named Sully, which, probably not coincidentally, is also the name of the hero of his new novel, a journalist investigating a murder in Washington, D.C.

What is this book about?

The daughter of a Washington judge is found dead in a slum and three black youths are accused, but a veteran (and hard-drinking, of course) reporter looking into the case believes the killing is connected instead to several under-investigated cold cases and the disappearance of a student. This first in what is planned as a series of crime novels is based on an actual case in the 1990s known as the Princeton Place murders. The city wants a quick conviction, but Sully, despite pressure from the government, cops and his own bosses, just wants the truth. That he may be risking his own life to reveal it just adds to the tension and excitement.

Why you’ll like it:

It takes a veteran newsman to conjure up a credible veteran newsman, and Tucker has the chops to do it with style as well as substance. He also captures the days before the Internet began sapping the strength and power of print. Readers of his work for the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine know that he is an exhilarating wordsmith, and if you are not already familiar with his work, you will enjoy making the acquaintance of this captivating writer.

What others are saying:

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Sarah Reese was murdered in a bad neighborhood in Washington, D.C., while waiting for her mother to pick her up from dance class. She was not the first girl to die in the area, but she was the first white girl, setting off a storm of media attention. Three young African American men had been taunting her before she ran off, and they were easy arrests for the police anxious to solve the case. Reporter Sully Carter, however, pieces together—based on the number of young women missing and dead in the area—a more likely scenario involving a serial killer. The police and Carter’s bosses at the paper don’t agree, but he sticks to his guns and does his own investigation, fighting authority all the way. If this story sounds familiar, it should—it’s based on the Princeton Place murders that occurred in Washington in the late 1990s. By placing the novel in that same era, when newspapers, rather than the Internet, were still the primary source for news, journalist Tucker is free to use the newsroom as the focus for his story. He has a great protagonist, too, in Carter, a hard-bitten reporter carrying plenty of baggage—just right for a series lead. With the emphasis on gritty urban life in a city rife with racism and blight, the novel evokes the Washington, D.C., of George Pelecanos. This riveting debut novel should spawn a terrific series.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Foreign correspondent Tucker uses the real-life Princeton Place murders in Washington, D.C., during the 1990s as background for his exciting fiction debut. The murder of Sarah Reese, the 15-year-old daughter of a politically connected Washington judge, turns unwanted attention to the predominately black neighborhood where she was killed. But newspaper reporter Sully Carter sees a larger story about several missing area women and a murdered prostitute. Sully turns to neighborhood crime boss Sly Hastings for help when politicians, the police, and his own editors don’t care about these cold cases, which he believes are linked to the teenager’s death. The quick arrest of three young black men for Sarah’s murder makes Sully suspicious. The brisk plot is punctuated by an insightful view of journalism and manipulative editors, shady politicians, and apathetic cops, while also showing residents working to create a better neighborhood. Readers will be pleased that Tucker leaves room for a sequel.”

A starred review from Kirkus says: “Clinton-era Washington, D.C., provides the squalid, menacing backdrop for this crisp, crafty and sharply observed debut by a seasoned reporter. As the curtain’s about to fall on the 20th century, Sully Carter, a one-time war correspondent weighed down with physical and psychological scars, finds himself working the crime beat in Washington, D.C., at a time when criminal behavior is all but taken for granted at opposite ends of the sociopolitical spectrum. For all of Sully’s battle-hardened professionalism, his bosses don’t think he’s quite stable—or sober—enough to cover the murder of a teenage girl near a convenience store, especially since the victim is the daughter of a high-profile federal judge with whom Sully’s had (let’s say) negative history. Nevertheless, Sully works as if he’s in a war zone and eventually connects this murder with a series of cold cases involving dead and missing young women in the same at-risk neighborhood. Tucker, a 25-year newspaper veteran who’s spent most of his career at the Washington Post, writes with rueful authority and caustic familiarity about the District’s criminal and working classes as well as the dreary anxiety of working for a fin-de-siècle big-city newspaper. Along with an ear for inner-city argot almost as finely tuned as those of Elmore Leonard and fellow D.C. crime writer George Pelacanos, Tucker has a knack for ingenious plotting that jolts his narrative into unexpected directions. The shocks resound with acrid, illuminating insights into the District’s nettlesome intersections of race and class at the hinge of the millennium. Rich yet taut description, edgy storytelling, rock-and-rolling dialogue, and a deeply flawed but compelling hero add up to a luminous first novel.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Sarah Reese, the white teenage daughter of a prominent judge, is found murdered behind a convenience store in Washington, DC. Three young black guys are fingered for the murder simply because they had pestered her earlier. Thus begins a late 1990s-set, headlines-grabbing story that Sully Carter, a Mississippi-born veteran reporter, is covering. Although former Bosnian war correspondent Sully suffers from PTSD and alcoholism, he still knows how to go behind enemy lines. By using a local “warlord,” Sully worms his way deeper into the truth of this girl’s death and how it connects with a disturbing pattern of unsolved murders or disappearances of neighborhood women. Trouble is Sully may have set himself up for a fall in the process. VERDICT Journalist-turned-novelist Tucker has crafted an addictive, twisty debut, proving that crimes involving politics and sex can still surprise and thrill us. The slightly detached and cynical air will resonate with George Pelecanos readers and yet there’s a whiff of Elmore Leonard, too.

