The plot of Sharma Shields’ The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac sounds pretty bizarre, but it’s worth the suspension of disbelief. Eli Roebuck is certain that when he was 9 years old, his mother carried on an affair with a sasquatch and ran away with him into the woods. He vividly remembers meeting the sasquatch, or Mr. Krantz as he is introduced, and his giant furry feet. Eli, who grows up to be a podiatrist, becomes deeply obsessed with hunting down the Big Foot who carried off his mother. Unfortunately, Eli’s onerous quest to find the monster of his childhood is a heavy toll on his family. And he’s not the only one in his family dealing with very real demons. And unicorns. And lake monsters.
Finally the visitor arrived. Agnes raised to the door and stood very still before it, her hands on the belly of her apron, taking a deep breath, as though to calm herself. She swept the door open.
There stood her guest, “the most interesting man.”
Eli tried not to stare. He did not see a man at all. What he saw was an enormous ape crushed into a filthy pin-striped suit. He remembered a book from school about exotic beasts, the giant apes who lived in the savage countries of the world, and the guest resembled those creatures: deep hooded brow, small blank eyes, thin-lipped mouth like a long pink gash. And the hair! The guest was so hairy that Eli was unsure of the color of his skin: Beneath the thick brown fur, his flesh—tough and charred, like strips of dried deer meat—appeared red in some places, purple in others. The guest even smelled of hair, badly, like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match.
What are you reading today?
Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger
by Beth Harbison
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9780312599133
On sale July 2013
Ashley Barton was ready to walk down the aisle when the best man broke the news that her fiance had been cheating. Unsure of her next step, she chose escape with the best man—also the groom's brother. Ten years later, Ashley is working in her family's bridal shop after neither relationship worked out. Recent gossip says both brothers will be back in town for a wedding, and emotions collide when they are reunited. What is that little spark she still feels? Is that love, anger—or heartburn from lunch?
Here is a brief excerpt depicting the moments just after Ashley has been told—minutes before her wedding—that her fiance has been cheating on her.
It can't be true, it can't be true, it can't be truuuue, it can't be true.
That beat carried her all the way up to the altar. She was aware of the eyes on her, but she met no one's gaze. Not even Burke's, though she knew—she could just feel—it was questioning.
What's wrong? What's going on?
No clear answer formed in her head. She didn't know what was going on, exactly. She was dazed, being carried on a rickety raft by an ocean of adrenaline.
She didn't know what she was going to do until she was right there by his side.
That's when it all came clear.
She drew her hand back and slapped him with all the power of every unacknowledged hurt he'd ever inflicted on her.
The she turned and ran back down the aisle, out of the church, followed, not by the undoubtedly stunned Burke, but by his best man. His brother.
Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Beaufort Books • $24.95 • ISBN 9780825306938
published June 10, 2013
As a fan of Becoming Odyssa, her memoir of first hiking the AT after college, I was thrilled when I learned that Davis had written a new book, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, about her recent record-breaking experience. Certain to entertain readers—fellow hikers or not—this is a story of perseverance and grit, love, dedication and sacrifice. It’s not so much about being the fastest AT hiker ever, as about taking on a challenge, consistently doing your best and allowing yourself to rely on other people to help you along the way.
Readers feeling unsure of themselves or frustrated by societal pressures regarding what they should look like, act like and/or focus on would benefit from reading Davis’ story, which offers plenty of inspiration for becoming a better "me."
Here are Davis’ thoughts after Anne Riddle Lundblad, an accomplished ultra-runner, tells Jen she’s a role model:
"I mean, how does hiking the Appalachian Trail in a short amount of time positively impact anyone? But Anne made me realize that being a role model isn’t about inspiring other people to be like you; it is about helping them to be the fullest version of themselves. The main legacy of this endeavor would not be to encourage others to set a record on the Appalachian Trail, but to encourage them to be the best form of their truest selves. And it just so happened that my best form was a hiker."
"No one seemed interested in what I'd learned or what the most valuable part of the experience had been. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about how I averaged 46.93 miles per day. . . . Why didn't anyone ask about the notions of living in the present or choosing something purposeful and fulfilling over something fun and easy? Or the idea that persistence and consistency can be more valuable than speed or strength? . . . Why did no one realize that the most miraculous part of the summer was not the record, but how well my husband had loved me?!"
