Black River: A Novel by S.M. Hulse

black-river“A tense Western and an assured debut, Black River tells the story of a man marked by a prison riot as he returns to the town, and the convict, who shaped him. When Wes Carver returns to Black River, he carries two things in the cab of his truck: his wife’s ashes and a letter from the prison parole board. The convict who held him hostage during a riot, twenty years ago, is being considered for release.Wes has been away from Black River ever since the riot. He grew up in this small Montana town, encircled by mountains, and, like his father before him and most of the men there, he made his living as a Corrections Officer. A talented, natural fiddler, he found solace and joy in his music. But during that riot Bobby Williams changed everything for Wes — undermining his faith and taking away his ability to play.

How can a man who once embodied evil ever come to good? How can he pay for such crimes with anything but his life? As Wes considers his own choices and grieves for all he’s lost, he must decide what he believes and whether he can let Williams walk away.

With spare prose and stunning detail, S. M. Hulse drops us deep into the heart and darkness of an American town.” – Goodreads

After the death of his wife, Claire, Wesley Carver packs up her ashes and heads out from Spokane all the way back to Black River, Montana – a town from which he fled over eighteen years ago. Awaiting him are his estranged stepson, Dennis, and Bobby Williams – the convict who maimed Wesley’s hands during a prison riot back when he was a correctional officer. Williams is up for parole, and Wesley has the chance to speak at the parole hearing. Confused and grieving, he arrives in Black River to a lukewarm welcome from the stepson he rejected so long ago. As Wes struggles to make some sort – any sort – of connection with Dennis, he also struggles with the decision of whether or not to speak at Williams’s parole hearing. Haunted by all he has lost and full of regret for past mistakes, will Wesley be able to release all of the pain and anger he has carried inside for so many years?

Black River is S.M. Hulse’s debut novel of love, loss, and grief; a bittersweet tale filled with tragedy yet imbued throughout with a thread of hope. Hulse ultimately captures our hearts and minds with her examination of faith, forgiveness, and redemption within this noble and absorbing narrative. Her characters are each shaped by the painful circumstances of their roles in each others lives. Wes’s struggles are all too real as his past rises up to meet him: his volatile relationship with Dennis, his broken friendship with his brother-in-law, and of course the upcoming confrontation of his demons at the parole hearing for Bobby Williams.

Black River is ultimately a deeply poignant tale of pain and healing that will keep readers glued to its pages. While each of the characters is deeply flawed, Hulse draws them sympathetically and they worm their way into our hearts despite ourselves. The tale ends with a realistic conclusion; while all is not resolved there is still a sense of satisfaction and even hope. In all, this is a deeply emotional and remarkable novel that resonates even with the most cynical of us. Highly recommended.

Black River: A Novel by S.M. Hulse: Read it today!

4 stars

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

 

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

ordinary-grace“From New York Times bestselling author William Kent Krueger comes a brilliant new novel about a young man, a small town, and murder in the summer of 1961.

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were at the ready at Halderson’s Drug Store soda counter, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a summer in which death assumed many forms.

When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, which includes his Methodist minister father, his passionate, artistic mother, Juilliard-bound older sister, and wise-beyond-his years kid brother, Frank finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal.

On the surface, Ordinary Grace is the story of the murder of a beautiful young woman, a beloved daughter and sister. At heart, it’s the story of what that tragedy does to a boy, his family, and ultimately the fabric of the small town in which he lives. Told from Frank’s perspective forty years after that fateful summer, it is a moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.” – Goodreads

In 1961, Frank Drum was living in a small town in Minnesota with his parents and two siblings. His older sister, Ariel, was a music prodigy who was headed to Julliard at the end of the season; his younger brother, Jake, suffered with a terrible stutter. Frank’s father was a Methodist minister; his mother a homemaker who did not share her husband’s love for the church. During this fateful summer, Frank was thirteen years old and at that age when he was still exploring exactly who he was, and anxious to prove his manhood to others. This tale is narrated by Frank – forty years later – as he looks back upon the summer that changed him irrevocably and, in fact, did cause him to grow up a bit faster than expected. During that summer of 1961, four deaths occurred – one of which shook Frank and his family to the core.

Despite all of the tragedy and the inherent mystery that follows, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is assuredly not a murder/crime thriller. This definitely leans more toward the literary fiction side of the scale, for it is about so much more than the tragedies of the novel. It’s about survival and moving on, and doing it with grace and strength. It is about the strength of the family unit in times of crisis. It’s about how those who are considered to be weak are beaten down, yet fight to remain standing. It’s about choosing to face life head-on, or hiding from it behind closed doors.

Krueger’s rich and evocative writing style paints a detailed picture in the reader’s mind. His loving and vivid descriptions of Minnesota bring you right there. He writes a heart and soul into each of his characters that brings them to life in our minds. Ordinary Grace won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2014 {,as well as the 2014 Dilys Award} and in my opinion it was definitely deserved, for this is a novel that is far from ordinary. Go and get you some, y’all!

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger: Read it today!