“Setting his tale in the 1990s . . . gives Tucker the chance to show how much newspapers have changed. The 24-hour Internet news cycle hasn’t yet taken root, tomorrow’s front page is still more important than getting the story online immediately and good reporters are dependent on door knocks, land lines and library research rather than e-mail, cellphones and Google. Tucker pulls off a neat, double-twist ending . . . There’s a lot to like in Tucker’s storytelling,” says The Washington Post, where Tucker works.

 When is it available?

This gritty crime drama can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Blue Hills and Mark Twain branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Mermaids In Paradise

By Lydia Millet

(Norton, $25.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Lydia Millet knows her way around satire and the fraught relationship between humans and the natural world, an ongoing theme in her writing. She has published nine novels, a story collection and books for younger readers. She’s been a finalist for National Book Critics Circle, Los Angeles Times and Pulitzer Prize awards for fiction, and her  novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. Born in Boston, educated at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holder of a master’s degree from Duke University in environmental science, she now lives in Arizona with her children.

What is this book about?

There’s trouble in Paradise. Also, mermaids.

The story begins when a newlywed couple – Chip is a jock who loves outdoor adventures; Deb is a born skeptic who narrates the tale – arrive at their honeymoon destination, a resort on an island in the Caribbean. There they meet a marine biologist who claims she has seen mermaids frolicking around a nearby coral reef.

Here’s how Millet describes them: “Their hair floated in clouds behind them, long, weightless-looking swaths, like seaweed, as did their tails, which moved up and down slowly as the tails of dolphins move, not side to side like the tails of fish. These tails were graceful, beautiful muscles, scales shining silver in rows and rows of small coins.”

In no time, the company that owns the resort starts plans to exploit the heretofore mythological maids of the sea, and Deb and Chip, with help from an ex-Navy SEAL and a Japanese hipster, set out to stop those plans.

Why you’ll like it:

Millet can write very sharp satire and has a wonderfully whimsical imagination, but her writing also employs empathy and a real concern for the natural world that so many seem bent on exploiting. While, at first, this novel seems as though it could have sprung from the hard drives of such tropical wits as Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen, Millet displays her own very powerful style. Mermaids in Paradise is kind of a Free Willy for grown-ups, with plenty of laughs and a serious underpinning., a comic thriller that raises some very serious issues while it entertains. As Deb says: “. . . it had taken our ancestors four million years to figure out fire. It took them another five million years to develop writing. And then, in a great acceleration — just a brief, screaming handful of seasons — we got electricity, nukes, commercial air travel, trips to the moon. Overnight the white sands of the parrotfish were running out. Here went the poles, melting, and here, at last, went paradise.”

