A funny, poignant tale of an imperfect paradise.

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HEAVEN, INDIANA

Buried secrets churn beneath the placid surface of a small town in this tragicomic debut novel.

Once a station on the Underground Railroad and later a Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s, the village of Heaven, Indiana, has a tangled history of grace and sin. Maher begins its beguiling saga in 1954, when Madame Gajikanes, a Romani fortuneteller passing through with a traveling carnival (her decidedly non-Romani real name is Nancy White), finds a newborn infant left in a basket at her tent. She duly raises the baby girl, named Nadja, to be a carnie performer who specializes in telling fortunes from dirty dinner dishes (“It’s like tea-leaf reading. I read from the pattern left on your plate after you’ve eaten”). Nadja’s wanderings intersect with the lives of Ellie Denson, a waitress at Clara’s Kitchen who wishes she too had the gumption to get out of Heaven, and Sue Ellen Sue Tipton, whose House of Beauty becomes the clearinghouse for artful gossip thanks to her phenomenal head for town lore. Also threading through the tale are aging farm couple Helen and Lester Breck. When Helen decides that Lester is not really Lester but a farmhand who looks just like him, the long-suffering husband takes his wife’s delusions in stride while covertly seeking consolation with other women. There’s more than enough death and derangement in Maher’s yarn for a prairie gothic potboiler, but she defuses the melodrama in a well-observed comedy of rural manners that breaks down larger villainies into smaller misdemeanors, tinging all of it with a wisp of magical realism. (Fortunetelling, it turns out, is 99 percent reconnaissance and 1 percent something else.) The author’s prose manages evocative flights—“Elephants paced restlessly, their immense feet beating slow syncopations”—but it dwells mainly in small-town naturalism rendered in pitch-perfect dialogue by sharply drawn characters whose folksiness still encompasses layers of complication and conflict. A bit like a darker-tinged version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon narrative, Maher’s fictive universe unfolds with richly humorous details and expansive meaning.

A funny, poignant tale of an imperfect paradise.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2000

ISBN: 978-0-9703993-0-4

Page Count: 169

Publisher: Dog Hollow Press

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

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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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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