After completing and thoroughly enjoying Brigid Kemmerer’s Call It What You Want earlier this week, I was positively compelled to read two of her other contemporary realistic teen fiction novels: Letters to the Lost, and More Than We Can Tell. Previous to 2015, Kemmerer was apparently known for her “Elementals” series about four brothers with paranormal powers, but when I read the descriptions, I wasn’t enticed to read one. I can’t say the same for her contemporary realistic novels, which I have practically inhaled one after another without stopping, becoming incensed when my Kindle ran out of juice at 2:30 in the morning about 40 pages from the end of the last one!
These books remind me of a few other authors—Dessen, Caletti, Rowell—because their books also contain that ideal combination of relationship and life events that propels the story. Even though there are elements of romance to each book, the primary motivation is understanding, empathy, and relationship. Although I have seen some young reviewers on Goodreads remark on the swoon-worthiness of various protagonists (as do some of the other characters!), most recognize that they are not reading these books for the romance but for the real-life transformations that occur as a result of the connections made by the people in Kemmerer’s books.
Letters to the Lost is, as one might assume from its title, an epistolary tale. While working his community service gig at the local cemetery by clearing up the debris left by its visitors and then mowing the plots, Declan Murphy finds a letter left by one of the headstones. When he picks it up and reads it, he feels a surprising affinity with the feelings expressed by its author and, in an impulsive moment, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket, appends the words “Me, too” to the end of it, and lays it back on the grave, never dreaming that the original writer would come back to find his alteration of her letter.
Juliet Young, who has been heartbroken for four months since the death of her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run, is outraged when she sees that someone has dared to appropriate her grief, and writes another, indignant letter addressing not her mom but the encroaching P.S. person. This is the beginning of both a correspondence and a friendship that grows faster than either could have dreamed, as they each feel free in their anonymity to express some of their deepest feelings and fears.
The truth is, Declan and Juliet are not complete strangers to one another; but the public personnas they wear at school have blinded each other and almost everyone else to who they are or have the potential to be. It takes some extraordinary events to bring them out of hiding, for one another and with all the other people in their lives with whom they need to clear the air.
In More Than We Can Tell, one of the significant sidekicks from Letters to the Lost gets his own tale, which is a more than satisfying happenstance for those who loved the first book. He was an intriguing and important character in the first story, but although we gleaned bits and pieces of his history, there was so much more to tell. As in Letters, and also in the book I read earlier, Rev Fletcher gets a counterpart, Emma Blue, to help him reveal his story while dealing with the fallout from her own, and together the two are able to transition some difficult events with all the ambivalent feelings they stir up.
Rev has loving adoptive parents who took him in 10 years ago at age seven, and adopted him a few years later. He has for the most part put the effects of his troubled early childhood aside, but when he turns 18 and receives a letter from the father who abused him both mentally and physically, it sends him into a tailspin from which he is having a hard time recovering.
Emma has parents who love her, but her mother is hypercritical of Emma’s choice to follow in her father’s footsteps as a creator of video games. To escape the bickering between them, Emma focuses all her time and attention on the perfecting of a computer game she has created from scratch. But when an intrusive and insistent “troll” begins harassing her online, she is reluctant to reveal this problem to a mother who will order her to stop or a father who will be disappointed in her less-than-perfect design security.
Rev and Emma meet, and each serves as an outlet for the other’s private fears. But then issues arise that cause a lack of trust, and it’s not clear whether the budding relationship will survive them.
These books, while sounding formulaic (the alternating points of view, the pairing of two protagonists, the problems they must overcome) are in all honesty totally immersive, nuanced, and redemptive in tone. I can’t imagine a teenager who couldn’t relate to at least one, if not all, of these characters, and the “lessons” that are being taught are not heavy-handed. Some of the messages—that you can ask for what you want instead of passively waiting to be given it; that unkindness should always be resisted on your own behalf and that of others; that talking to people will mostly relieve all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings; and that a moment is just a moment and a day is just a day, always making room for a different choice or change—are beautifully illustrated by these stories.
I do plan to read the sequel to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale retelling Kemmerer has written, and I still maintain hers is one of the better and more original one of these out there, but I think her true strength lies in writing about real teenagers in the throes of their confusing, sometimes difficult lives.
I also have great admiration for her, in that she has written at least a dozen books between the years of 2012 and 2020, while simultaneously being married and having four sons!