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “A Caribbean honeymoon turns into a media circus over a mermaid sighting in this laser-focused satire from Millet. Deborah, the narrator of Millet’s smart and funny novel, her ninth, is an LA woman who’s snarky to the core: She’s skeptical of her fiance’s hard-core workout regimen, of the rituals of bachelorette parties, even of her best friend’s own snark. So when her new husband, Chip, proposes a honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands, she’s suspicious of tourism’s virtues. Deb’s early interactions seem to justify her defensiveness: One man gets the wrong idea when she accidentally brushes her foot against his leg over drinks: “He made me feel like my toes were prostitutes,” she tells her husband. “Like my toes, Chip, were dolled up in Frederick’s of Hollywood.” The comic, unbelieving tone Millet gives Deb helps sell what happens next: Roped into a scuba dive by an aquatic researcher, she and a small group spot a bunch of mermaids at a nearby reef. Despite the group’s efforts to keep the discovery hidden, the resort gets the news and rushes to capitalize on it, while Deb and her cohorts are eager to preserve the sole example of unadulterated wonder the 21st century has offered them. The novel has the shape and pace of a thriller—Deb is held by corporate goons, the researcher goes mysteriously missing, paramilitary men are called in—and it thrives on Deb’s witty, wise narration. Millet means to criticize a rapacious culture that wants to simplify and categorize everything, from the resort profiteers to churchy types who see the mermaids as symbols of godlessness. The ending underscores the consequences of such blinkered mindsets without losing its essential comedy. An admirable example of a funny novel with a serious message that works swimmingly. Dive in.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “World-class worrier Deb is a quietly hilarious observer of and cautious participant in life, especially her life with new husband Chip, an über-friendly gamer addicted to extreme sports. When the couple settles on a tropical island for a honeymoon, Deb reluctantly agrees to a scuba-diving adventure arranged by Chip and Nancy, a parrotfish expert Chip meets. A sighting of real mermaids, Nancy’s wish to videotape them for scientific study, and the spiraling viral insanity of social media soon unleash all the hellhounds of today’s polarized society. When corporate powers using militarized thugs plan to “theme park” the mermaids, Deb, Chip, and Nancy rally a crew of defenders, including an ex-Navy SEAL and a brilliant, gorgeous Tokyo videojournalist. Throw in a possible murder and a kidnapping and thus is born a wonderfully comedic, poignant thriller that will have you believing in the existence of mermaids. VERDICT Deb’s endearing insecurity, unexamined courage, and unwavering love for her husband allow for a charming, albeit uncomfortable, examination of the power of skewed worldviews running off the rails, fueled by ignorance and fear, while smarter, cooler heads push back. Brilliant and wildly funny, with well-placed sharp jolts of sobering reality; Pulitzer Prize finalist Millet is pure genius.”

Says The New York Times Book Review – “It’s a bold move to make mermaids the center of a grown-up story, even in a novel as hilariously funny as this one. But Lydia Millet’s novels raise the bar for boldness. Through the window of the unlikeliest events or plot twists, she poses the questions many contemporary writers shy away from, or simply skirt…Millet’s writing—witty, colorful, sometimes poetic—is, line by line, a joy to read, and her storytelling is immensely compelling. But there’s always an equally compelling philosophical discussion humming beneath everything. In Mermaids in Paradise that discussion is about the different ways people see the world, and how perceptions form belief…In her most original way, Millet dares us to examine how we ever know when to be “hard core,” or when it’s safe to let down our guard. It’s a testament to her novel’s power that these mermaids retain their mystery, and that the ending of Mermaids in Paradise is one of the most luminous and unsettling in recent fiction.”

When is it available?

You can find Mermaids at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck

By Amy Alkon

(St. Martin’s Press, $14.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

She’s the Advice Goddess, with a popular and prize-winning syndicated column that can be found in more than 100 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. (Wait, what? Aren’t all Canadians born with impeccable manners?). Amy Alkon lives in Venice – the California one, not the Italian one – and also is the author of the memoir, I See Rude People. She’s a frequent flyer on TV shows, including Good Morning America, The Today Show, NPR, CNN, MTV, and Entertainment Tonight and also broadcasts a weekly radio show called, appropriately, Advice Goddess Radio. Alkon also has contributed pieces to Psychology Today, Los Angeles Times and its Magazine, New York Daily News and Pravda.

What is this book about?

