A quaint, evocative tale of a philosophical striver in early 20th-century America.


A humble man seeks personal and spiritual clarity in this historical novel.

Ostby’s follow-up to his World War I novel Men With Broken Faces (2010) turns its focus to the story of Jake Miller, “a feckless, undistinguished, mostly-reformed sponge” who struggles with binge drinking and the personal legacy of a miserable childhood and an abusive father. He also strives to understand his own version of the Tibetan Buddhist wheel of life, the bhavacakra, whose ups and downs seem to rule his life. The novel that chronicles his life opens in 1913 on a down point, with Jake drunk, facedown in a slough near his Montana wheat farm. He’s counseled by his stolid neighbor Lars Nordraak to clean himself up for the prospect of the arrival of his contracted wife, Mable, a clean-faced and unflappably upbeat woman who throws herself into their homesteading life. She’s a cheerful presence, though she understands Jake very little; his favorite book, for instance, is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which is lost on her. She forgives him his shortcomings—shortcomings he’s acutely aware of: “He possessed self-awareness,” he realizes, “but only in retrospect, and that was the conundrum.” As a young man in Iowa, he was kicked in the head by a mule and lay comatose for a week before he recovered, and the clear implication is that his inner world was never again the same. Ostby begins his tale in the first decade of the 20th century, when water dousing and patent medicines were still taken seriously in small-town America, even as rudimentary technology and the brand-new automobile were making their first appearances. Although the narrative can at times have a maddeningly wandering shapelessness, Ostby effectively brings to life small-town America of a century ago. And an uplifting thread runs through it all—“Forgive yourself,” Jake is advised, “Don’t bother with going to some priest for forgiveness; you have to forgive yourself”—which ultimately helps make Jake a winning Everyman.

A quaint, evocative tale of a philosophical striver in early 20th-century America.

Pub Date: March 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-0991448203

Page Count: 284

Publisher: James Ostby

Review Posted Online: May 27, 2014

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...


Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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