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THE ESCALATOR

A poignant and insightful story of life, death, and memory.

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A British family reflects on their memorable lives, including their tragic losses, in this debut novel.

Lois works as a nurse in Birmingham, treating victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her mother, Cas, spends much of her time alone in Devon, staring at the sea. Both women think about William—Lois’ father and Cas’ husband—who recently died. The nonlinear narrative, however, shines the brightest spotlight on William in the final days before his demise, as he recalls the ups and downs of his family life and career. He and Cas were virtual opposites; he saw the goodness in people, whereas she “hated just about everyone.” They loved each other and married despite their differences, or perhaps because of them. But as William sifts through his recollections, it soon becomes apparent that they may be rooted in delusions. He remembers his years as the pope, for instance, and equates the Vatican with a steel factory where he was once employed. He was also friendly with famous American athletes and actors; helped combat AIDS at the World Health Organization; and soared through the skies as a chief test pilot. His memories are fascinating and preposterous, by turns, and it’s not always clear what’s reality and what may be fantasy. Likewise, his Sunday mornings are with a woman claiming to be his daughter, although he doesn’t seem to remember her. As the story continues, the family suffers another loss, and William, before reaching his end, comes to terms with the life he’s led.

Budden’s generally somber tale can sometimes be hard to follow, although William’s narrative transitions smoothly to various points in his life, from its “last stage” to when Lois and her brother, James, were kids. However, there are many nods to real-world events that have the effect of giving readers a clearer sense of the time periods at hand, as when Lois and her friends imitate Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and William gets himself up to date on new technology, such as DVD players and LCD screens. William refers to metaphorical escalators throughout the novel, including one that effectively offers a gloss on the novel’s entire narrative structure: He remembers stepping onto and off an escalator’s stairs, but he doesn’t recall traveling the moving steps in between. Throughout, Budden offers vivid prose that sparkles: “Above the sea, volcanic cloud formations appeared, edged in red, as if her short breaths took visual form.” Cas’ story as well as Lois’ feel like mere snippets compared to William’s lengthy tale; however, they each aptly reveal different ways of coping: Lois focuses on and immerses herself in family issues, while Cas lives in isolation, and not only because of the ongoing pandemic. Despite its melancholic tone, the story and its characters prove to be endearing. William, for example, is characterized as someone who nurtures a deep desire to help others, and even to save the world, and his wife and daughter are shown to indisputably and unconditionally love their family members.

A poignant and insightful story of life, death, and memory.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2023

ISBN: 978-1-73973-910-2

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Editstream Press

Review Posted Online: June 30, 2022

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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