LA Weekly once called Amy Alkon “Miss Manners with Fangs,” and now she has written a book meant for nice but imperfect people (that would be many of us) who are a tad confused about being good in a rude world where life is so complex that it sadly is easier than ever to get away with bad behavior. Alkon’s weapons in the fight include a wicked good sense of humor and the smart use of psychological research to back up her intuitive insights. In the book, she poses questions that resonate in our contemporary world, many of them involving the electronic devices that are becoming our masters and others dealing with everyday annoyances, such as dog poop on your lawn. You won’t find much about correct table settings here, but you will find suggestions for getting through the day in a more polite and pleasant way.

Why you’ll like it:

Alkon makes us laugh and makes us think in this useful and entertaining book.  She mines the findings of academics in the fields of anthropology, psychology and evolutionary psychology for information, and transforms these serious discoveries into extremely amusing commentary. Her goal, though, is not simply to glean the giggles. She’s making a case that rudeness is a social crime, and that it can be combatted. Here is some of what she has to say:

“. . . how simple it actually is to treat other people well. Life is hardly one long Princess Cruise for any of us, and there are times when you’ll have to fire or disappoint somebody. But at the root of manners is empathy. When you’re unsure of what to say or do, there’s a really easy guideline, and it’s asking yourself, Hey, self! How would I feel if somebody did that to me?

“If everybody lived by this “Do Unto Others” rule—a beautifully simple rule we were supposed to learn in Kindergarten 101—I could probably publish this book as a twenty-page pamphlet. But so many people these days seem to be patterning their behavior on another simple rule, the “Up Yours” rule—“screw you if you don’t like it.”

“. . . More and more, we’re all victims of these many small muggings every day. Our perp doesn’t wear a ski mask or carry a gun; he wears Dockers and shouts into his iPhone in the line behind us at Starbucks, streaming his dull life into our brains, never considering for a moment whether our attention belongs to him. These little acts of social thuggery are inconsequential in and of themselves, but they add up—wearing away at our patience and good nature and making our daily lives feel like one big wrestling smackdown.

“The good news is, we can dial back the rudeness and change the way we all relate to one another, and we really need to, before rudeness becomes any more of a norm. . . .”

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Library Journal says: “The main problem with etiquette books is that the people who need them don’t read them. Alkon . . . not only tells readers what good manners are but also provides useful suggestions for politely calling offenders’ attention to their rudeness. And she does this in a ferociously funny style—it’s worth a read for the laughs alone. There is nothing here of the proper arrangement of table settings, nor of how to address a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury; rather Alkon deals with modern problems in interpersonal relationships, such as how civilized people should act when standing in lines, on airplanes, online, and elsewhere. In addition, she offers very dependable, sensible, caring advice to those whose friends or family are coping with terminal illness. VERDICT Solid psychology and a wealth of helpful knowledge and rapier wit fill these pages. Highly recommended.”

“She is chatty, at times outrageous, but full of ideas about living politely in a society that she says has become too big for our brains to handle. As for Oscar Wilde, at the end of his life is said to have commented: ‘The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork,’ “ says The Wall Street Journal.

“Alkon turns reporting on findings in evolutionary psychology into an art form. She scans the research horizon for fascinating new results. Though relentless in her skepticism, she is keenly attuned to findings that are both solid and suggestive. (The world lost a great analyst when Alkon turned away from academic research.) In her hands, all this research turns into practical advice for how ordinary people can live better lives. Alkon may be, as the LA Weekly put it, ‘Miss Manners With Fangs,’ but she is perhaps better characterized as the offspring of Charles Darwin and Dorothy Parker. We academics can all take a lesson from her ability to redefine academic turf in terms ‘the ordinary person’ can both understand and enjoy,” says Dr. Barbara Oakley of Oakland University, author of Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend and an expert on anti-social behavior.

When is it available?

If you ask politely, you may borrow this book from the Dwight branch of the Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld

By Jake Halpern

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Jake Halpern, who is a fellow of Morse College at Yale University, writes for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine and is  the author of Fame Junkies and Braving Home, as well as co-author of two novels for young adult readers. He is on the list of This American Life’s seven most popular shows for his hour-long radio story “Switched at Birth.”

What is this book about?