While scrolling through books on bookoutlet.com in the search of a few more to round out my $35 minimum, I came across Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer. The name sounded familiar to me, so I looked her up on Goodreads and realized that she was the one who wrote the fairy tale retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I liked so much, so although it didn’t appear to be fantasy, I decided to try this one, which seems to have been written (or at least published) between that book and its sequel, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, which I also own but have not yet read.
Having read both books, I can see that Kemmerer has created for herself something of a formula, although in this case that’s a good thing. One of the ways that her fairy tale book worked was to tell it from two perspectives—those of the enchanted prince and the commoner girl—and this book echoes that by also giving us two protagonists with story lines that intersect.
The male protagonist, Rob, is a victim of circumstance, although many of his peers think he is more than that. Rob’s father, Rob Sr., a financial advisor, was a mini Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme on his clients that lost them all their money. To add insult to injury, when he was turned in Rob’s father tried and failed to commit suicide, and survived in a vegetative state, needing constant care from his now destitute wife and son. Rob had been working as an intern in his father’s company when all this transpired, and despite his protestations of ignorance, his classmates and their parents who were injured by his father’s actions refuse to believe that he wasn’t “in the know,” causing him to become a pariah at his high school. He’s basically putting his head down and trying to survive for the rest of his senior year until he can get out of town.
The female protagonist, Maegan, has her own issues: Despite being an honors student with high grades, Maegan questions her abilities and makes an impulsive decision to cheat during her SAT test. She is caught, resulting in 100 other kids’ tests being invalidated and discarded. So Maegan has her share of abuse to survive, and is likewise walking around school in a solitary bubble. Fun fact: Maegan’s dad is the cop who arrested Rob’s dad.
The two share a calculus class, and when their teacher pairs everyone up for a class project, Rob and Maegan are the two conspicuously left standing, ending up together. Neither of them is happy about this and both consider asking the teacher to change the assignments, but with the prospect of having to be third wheels on teams who don’t want them, they resign themselves and tentatively try for a way to work together.
Kemmerer does a brilliant job of first investing you in their situations and then illustrating how these two closed-off teens are gradually able to open up to one another and seek sustenance in an unlikely friendship. Prior to Rob’s family’s “fall,” he was one of the privileged, über-popular lacrosse stars, while Maegan’s family is from much humbler blue-collar origins, although Rob and Maegan’s sister, Samantha, share a love of lacrosse that bridges an initial gap. The sub-plots in the book, involving Rob’s former best friend, Connor, who is determined to constantly remind everyone of Rob’s supposed culpability, Rob’s new and unexpected friend, Owen, with whom Rob conceives of a “Robin Hood” plan to assist the have-nots, and Maegan’s sister Samantha’s secret pregnancy, further enliven the story.
The book explores such themes as right and wrong (doing right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right ones), trust, responsibility, mistakes, and transparency, but does so in such a way that the reader never feels imposed upon by those themes. Kemmerer presents black and white and every shade of gray as they appear to all participants and makes the reader as eager as the characters to resolve the issues, find justice, and give the misunderstood some relief. There is romance, but it’s far from the dreaded insta-love; this is realistic young adult fiction at its best. If you are a teen who enjoys contemporary fiction, this is a writer who will give you what you want.
I have already lined up Kemmerer’s other two contemporary novels on my Kindle.
I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.
So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.
I have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.
The book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).
The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:
Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.
That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
Even in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.
Some more adult books in this sub-genre:
One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.
Another is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.
In Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.
There are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)
Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
Sometimes reading Kate Atkinson’s books make you feel like you’re meeting your cousin for coffee.
She sits down and, before you can pick a topic of conversation, she launches into a long narrative about her friend Janey. Now, you have met Janey a few times, but you don’t know any of the other players, who include Janey’s ex-husband and his exploits with the new wife, her two sons, one of whom has made her proud and the other who has gone AWOL, and her formerly drug-addicted daughter for whom childbirth was transformative and who is now out looking for real estate with her shiny new hubby. As you listen, you think, I know that these intimate details of Janey’s life are interesting to someone, but why would you think they would be interesting to me? Could we address subjects that are applicable to us both, please?
If you have a relationship with your cousin such that you could actually say something like that (instead of just listening interminably and politely), your cousin might then say, Oh, I’m telling you all this with a purpose, I come into the story later, just wait for it. So you wait…and you wait…and you wait. And while you are waiting, you are thinking to yourself, Gee, I hope the eventual point of this story is worth it.