4 stars

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

 

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See How Small by Scott Blackwood

see-how-small“A riveting novel about the aftermath of a brutal murder of three teenage girls, written in incantatory prose “that’s as fine as any being written by an American author today.” (Ben Fountain)

One late autumn evening in a Texas town, two strangers walk into an ice cream shop shortly before closing time. They bind up the three teenage girls who are working the counter, set fire to the shop, and disappear. SEE HOW SMALL tells the stories of the survivors–family, witnesses, and suspects–who must endure in the wake of atrocity. Justice remains elusive in their world, human connection tenuous.

Hovering above the aftermath of their deaths are the three girls. They watch over the town and make occasional visitations, trying to connect with and prod to life those they left behind. “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart,” they say. A master of compression and lyrical precision, Scott Blackwood has surpassed himself with this haunting, beautiful, and enormously powerful new novel.” – Goodreads

On an autumn evening in Austin, Texas, three teenage girls are finishing up their shift at a local ice cream shop when two men walk in. When the men leave, the shop is on fire – the three girls still inside, murdered, naked, and tied up with their own underwear. While the murders and arson take only moments, the aftermath of the violence has a much farther reach – friends and family of the girls, as well as emergency personnel, spend years attempting to cope with the trauma.

Interestingly enough, the plot of See How Small by Scott Blackwood is a familiar one to residents of central Texas: It was inspired by the unsolved Austin yogurt shop murders from 1991. While four men were arrested in the case, and two were convicted, both guilty verdicts were later overturned and the crime remains unresolved. In the strip mall where the yogurt shop once stood is a small plaque commemorating the victims.

The novel alternates points of view, following those linked to the girls in various ways. There are the girls themselves – Elizabeth, Zadie, and Meredith – who speak from the afterlife as a chorus of one, whispering to those they left behind. Kate, the mother of Elizabeth and Zadie. Jack, the firefighter who first responded to the fire and found the girls’ bodies. Hollis Finger, a homeless disabled veteran who is one of the few witnesses but due to a head injury he received in Iraq, can’t quite put together the words to describe the perpetrator.  Michael, who worked as the killers’ getaway driver, is haunted by memories of his dead brother and of the girls whose murders he helped to cover up.

Blackwood’s writing is lyrical and evocative, wrapping around the reader’s heart and squeezing, squeezing, until your breath is taken away. At no point does he become too wordy or dramatic; his brutal emotional honesty hits hard and leaves one reeling. There are no graphic descriptions of the violence perpetrated here, and readers are left to imagine the fates of the three girls – which is almost worse, in a way. His depictions of the emotional torture that those left behind after the murders go through are tragic – heartbreaking, even.

Let me be clear: this is not a crime novel, or a thriller, as some seem to have expected. This is pure literary fiction in fine form, with a just a hint of mystery thrown in. This novel is as gorgeous as it is disturbing and will pull you in from its first words until tossing you away, wasted, with the last. I was truly, truly impressed with the pure beauty of Blackwood’s writing – I haven’t encountered such that I found as lovely in quite some time. See How Small is a intricately woven, emotional, and brutal novel. Highly, highly recommended.

See How Small by Scott Blackwood: Read it today!

5 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

 

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2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

2-am-at-the-cats-pajamas“A sparkling, enchanting and staggeringly original debut novel about one day in the lives of three unforgettable characters.

Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, precocious nine-year-old and an aspiring jazz singer. As she mourns the recent death of her mother, she doesn’t realize that on Christmas Eve Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who’s just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it.

As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night. A vivacious, charming and moving debut, 2 AM AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS will capture your heart and have you laughing out loud.” – Goodreads

It is widely known among those around me that I’m a sucker for a book with a good title. When I saw a novel titled 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino {August, 2014}, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Although that ASAP turned into a 5-month delay, the wait was worth every minute – Bertino did not disappoint with her delightful and moving literary debut.

The story, set on Christmas Eve Eve, shines its spotlight on three main characters. Madeleine Altimari is two days away from her tenth birthday. She is still reeling from the death of her mother just a year before. Madeleine’s two main hobbies: smoking menthols from the carton her mother left behind, and singing jazz. Madeleine’s teacher, Sarina Greene, is newly divorced and has just moved back to Philadelphia; she is anxiously anticipating an evening dinner with friends from her past. Jack Lorca is the lonely-yet-never-alone owner of the legendary jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, which is in danger of being closed down due to code violations. We follow the paths of these three lost souls on the snow-topped streets of Philadelphia as they search for love, music and hope until their paths converge – not surprisingly – at 2:00 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas.

Bertino’s urban fairy tale is a vivid one, funny and lively with characters the reader warms to quickly, all the way from Madeleine Altimari down to Pedro the wandering dog. While not all subjects are happy, the overall mood of the novel is one of upbeat hope and even humor, giving readers that sense of feel-good merriment that will lead to a quick and easy read. One note on the final chapter: this final moment of the novel is a very surreal addition that seems incongruent to the overall story, however when read in context with the fairy tale nature of the novel, fits more than one would suspect. In whole, this was a most charming and endearing read and left me feeling joyful and refreshed after a day’s worth of reading. Go and get you some, y’all!

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino: Read it today!

4 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

 

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