If you have ever been targeted — fairly or unfairly – by a greedy, crooked debt collector, you know how deeply unpleasant the situation can be. So does Jake Halpern, who explores that seamy and unseemly world with vigor in Bad Paper. Halpern hangs his nonfiction tale on the exploits of a former banking executive who teams up with a former armed robber: the perfect pair when it comes to getting blood from a stone, it appears, but even these savvy guys get ripped off by their conscienceless employees. He also shares stories of victims of shady debt-collection entrepreneurs, who often wind up paying debts that actually no longer exist, in this mostly horrifying but frequently hilarious account of this dark side of the American economy.

Why you’ll like it:

Halpern has a serious and alarming story to tell here, but he does it with verve and candor, making what in other hands might be a dry treatise on economics gone rogue into a novel-like tale that grips the reader even as it repels. Forgive the pun, but you owe it to yourself to learn about the downside of the American credit dream and those who enthusiastically take unfair advantage of others who have bitten off more than they can pay for. This is a troubling, but important book.

What others are saying:

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “. . . Thirty million of us have debts old enough — over 180 days in arrears — to attract the debt collector. As Jake Halpern makes achingly clear in Bad Paper, this is not going to be fun, this new relationship, but it will throw into sharp relief a system that compounds the troubles of mostly hardworking, or hard-looking-for-work, Americans while permitting banks to loose the junkyard canines. When big banks can’t pay their obligations, they are given capital infusions (a few, mostly smaller fry, will be publicly executed as examples of bad seed). If you, Joe and Jane Doe, can’t pony up for a modest debt — sometimes even a two- figure debt — then you can expect the phone to start ringing in the middle of the night, and keep right on ringing.

“Now, let’s not let the American consumer off the hook. We know what camp Halpern is in — he’s in the right and decent camp — but he also wants to put in perspective the lay of the debt-insanity landscape, and all the nefarious opportunities it presents to those who game the system in one way or another. “There is a vast market for unpaid consumer debt — not just credit card debts but auto loans, medical loans, gym fees, payday loans, overdue cell phone labs, old utility bills, delinquent book club accounts.” . . . . Read it and weep, you 30 million debtors. Collection agencies are good at making you weep. Someone get the phone. . . “

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An investigation of the bottom-feeding underworld of debt collecting and its disreputable cast of rip-off artists. As journalist and novelist Halpern discovered, the world of debt collection is every bit as scummy (and possibly scummier) as its reputation has always suggested. . . . The author delivers a tale of two kinds of lowlifes and their collaboration in a lowest-common-denominator business that makes Wall Street look meek and ethical. Halpern begins with a focus on former banker Aaron Siegel, who moved back to his financially downtrodden hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., rounded up $14 million from chummy investors and opened his own private equity fund specializing in debt collection. After being ripped off by his own shady employees, who stole a huge portfolio of debt out from under his nose and started their own rogue agency, Siegel decided to employ the help of ex-bank robber Brandon Wilson to help strong-arm the debt collection competition into submission. Halpern tracks not only Siegel and Wilson’s quixotic quest for the stolen debt, but also the ugly, everyday inner workings of the business as a whole, much of which is based in crime-ridden, economically destitute Buffalo. The predominantly unethical practice of buying, selling and collecting debt is carried out by just the sort of societal outcasts you’d expect—usually, ex-cons or other desperate, otherwise unemployable screw-ups fill the business’s ranks. Halpern’s story of the debt collection world is also a dramatic rise-and-fall tale that traces the anything-goes heyday of debt collecting businesses in the unregulated early 2000s and how it has changed with the consequential recent Obama-era crackdowns on the shadier practices in the field. As we see in the book, these new regulations make it much harder for miscreants like Siegel and Wilson to survive. Halpern brings unexpected literary heft to the world of debt collection.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “. . . reports from a “shadowy corner of the economy” — the world of consumer-debt collection, which “remains dysfunctional and largely unsupervised.” . . . Halpern’s narrative follows  . . . the “aboveground economy” (that is, the consumer-debt marketplace) . . . then delves into the inner workings of what he refers to as the “financial underworld.” Here, debt is bought and sold with no questions asked. Halpern also discusses the regulatory climate of the current economy; these details combined with the narrative, a startling picture emerges. By fostering a greater understanding of the workings of debt collection, the book sheds enough light into the shadows to compel readers to push for change.