Most of the time, when reading Kate Atkinson, it IS worth it. But sometimes you do feel like Doubting Thomas and just want to poke someone!
Big Sky, which is Jackson Brodie book #5, is the epitome of Brodie’s favorite saying, which is,
“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
Although Jackson himself is involved with a fairly mundane set of clients—a woman whose spouse is cheating on her, an entrapment plan regarding a guy on the internet trying to lure young girls—the stuff going on around him, to which he is largely oblivious until it is thrust under his nose and he has to pay attention, is pretty major. There is a scandal from the past that has resurfaced with the imminent release from prison of one of the perpetrators; there is a current drama that only emerges as its links with the past bring the protagonists to the fore; and there’s a whole lot of interpersonal stuff going on. All of this is positively rife with coincidence.
It’s been 10 years since Atkinson wrote her last Brodie book, and she chose to age everyone to the appropriate point, from Jackson’s son, Nathan, now a sulky teen, and his daughter, Marlee, about to embark on marriage, to various others from his past, including the wonderful Reggie Chase, last encountered at age 16 but now a Detective Constable in Yorkshire.
Reggie and her partner, Ronnie (equally diminutive but fierce), have been tasked with following up on some details from a supposedly closed case, a vast pedophile ring that encompassed businessmen, politicians, and power brokers in its “magic circle” of depravity. But as they poke at the case, with many of the original players long dead, it becomes clear that something else has emerged from that old association, equally as sinister in its own way, run by the hangers-on from back in the day, who are equally adamant about keeping their secrets. Brodie, typically clueless, somehow bumbles into and out of association with most of the people involved, with sometimes tragic and sometimes comedic effect. The best characters to emerge from this scrum, in terms of reader interest, are definitely Crystal Holroyd and her stepson, Harry.
As I read, I thought that the fact that Atkinson had waited 10 years to bring Brodie back, coupled with the reintroduction of so many characters from the previous novels, would surely signify a satisfying ending to this long adventure, but no. Things between Jackson and Louise are still dangling; we don’t know what happened to Tracy and Courtney; and while the details of this particular outing are mostly resolved, there are a few loose ends that could be tidied, should Atkinson choose to do so. I’m thinking there may be another book in Brodie’s future.
If I’m honest, I’m glad there isn’t another one right now, though; I think my next read is going to be something “fluffy,” with a limited number of characters and relationships and a story told all in one perfectly straight line….
After reading The Lost Man and being bowled over by it, I couldn’t resist moving on to Jane Harper’s other books, starting with her first, The Dry.
While this debut novel is more of a police procedural and less of an epic saga than The Lost Man, Harper doesn’t miss out on using the landscape as a big influencer on the townsfolk of Kiewarra. The sun blazes down, the blowflies hover, the river has dried up, and along with it have gone the fortunes of the farmers in this rural Australian community. The burning heat of the drought ratchets up the tension amongst everyone who lives there, and turns an already small-minded bunch into something mean.
A tragedy seemingly caused by this unbearable strain is the vehicle that brings Aaron Falk back to his adolescent home, 20 years after he and his father were driven away. Falk’s best childhood friend, golden boy Luke Hadler, is dead; he has apparently taken a shotgun and murdered his wife and young son, then turned the gun on himself. If Falk, now a forensic accountant, had his druthers, he would have sent flowers and stayed the width of the continent away from Kiewarra; but Luke’s parents beg him to come, and Luke’s father adds a cryptic note that causes Falk to panic just a little. This is not the first person Aaron has lost from this town, and despite a finding of suicide, the persistent suspicions cast on him after his friend Ellie Deacon’s death when they were 16 are what caused him to leave in the first place.
Despite significant opposition from the townspeople who hate him, Falk joins forces with the new cop in town, Sergeant Raco, who has had his own suspicions about how the Hadlers actually died but hasn’t gotten anywhere with them. Together he and Aaron begin to uncover the lies that were told, the secrets that have been kept, and the fears and assumptions that are slowly turning Kiewarra into a powder keg.
