Truly wonderful and moving tales; the author is a writer to watch.

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DRIFTWOOD: STORIES FROM THE MARGARITA ROAD

This debut collection of short stories features an exotic location populated by believable people.

Paradise Beach is a fictional Mexican town on the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo, somewhere between Cancún and Tulum. (Head owned a bar and hotel for a decade in Playa del Carmen.) But Paradise Beach is more than a Jimmy Buffett cliché. The atmosphere is real, and certainly the characters and events are inspired by the author’s own sojourn in Mexico—how close they are to the truth doesn’t matter. These are discrete vignettes (though characters sometimes reappear), each prefaced by a short reflection on what one is about to read. The first tale sets the scene with a biographical sketch of Poppa (who appears to be Head’s alter ego). He is the classic expatriate, the footloose drifter who finally landed on this largely unspoiled shore—“living the dream,” in that awful cliché. Some stories are humorous; some are poignant; some defy description. Poppa is sometimes a main actor in these tales but more often a bemused bystander, counselor, or father figure. He holds the book and, it occasionally seems, Paradise Beach together. In a setting such as this, it is hard to avoid clichés, so the work does have ugly American tourists usually staying at the expensive, antiseptic resorts that are becoming more and more common. They venture next door to Paradise Beach and gripe because things do not perfectly match what the travel agent promised. There are also “Margaritaville”-type reflections and paeans to life off the middle-class, money-grubbing grid. While such things come with this idyllic territory, Head keeps them mostly in check.

The author is at his best with tales that may be rooted in the local milieu but are really universal. People fall in love just as often in Albuquerque as in Paradise Beach. The difference—and it is a crucial one—is that Albuquerque is not Edenic, not a place one escapes to and then is forced to take stock of one’s life. This is the moral fulcrum of the finest of the stories, as when Poppa and Lynn Timmons fall in love or when Sadie and Roy break up. Perhaps the strangest tale (“The Old Man in the Sea”) stars not a human character but an old black grouper (seen through Poppa’s eyes). It is a very touching rumination on what this sea creature has seen and suffered in his—starting out as a her—30 years offshore. While the collection offers a bunch of familiar characters, the strongest ones are fully fleshed out, not cardboard cutouts. All stories must end, and the end comes for Paradise Beach in the form of a monster hurricane, Bad-Ass Bertha, that all but levels the little town. Poppa realizes that it would be pointless to try to rebuild his bar. In the end, he and his old friend Chaz sit on the beach in the dark. Chaz, using the allegory of a bullfight and the exhausted beast to discuss the concept of querencia, explains why people like himself and Poppa should move on. Indeed, there is, almost literally, no Paradise Beach anymore. And with that, readers will realize that Paradise Beach is no more real than Macondo or Prospero’s enchanted isle.

Truly wonderful and moving tales; the author is a writer to watch.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-73527-810-0

Page Count: 273

Publisher: Luna Blue Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 31, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

A young woman finds herself at a Covid-induced crossroads in Picoult’s latest ultratopical novel.

Sotheby’s associate Diana O'Toole, age 29, and her surgical resident boyfriend, Finn, are planning a trip to the Galapagos in March 2020. But as New York City shuts down, Finn is called to do battle against Covid-19 in his hospital’s ICU and ER, while Diana, at his urging, travels to the archipelago alone. She arrives on Isabela Island just as quarantine descends and elects to stay, though her luggage was lost, her hotel is shuttered, and her Spanish is “limited.” What follows is the meticulously researched depiction Picoult readers have come to expect, of the flora and fauna of this island and both its paradisiacal and dangerous aspects. Beautiful lagoons hide riptides, spectacular volcanic vistas conceal deep pits—and penguins bite! A hotel employee known only as Abuela gives Diana shelter at her home. Luckily, Abuela’s grandson Gabriel, a former tour guide, speaks flawless English, as does his troubled daughter, Beatriz, 14, who was attending school off-island when the pandemic forced her back home. Beatriz and Diana bond over their distant and withholding mothers: Diana’s is a world-famous photographer now consigned to a memory care facility with early-onset Alzheimer’s, while Beatriz’s ran off with a somewhat less famous photographer. Despite patchy cellphone signals and Wi-Fi, emails from Finn break through, describing, also in Picoult’s spare-no-detail starkness, the horrors of his long shifts as the virus wreaks its variegated havoc and the cases and death toll mount. Diana is venturing into romantically and literally treacherous waters when Picoult yanks this novel off life-support by resorting to a flagrantly hackneyed plot device. Somehow, though, it works, thanks again to that penchant for grounding every fictional scenario in thoroughly documented fact. Throughout, we are treated to pithy if rather self-evident thematic underscoring, e.g. “You can’t plan your life….Because then you have a plan. Not a life.”

Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984818-41-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2022

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