Not nearly as romantic as its Casablanca namesake, Akley’s eponymous St. Louis dive bar is a sousing place for poignant...


The lives of three barflies intertwine in Akley’s (Crossroads from Damascus, 2011, etc.) latest novel.

Not nearly as romantic as its Casablanca namesake, Akley’s eponymous St. Louis dive bar is a sousing place for poignant losers with vague, purposeless anecdotes to tell. Among the regulars are Angela, a bartender whose heart was broken by her lover’s suicide; Jim, a man who suffered brain damage when he crashed his car after a girlfriend slipped him a dose of Percocet; and Sam, a struggling writer whose troubled life—marital problems, suicide attempts—forms the central thread in a tangle of intersecting character sketches. Framed by a bar-back mirror that comments on the people reflected in it, the storyline drifts among the interchangeable first-person broodings of the characters, gradually filling in details of their lives and snagging occasionally on desultory conversations and japes. Sprinkled in are some of Sam’s writings, including lyric poems—“bird flower come home! / and rest inside the holes / of my wood”—and a children’s story, as well as a random news article about homelessness in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s hard to tell what is happening to whom in this braided, rambling picaresque, but that hardly matters since the uninvolving narrative mainly serves as a peg on which to hang hazy, abstract reflections on the meaning of life, a single paragraph of which can go on for 16 pages. Akley has a good feel for bar-room atmospherics and dialogue, but, unfortunately, the unfocused booziness spills over into his authorial voice. His stammering, sentimental pensées—“What you do doesn’t matter, and your reaction to this becomes either one of hope or despair, hope or despair in what happens after, after your life and what you’ve done with it”—go on endlessly; reading them feels like being trapped with a long-winded tavern philosopher.

Pub Date: April 28, 2011

ISBN: 978-1432774080

Page Count: 364

Publisher: Outskirts

Review Posted Online: Jan. 3, 2012

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.


High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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