“[A] wonderful inquiry into the seamy, multilayered world of consumer debt collection . . . both an entertaining sociology of the debt-collecting fraternity and a picaresque romp through the industry’s most unsavory byways,” says The Boston Globe.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Halpern’s breathtaking exposé takes readers on a deep dive into the debt collection industry. The book proceeds chronologically from 2008 to today, following former Buffalo banker Aaron Siegel and his ex-con partner Brandon Wilson in their quest for money. Three sections relate how Siegel tracked stolen debt-collection files that he bought, how a collection agency operates, and how the industry is largely unregulated and hugely profitable. . . . Halpern succeeds in illustrating how Americans’ appetite for consumer credit and the country’s bank accounting rules have left much “meat on the bone” for collectors. The author also includes interviews with several hapless debtors who thought that they had paid their debts but were tricked by unsavory collectors. He shows that, as with the subprime mortgage crisis, when debt is packaged and resold, there may not be proof of the underlying obligation. Worse yet, the debt may be beyond the legal statute of limitations, and still, naive debtors are cajoled into paying. VERDICT Colorful and chilling, this work is an important peek into the dark corner of consumer finance and recommended for all consumers and true crime aficionados.”

When is it available?

If you borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library, please return it before overdue fines attract a bill collector.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


The Arsonist

By Sue Miller

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Sue Miller, who lives in Cambridge, is a best-selling author who has sold more than 4 million copies of her novels, which some relegate to the “domestic fiction” category but others call great reads. Besides The Arsonist, Miller’s novels are The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother. She also has published Inventing the Abbotts, a collection of stories; and the memoir The Story of My Father. The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots became feature films; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club.

What is this book about?

It’s 1998, and someone is burning down the fine old homes of Pomeroy, N.H. And Alzheimer’s disease is burning down the mind of Frankie Rowley’s dad and with it, her parents’ marriage. Frankie has returned to the U.S. after 15 years of work fighting poverty in East Africa, and she’s experiencing culture shock, along with dismay at the arsons destroying the elegant second homes of the summer people who vacation in the New Hampshire town, as well as the sad state of her parents’ lives. She’s also attracted to the editor of the local paper. This is a novel about the difficulties and rewards of maintaining a marriage, a love affair, a community – told with Miller’s customary grace and insights.

Why you’ll like it:

Miller once told the New York Times: “For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems … charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic.” In The Arsonist, she does just that, exploring the deep emotional chasms that can open up in what has heretofore seemed to be a placid and ordinary life. Miller knows how to tell a good and many-layered story.

Her desire to probe into the inner lives of her characters may come from her family background. She has said: “I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries — the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way.” But then, she also reveals: “I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “With her trademark elegant prose and masterful command of subtle psychological nuance, Miller explores the tensions between the summer people and the locals in a small New Hampshire town. Frankie Rowley, after years spent doing relief work abroad, has returned to her parents’ summer home, unsure of whether she will ever go back to East Africa, feeling depleted by that region’s seemingly endless suffering. But the reassuring comfort of the small town she has been coming to since she was a girl is shattered by a series of fires set by an arsonist who has targeted the rambling summer homes of the wealthy. Frankie falls into an unexpected and passionate love affair with the local newspaper editor while also becoming privy to her parents’ difficulties, with her mother seeming to resent her husband’s decline into Alzheimer’s, especially since she no longer loves him. The town, awash in fear of the unknown arsonist, splits into factions aligned along class divisions. In this suspenseful and romantic novel, Miller delicately parses the value of commitment and community, the risky nature of relationships, and the yearning for meaningful work.”

