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  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

SCOUTING FOR THE REAPER

STORIES

A beautiful, well-balanced collection.

Awards & Accolades

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
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  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2014

In this collection of literary fiction, winner of the 2012 Hudson Prize, seven short stories explore secrets, lies and trust.

Appel (Phoning Home: Essays, 2014, etc.) populates his stories with mostly ordinary people. But his characters, whether a truck driver or a professional folklorist, teenage or elderly, male or female, all tend to come up against a longing for trustworthiness. The title story begins with the knockout line: “Nothing sells tombstones like a Girl Scout in uniform”—a mild piece of deception (Natalie, the narrator, is 13 and was never a Girl Scout) that hints at more complicated ones to follow. Over several visits, Natalie’s father flirts with an old love, Delia Braithwaite, who’s dying, while ostensibly selling her a headstone. When she finally says, “I trust you, Gordon,” he trembles, as if suppressing a scream: “My father’s tone shifted slowly from intimate to false intimate—the voice he used to clinch the bargain with his other customers.” In these stories, trust can create distance as well as closeness, as can the truth. In “Choose Your Own Genetics,” a lesson on blood typing discloses some unsettling news; even more unsettling is how the narrator’s respected father, a geneticist, uses his superior knowledge to bully the teacher. Greta, the lonely, widowed central character in “Ad Valorem,” decides to ignore what she knows to be true since she longs to trust. Part of trusting yourself is knowing your limits, or as the truck-driver narrator of “Hazardous Cargoes” puts it: “You’ve got to know your load. And you’ve got to know how far to carry it.” Appel approaches his characters with compassion and an understanding of human frailty. In “The Extinction of Fairy Tales,” another lonely character realizes when her lawn-care man stops showing up that she doesn’t even know his last name, and she owes him a debt of gratitude: “She wanted to tell people that he was the man who’d buried her dog, but that sounded absolutely nutty out-of-context. There was the problem with human relationships—you could never really explain them.” Luckily for readers, Appel can.

A beautiful, well-balanced collection.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-937854-95-9

Page Count: 187

Publisher: Black Lawrence Press

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

THE GREAT ALONE

A tour de force.

In 1974, a troubled Vietnam vet inherits a house from a fallen comrade and moves his family to Alaska.

After years as a prisoner of war, Ernt Allbright returned home to his wife, Cora, and daughter, Leni, a violent, difficult, restless man. The family moved so frequently that 13-year-old Leni went to five schools in four years. But when they move to Alaska, still very wild and sparsely populated, Ernt finds a landscape as raw as he is. As Leni soon realizes, “Everyone up here had two stories: the life before and the life now. If you wanted to pray to a weirdo god or live in a school bus or marry a goose, no one in Alaska was going to say crap to you.” There are many great things about this book—one of them is its constant stream of memorably formulated insights about Alaska. Another key example is delivered by Large Marge, a former prosecutor in Washington, D.C., who now runs the general store for the community of around 30 brave souls who live in Kaneq year-round. As she cautions the Allbrights, “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” Hannah’s (The Nightingale, 2015, etc.) follow-up to her series of blockbuster bestsellers will thrill her fans with its combination of Greek tragedy, Romeo and Juliet–like coming-of-age story, and domestic potboiler. She re-creates in magical detail the lives of Alaska's homesteaders in both of the state's seasons (they really only have two) and is just as specific and authentic in her depiction of the spiritual wounds of post-Vietnam America.

A tour de force.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-312-57723-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2017

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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