This was an excellently written mystery, with completely believable red herrings and a truly unexpected resolution. The element that carries it over the top is the attention to detail in both the characterization and the atmosphere. You know these people, and you feel their emotions; you learn this place and you feel its desolation. The narrative carries you along, moving seamlessly from Falk’s past with Luke, Ellie, Gretchen, and the townspeople who constantly have their eye on these teenagers into the present where everyone (except Ellie) has grown up and into themselves, for better or worse (mostly worse) and are all re-engaging over this new tragedy. A stunningly well-done piece of investigative fiction that might appeal to the readers of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire books.
For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!
For ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.
First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.
Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.
In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.
Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.
One of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.
Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:
The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.
There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.
James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.
Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.
In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.
Anne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).
Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.
And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.
In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.
One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.
In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.
And then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:
Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.
Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:
In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.
In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.
If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year! —The Book Adept
Someone recommended Jane Harper to me as an author I might enjoy, so on my last virtual library visit, I downloaded The Lost Man to my Kindle. I forgot it was there and read other things, then realized I only had seven days left before it disappeared back into the library catalogue, so I put aside the Christmas-themed stuff for a minute and started it at 3 a.m. on Monday.
To quote another reviewer on Goodreads, this is less a novel and more an experience in which you lose yourself. And when you read it unencumbered by expectations, the power of its prose jumps out at you and grabs every bit of your attention.
The landscape, the Queensland (Australia) outback, is the most powerful character in the story. The landscape pares people down into either the essence or the caricature of themselves. Setting a mystery there is like creating a locked room puzzle (once you get in, there appears to be no way out), except that the room is an endless, airless, boiling plain of sand. The setting has dictated the style and pacing—spare, dry, concentrated.
The characters, three brothers, run livestock on land that, while adjacent to each other’s holdings, is hours apart in travel time, from each other and from “town.” Nathan Bright, the eldest and the protagonist, works alone and lives alone on his land (a backhanded gift from his former father-in-law), a scandal in his past making him a pariah with everyone but his family, and uncomfortable even with them. Divorced and bitterly intent on prying some form of joint custody of his son, Xander, from his ex-wife, Nathan is inturned and enigmatic. Cameron, the middle son, a “hail fellow well met” type, and “Bub,” the youngest brother, a bit lost in the shuffle and wishing for other options, live and work together on their father’s former holdings, with Cameron’s wife and two children, the boys’ widowed mother, and various stockmen and itinerant workers.
At the beginning of the story, there is a small gathering at the stockman’s grave, a landmark headstone out in the middle of nowhere, so old that no one remembers who is buried there. Various legends remain about this eerie place, and it’s about to acquire one more: Cameron’s body has just been discovered in the slight shade cast by the stone.
Questions abound: How did he get there? Something had been troubling him—did he choose to meet his death by this unpleasant method? This is the premise of local law enforcement, and also of most of those who knew him…because if he didn’t, then the incredible isolation in which these people live leaves room for only a few suspects. The questions begin to prey on Nathan’s mind….
The mood and the tone of this book fascinated me. The characters remain enigmas for much of the story, their demeanors an exercise in taciturnity. Even the children are opaque. Likewise, the stark factors of living in the outback—reminding yourself to drink 10 times a day, attending the School of the Air via radio because the closest “local” school is 20 hours away in Brisbane, never leaving the property without noting down your destination and the expected time of return so a search party can be sent out if you miss your mark…all speak to a daily tension already so high that adding any sort of drama to it could spark a wildfire.
If you enjoy inhabiting an environment nothing like your own and learning what kinds of people are challenged by it to make a life there, this book will pull you in. If you are fascinated by the interplay of emotions between characters who have known each other forever and yet now doubt they know anything at all, this book will keep you guessing. Slow pacing and immaculate plotting give you questions and doubts just as the characters arrive at those same thoughts. It’s an emotionally charged but quietly told story that is probably my favorite read of 2019.
READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: I’m trying to dredge up from my subconscious some other books that might share the appeals of this one. Perhaps The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, although it is such a stylized kind of work compared to this…. The River, by Peter Heller, has certain similarities. Maybe The Round House, by Louise Erdrich? or Bluebird Bluebird, by Attica Locke? The Lost Man gives me sort of the same feeling as reading “King Lear,” with the twisted family dynamics, the ugly lies and truths, the suspicions and doubts and manipulations.
Two of my favorite YA books of recent years were written by the same person. She’s not a well-known author, and not that many people have read her books compared to the overwhelming numbers who buy every book written by realistic fiction writers Sarah Dessen, John Green, or Rainbow Rowell. But if you haven’t read at least two of her books, you’re really missing out.