Publishers Weekly says:  “A small New Hampshire town provides the backdrop for Miller’s provocative novel about the boundaries of relationships and the tenuous alliance between locals and summer residents when a crisis is at hand. After years of being an aid worker in Africa, Frankie Rowley returns to the idyllic Pomeroy, N.H., summer home to which her parents have retired. But all is not well in Pomeroy, where a spate of house fires leaves everyone wary and afraid. Frankie, who may have seen the arsonist her first night home, contemplates her ambiguous future and falls for Bud Jacobs, a transplant who has traded the hustle and bustle of covering politics in D.C. for the security of small town life, buying the local newspaper. Meanwhile, Sylvia, Frankie’s mother, becomes concerned about her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior, fearful that it’s a harbinger of Alzheimer’s. Liz, Frankie’s married sister, has her hands full dealing with their parents while Frankie’s been overseas. Miller, a pro at explicating family relationships as well as the fragile underpinnings of mature romance, brilliantly draws parallels between Frankie’s world in Africa and her life in New Hampshire, and explores how her characters define what “home” means to them and the lengths they will go to protect it.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “As a series of fires in a small New Hampshire town exposes tensions between summer and year-round residents, the members of one in-between family confront their own desires, limitations and capacities to love in Miller’s latest. Burned out on her transient life working for an NGO in Africa, Frankie takes a possibly permanent leave and comes to stay with her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, in Pomeroy, N.H., where they have recently retired after years of summering there. The night of Frankie’s arrival coincides with the town’s first house fire, which everyone assumes was an accident. Days later, at the annual Fourth of July tea, Frankie begins a flirtation with Bud, who runs Pomeroy’s newspaper, and accompanies him to the site of the fire so he can take pictures. When a second fire occurs, again at a home belonging to summer residents, Bud begins to wonder if arson is involved. Soon there are more fires—at least six—and Bud is actively covering the story. Frankie becomes more involved than she’d like after realizing she may have seen the arsonist’s car the night of the first fire. Her description helps lead to an arrest. As the investigation meanders—one of the least exciting detective stories ever—Frankie and Bud begin falling in love, though both are in their 40s and on different life paths. But the heart of the story really lies in Sylvia and Alfie’s marriage. For years, seemingly super-competent Sylvia has been secretly dissatisfied with her marriage to self-important but only moderately successful college professor Alfie. Now Alfie’s mind is failing and she’s stuck caring for him. Miller’s portrayal of early Alzheimer’s and the toll it takes on a family is disturbingly accurate and avoids the sentimental uplift prevalent in issue-oriented fiction. Any spouse who has been there will recognize Sylvia’s guilt, anger, protectiveness and helplessness as she watches Alfie deteriorate. While the melodrama fails to ignite, Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis.

“Miller [eschews] easy cliff-hangers or narrative deceits. The momentum grows instead from her compassionate handling of these characters. . . . Not all questions are answered, nor all mysteries solved, but the end of the book is imbued with the same quiet energy that’s been building throughout; it’s not happy, exactly—that would be too easy—but, in true Sue Miller fashion, it’s triumphant,” says Elle.

When is it available?

You can find The Arsonist at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Hello Mr. Bones & Goodbye Mr. Rat

By Patrick McCabe

(Quercus, $24.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Patrick McCabe, a writer of contemporary horror novels and other books that have won a slew of awards in his native Ireland, has a knack for the macabre – and that is not a pun on McCabe, though it could be. His novels The Butcher Boy (which won the Irish Times/Aer lingus Literature Prize and was shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize) and Breakfast on Pluto (which made the 1998 Booker Prize short list), became films directed by Neil Jordan. Another McCabe book, Winterwood, was named the 2006 Hughes & Hughes/Irish Independent Novel of the Year.

What is this book about?

You get two eerie novellas for the price of one with Hello/Goodbye. Just flip it over when you have finished the first one, and there’s the second. Both are narrated by unreliable voices, because after all, they are dead. In Hello, Balthazar Bowen, a long-gone “eccentric pervert” who had nearly ruined the life of Valentine, an aspiring Christian Brother, comes back from the grave – or at least makes a phone call (imagine the roaming charges!) – to upset the young man’s life anew, during an unusual and unexpected hurricane in England. In Goodbye, Gabriel, a deceased Irish Republican Army bomber observes from on high – or would that be from deep below – as his former girlfriend, a lass from Indiana, travels to the bomber’s rural Irish village with his ashes. All does not go as planned, you surely will not be surprised to hear.

Why you’ll like it:

The New York Times’ review says McCabe “writes like an Irish Lenny Bruce, riffing at warp speed, swerving from one time to another and one place to another and strewing the landscape with allusions — to Coleridge, Milton, Yeats, Marc Bolan, “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Oliver!,” Betty Boop and an annoyingly memorable toothpaste jingle, among others. . .” Being favorably compared to the bitter brilliance of Mr. Bruce is high praise indeed, in my opinion. McCabe mixes comedy with creepiness to create an unusually dark and delicious brew. Sip it with caution; it’s powerful.