If you’ve read Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, you know it is about much more than just hiking. Such is Davis’ story, too. The white blaze and rolling mountains on the cover will pull you in, and by the time you reach the end of the trail atop Springer Mountain, you’ll be wondering how you, too, can find your best self.
Next week, I'll be hiking in the Tetons with my husband, and, having read Called Again, I know that I'll be a "better me" while I'm there. What book(s) have inspired you to become a better version of yourself?
Brilliance by Marcus Sakey
Thomas & Mercer • $14.95 • ISBN 9781611099690
published July 16, 2013
Marcus Sakey's new supernatural thriller, Brilliance, lives up to its name. From the very start, this first novel in a projected series is full of action and intrigue. Since the 198os, about 1% of American children are born "brilliant" with a special gift—they're also known as abnorms. Some of these aborms can be a problem, and it is Nick Cooper's job as a government agent to catch the bad ones—as his own abnormal gift is to hunt his own kind. Can Cooper stop all of the bad abnorms from hurting people, and how does he tell the good guys from the bad?
In the opening chapter, Cooper has spent the day tracking an abnorm and finally catches up with her in a hotel bar in San Antonio, Texas:
Cooper took a sip of coffee. It was burned and watery. "You hear there was another bombing? Philadelphia this time. I was listening to the radio on the way in. Talk radio, some redneck. He said a war was coming. Told us to open our eyes."
"Who's us?" The woman spoke to her hands.
"Around here, I'm pretty sure 'us' means Texans, and 'them' means the other seven billion on the planet."
"Sure. Because there aren't any brilliants in Texas."
Cooper shrugged, took another sip of his coffee. "Fewer than some other places. The same percentage are born here, but they tend to move to more liberal areas with larger population density. Greater tolerance, and more chance to be with their own kind. There are gifted in Texas, but you'll find more per capita in Los Angeles or New York." He paused. "Or Boston."
Alex Vasquez's fingers went white around her bottle of Bud. She'd been slouching before, the lousy posture of a programmer who spent whole days plugged in, but now she straightened. For a long moment she stared straight ahead. "You're not a cop."
Through some twisted ups and downs, the fast-paced Brilliance has all of the best with manipulation, revolution and social commentary in a world disturbingly close to our own. In an interview, author Marcus Sakey said that he hates for his plots to be revealed, so I will stop there and simply say be ready to stay up all night with this one.
Will you be reading Brilliance? What are you reading during Private Eye July?
Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Algonquin • $23.95 • ISBN 9781616202637
published May 28, 2013
Stories told from alternating perspectives catch me every time, and Good Kings Bad Kings is no exception. Susan Nussbaum has created a powerful debut novel, the winner of this year's Barbara Kingsolver's PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Nussbaum's story gives readers a look into the lives of institutionalized juveniles with disabilities, including Yessenia Lopez, who just wants to be living free again, and Teddy, who dresses in a suit and tie every day. The voices of these children and others are joined by those of caring employees working at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, like Joanne, the data-entry clerk. Throughout the pages, friendship, love and trust are explored as these characters forge relationships that will give them the strength they need to fight back against their mistreatment.
Nussbaum's novel is a challenging look at institutions and what being disabled really means. Humor and authentic voices pair together to make this novel one that will leave you thinking about the choices you make every day. Here's an excerpt from Joanne's point-of-view:
My duties are mostly typing. There must have been dozens of far more appropriate applicants. People who type with all ten fingers, for example. But for the first—and I feel pretty certain only—time I think I got a job because of my disability. It's well known in crip circles that the best place for a crip to get a job is a place that's swarming with other crips. So I applied, emphasizing my computer skills, which are pretty good, and how important it is for disabled youth to see disabled adults in the workplace. Places like this love the idea of role models. There was no haggling over the miserable pay either, as money is no object for me. No salary could possibly be too low. The place could pay me in rat turds and I'd happily put them in my wallet. What I needed more than money was human interaction.
What are you reading this week?
Beach House No. 9 by Christie Ridgway
HQN • $7.99 • ISBN 9780373777402
Published January 29, 2013
I interviewed Christie for the February issue of BookPage, and you can read that conversation here. It was fascinating to hear how the veteran romance author creates chemistry between her characters, and her description of the real-life Crystal Cove (which inspired her trilogy's setting) made me want to book a flight to California.
Beach House No. 9 is about book doctor Jane, a woman who is hired to work with war journalist Griffin on his memoir. Naturally, things don't go exactly as planned. Griffin can't seem to buckle down and write, and then there's the matter of the two of them falling in love . . .