I just did a re-read of her first,
I’ll Be There. Previous to writing this realistic YA novel, Holly Goldberg Sloan was a screenwriter for family feature films, and some of that particular skill comes across in her first novel. It’s told in third person omniscient, so there isn’t nearly as much dialogue as you might expect, but you do find out a lot about the characters from the inside out, as you follow their thoughts about those with whom they are interacting. And these insights are a big part of the magic of this book.
Emily Bell is just a regular girl. Her mother is a nurse; her father is the choir director at their church; and she has an endearing little brother and a dog. Up until her 16th year, Emily’s life has followed a fairly conventional path. But as a result of taking one risk, she meets a boy unlike anyone she has ever known before, and this boy is going to change Emily’s destiny in a multitude of ways.
I know what you’re thinking: A meet-cute, followed by insta-love and some kind of semi-fake drama that throws them together or tears them apart or whatever. But this book, while written simply and clearly with largely knowable and understandable characters, is anything but typical.
Sam Border and his little brother, Riddle, have lived a life that is the polar opposite of Emily’s prosaic suburban existence. Their father, Clarence, a narcissistic grifter, stole them from their mother when Sam was in grade school and Riddle was little more than a toddler, and they haven’t had a home since. They travel wherever the luck takes Clarence, living in condemned houses and broken-down trailers, sometimes sleeping in Clarence’s truck. Sam never made it past second grade, and Riddle has never attended school.
When Emily and Sam meet and get together, each one is a conundrum to the other. Sam may see Emily more clearly than Emily sees Sam, because he knows the circumstances in which she was raised, while Emily has no clue about a life that doesn’t include a clock or a cell phone, in which people forage for leftovers from the trash at the fast food place and never know when they will be moving on. All Emily really knows about Sam is that he is different from anyone she has ever met, and she wants to know more. Their worlds are bridged by their attraction for one another.
Emily’s parents, concerned about their daughter’s fascination with this stranger, encourage her to bring Sam home to dinner, and when they begin to figure out what Sam’s life must be like, and then meet Riddle for the first time, their concern shifts to a desire to help. But the paranoid Clarence, who has trained his boys in how to remain invisibly under the radar, interprets this attention as a threat, and once again the boys are launched into the unknown, dragged at Clarence’s heels. This time, however, someone knows, someone cares, and someone is looking for them.
The book is filled with whimsy, pathos, humor, tragedy, and love. I have read it three times, and can imagine reading it again a few more. The book reminded me a bit of Trish Doller’s book Where the Stars Still Shine, because of the similar circumstances of a parent who lives his or her life with almost total disregard for the well-being of the children.
Sloan’s other notable book is called Counting by 7s, and was Amazon’s best novel of the year for middle grade when it came out in 2013. Although it, too, highlights a child who is different from everyone around her (the one fish swimming against the current), it could scarcely be more different a story than the romance between Emily and Sam.
Willow Chance is a 12-year-old genius, a quirky obsessive-compulsive whose life was saved when her parents adopted her as a small child. Although she doesn’t fit in well with her peers, her multitude of interests (medicine, gardening, languages) keep her happy, if solitary. (Think of Sheldon Cooper as a small mixed-race girl.) Tragedy strikes when both her parents are killed in an automobile accident and Willow has to confront the possibility of foster care while doing without the love of the only two people who ever made an effort to understand her. What she does to reconstruct her life and find a family will keep you riveted to the end.
The only similarity of this book to the first one is Sloan’s multi-character-driven storytelling, which makes Willow’s story particularly vivid. The writing is spare yet incredibly dense in detail, if that’s possible. Although this book received a lot of attention from a multitude of literary awards geared towards writing for young people, I have always argued with my librarian colleagues that while it is about a middle-school-age child, the story is more sophisticated than can be appreciated by children of that age. One Goodreads reviewer conceived of Willow as “an American Matilda,” that beloved heroine created by Roald Dahl, which I thought was particularly insightful; and another character of whom I am reminded is that of Flavia de Luce, the amateur chemist and sleuth from Alan Bradley’s mystery series that began with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. There, as here, while the protagonist is a young girl, the story is for adults.
Don’t miss out on these two stories. Whether you are a teen or a grown-up, they are well worth your reading time.