What others are saying:

“. . . McCabe, as readers of his 1992 novel “The Butcher Boy” might remember, is expert at making the darkest deeds funny, forcing us to laugh at the worst things in the world. . .  and somehow it all makes sense. . . .By the end, you might feel, as Valentine does, “captive in the dread country of delusion and irrationality,” but if you’re not blinded by McCabe’s verbal pyrotechnics you can make out where he’s been going. This story is about the struggle to break free of a dire past; about the powerful forces arrayed against reason, sanity, happiness itself; about the demons that keep us locked up in old obsessions. . . .  The tone of “Goodbye Mr. Rat” is more muted and mournful than that of “Hello Mr. Bones,” but McCabe’s writing is no less brazenly allusive . . .  and Gabriel is no more to be trusted than Balthazar Bowen was. Different though they are, the novels come together when you’re finished reading, creating a single vision of the horrors that crush people’s souls. The stories McCabe tells have a terrible beauty. Next to them, the problems of a bunch of vampires don’t amount to a hill of beans,” says The New York Times Book Review by Terrence Rafferty .

“McCabe is especially good at conjuring up the menace of psychopaths who perpetrate acts of barbarism under the spurious guise of ideologies,” says The Independent (Dublin).

The Guardian says: “. . . McCabe is a master of both the demented narrative and demented narrator. Beneath the ghosts and ghoulies, however, lies a compassionate exploration of the aftermath of psychological damage.

“The first novella, Hello Mr Bones, concerns a disgraced Christian Brother and an abused child. However – in a radical departure for Irish fiction – the abused child is the Christian Brother. As a boy, Valentine Shannon had been “interfered with” by the local psychopathic Anglo-Irish toff from the manor, “eccentric pervert” Balthazar Bowen, who styles himself as Mr Bones. Valentine goes on to join the Christian Brothers, only to be ejected after striking a student, one Martin Boan. In an effort to escape his past, he relocates to London and works as a lay teacher. His past, however, catches up with him when Valentine receives a phone call from Mr Bones. This call is even more disturbing than a call from one’s abuser might usually be, given that Bowen, or Bohen, or Boan, or Mr Bones, is now dead.

“These days, Valentine is sustained by love. In his partner, Chris Taylor, a 70s feminist and lone parent, McCabe introduces another character who is something of a rare bird in Irish fiction: a good mother. Mr Bones, however, has designs on Chris’s disabled son, Faisal, and repeated references are made to a horrific crime carried out on a boy with Down’s Syndrome in Florida by a certain clown called Bonio who, by all accounts, is limbering up to strike again.

The novella is set in 1987 on the day of the hurricane that assailed Britain. Michael Fish has reassured the populace that there is no need to worry, but in McCabeland, there is every need to worry. As the storm brews, Mr Bones’s demonic plans reach fruition, leading to a chilling denouement.

“. . . the spirit of McCabe’s second novella, Goodbye Mr Rat, is Samuel Beckett all the way: the main character is interred in an urn. Gabriel King has been cremated, though he hasn’t let it stop him. His friend, Beni Banikin, from Indiana, is returning his ashes to his hometown, Iron Valley, in the border counties of Ireland . . . and yet again, McCabe tackles a topic that is rare in Irish fiction – repeated references are made to a sectarian attack carried out by Catholics on Protestants . .  Gabriel expresses disgust and remorse from his urn, but his story changes as his narrative progresses. Can he be trusted? Similarly, his fellow IRA operatives are now respected elected public representatives, poachers-turned-gamekeepers. Their ringleader is mayor. Can they be trusted? Can anyone be trusted? Will the truth about the horrors of the dark decades of the Troubles ever come to light? . . . .These are without doubt strange pieces, and they are strangely effective. How better to articulate the atrocities of the Troubles and the devastation of child abuse than through the horror genre?

“. . . this isn’t Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones, narrated from heaven and suffused with redemption. These are the Bones of Patrick McCabe: stark, fierce, and wonderful.”

When is it available?

This twin terror is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!