Here's an early scene, after Jane moves into the guest room at Beach House No. 9 to keep a close eye on Griffin's work. This is early in the novel, but you can already see that she's having an affect on him:
Griffin propped his feet on the rail at Captain Crow's and sipped from the cardboard cup in his hand. The restaurant didn't serve breakfast, but the prep cook made a pot of coffee in the mornings, and this morning Griffin had made friends with the prep book. The guy had left for an emergency onion run, giving Griffin privacy and a place to start the day away from the eagle eye of the little dictator.
He still clung to his one and only plan in regards to Jane: avoid her as much as possible—and completely avoid what she wanted him to do.
After moving in two days before, she'd kept mostly to the guest room she'd selected. Though he'd continued blasting music through his earbuds, her close proximity seemed to punch through the wall of sound. He'd felt her presence, the capable and unwavering energy she exuded, despite the beams and plaster between them. She'd brought into his house a new scent too, a light and feminine fragrance that somehow pierced the Pacific's own salty-green perfume.
At dinner that first night, while he'd manned the barbecue and stayed out of range of the conversation between her, his family and Old Man Monroe as much as possible, he'd still been able to chronicle the effect she had on them. She'd managed to surprise a laugh out of his sister, unearth a set of jacks to amuse his nephews, put a book in the hands of his sulking niece and send their elderly neighbor home with a smile after a short stint holding the sleeping baby.
If he didn't keep up his guard, damn it, he had good reason to fear she'd manage to make him start the memoir.
He wasn't ready.
A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993219
Published March 12, 2013
Like The Privileges, this novel tells the story of a wealthy couple. But here the couple find themselves in the midst of a major disaster: The husband, Ben, has a total breakdown, eventually getting himself a DWI and an accusation of sexual harassment from a summer associate at his law firm. Helen, the main character and Ben's wife, divorces her husband and must figure out a way to support herself and her daughter. Turns out she has a knack for PR. Specifically, she intuitively knows how to make powerful men (think, politicians embroiled in sex scandals) apologize. The story is a clever critique of our culture—both amusing and timely. Though A Thousand Pardons lacks the grace of The Privileges, I thought it was an entertaining read, and I enjoyed watching Helen's reinvention.
Here's an excerpt from an early scene, in which Helen must reason with a New York councilman whose violent actions have been caught on a surveillance camera. Helen's the first one speaking, then the councilman.
"You will admit to everything. You will apologize to this young woman, by name, for your violent behavior. You will not use any phrases like 'moment of weakness' or 'regrettable incident.' You will apologize to your wife, and to your children, and to your parents if they are still alive . . . Basically, you will get up in front of the cameras and make an offering of yourself."
Some of the redness drained from his face as she spoke; she could feel, as she'd felt before, the power her words gave her over him. "You really think that's the play?" he said.
"That is the only play. To ask forgiveness. If you hold back in any way, the story lives. Let me ask you this: presumably you are a man with ambitions. What do you want to happen now? What is the outcome that will put those ambitions back on the track that your own mistakes threw them off of?"
He tipped back noiselessly in his chair. "I want to stay in office," he said. "I want to be reelected. This was a stupid thing for me to have done, but it does not define me. It was a one-time thing, and I want to get away from it."
"You will never get away from it," Helen said. "But you can incorporate it into the narrative. You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way. No 'I was drunk,' no 'she hit me first.' You have to take, and answer, every question. You have to hold your temper when people try to get you lose it. Do you think you can do that?"
Criminal Enterprise by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $26.95 • ISBN 9780399157905
Published March 21, 2013
I like Laukkanen's books because they start with a scenario that's plausible given our current economy. In The Professionals, a group of under-employed college grads turn to kidnapping to pay the bills. In Criminal Enterprise, a family man is laid off from his high-paying corporate job. He's got a pricey mortgage, a fancy car, kids, a stay-at-home wife. So what's he do to stay afloat? He starts robbing banks, of course (though it doesn't take long for Windermere and Stevens to get on his tail). Here's an early scene:
Tomlin settled into a rhythm. A few days a week doing taxes for senior citizens, a couple contract jobs for friends at big firms. A robbery every few weeks, when the money got low.
Or, more and more, whenever the mood struck him.
It wasn't just about the money anymore. Not even close. It was about the excitement, the power, the quick jolt of electricity he felt when the pretty tellers wilted at the sight of his gun. It was the same thrill he'd once felt when he walked through his office, watching the worker drones stiffen at their cubicles, knowing the room's collective sphincter had tightened the moment he walked through the door. It was power. Control. Robbing banks filled the void while it paid off his mortgage. And nobody had figured him out.
Tomlin found a small office in Lowertown, east of downtown Saint Paul. It was an old, musty low-rise with patchy off white walls and buzzing fluorescent lights, graffiti on the sooty facade. But Tomlin didn't much care for looks. An office would provide cover. An easy way to launder the robbery money.
What are you reading today?
The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era
by Jessica Fellowes & Matthew Sturgis
St. Martin's • $29.99 • ISBN 9781250027627
On sale November 13, 2012
And then I got hooked.
And now I can't wait until January 6, 2013, when "Downton Abbey," Season 3 premieres on PBS in Nashville.
If you've also got "Downton" fever, I'd recommend you check out our Brit lit roundup in the January issue of BookPage, in which we sing the praises of Habits of the House By Fay Weldon, a comedy of manners that takes place in 1890s England. (Even better: Weldon is the author of the first episode of the original "Upstairs Downstairs.") We also recommend Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden, which traces the history of a grand British home from the 18th century to the present. Read about both of those books here.
Or you could also do what I'm doing: flipping through The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era, a photo-heavy tribute by Jessica Fellowes (niece of the creator of "Downton Abbey" and a writer in her own right) and Matthew Sturgis. There are chapters on all the major characters, and enough full-color pictures to make you drop everything and go shopping for hats.
Here's a short excerpt from the foreword, written by Julian Fellowes:
Over the last two rather extraordinary years, at the risk of sounding vain, I have often been asked why I thought "Downton Abbey" has been quite such a success. Of course it is hard to be definite about these things. If television were an exact science, there would be nothing made that did not break records. But supposing I were to put my finger on one element, it might be that we have made the decision to treat every character, the members of the family and the members of their staff, equally, in terms of their narrative strength. they all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions and disappointments, and with all of them we suggest a back story. So this book, which is an invitation to get to know the characters and their backgrounds more fully, will, I hope, build on that and allow the reader to develop his or her relationship with the figures in our landscapes.
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing • $24.99 • ISBN 9781455507214
On sale now
At the heart of The Middlesteins is Edie, the matriarch of a Jewish family in Chicago. When we meet her, she is a child who has discovered her complete love of eating—a love that just might kill her, as she ages and comes to weigh more than 300 pounds and must undergo various surgeries related to her size. Entwined with Edie's story are various family members—like her two adult children and her daughter-in-law, a woman so obsessed with healthy eating that she'll hardly let her kids use table salt on a bland piece of salmon.
During the holidays—a time so filled with family togetherness—I love a good novel that portrays family dynamics in all their messy glory. Even better if the book makes me laugh and tugs at my heart. The Middlesteins does this and more. It's also quite short (less than 300 pages) and zips along quickly, so it would be perfect for a plane ride home.
Here's a short excerpt from the beginning of the book, when daughter-in-law Rachelle—a woman whose mission in life is to "keep her family happy and healthy"—goes over to Edie's house for an intervention. She's supposed to be talking to Edie about getting healthier, but she dreads this task. Here's what happens when she stops in front of Edie's house.
The front door to the house opened; it was Edie, wrapped in her enormous mink coat and matching hat, an inheritance from her own oversized mother. ("I am morally opposed to fur," Edie had told Rachelle once. "But since it's already here, what am I going to do? Throw it away?" Rachelle had fingered the coat delicately with her fine, manicured hand, and imagined having it taken in—dramatically—someday for herself. "You can't waste mink," agreed Rachelle.) Edie got into her car, and before Rachelle could get out of her own car to stop her, drove off.
Rachelle didn't hesitate. She followed her mother-in-law, past the high school—a digital marquee in front of the school flashing GO TEAM! again and again—until she pulled into a McDonald's parking lot. She made it through the drive-thru swiftly and then pulled out onto the road back to the subdivisions, but instead of heading home she went in the other direction, and Rachelle still followed her—she was morbidly curious at this point—this time into a Burger King, again through the drive-thru window, pausing before she exited back onto the main road in front of a garbage can in the parking lot, into which she tossed her now-empty, crumpled McDonald's bag through her window. A half beat later, she hurled an empty plastic cup. Perfect aim.