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Bitter is the Wind

A readable, if somewhat programmatic, story of generational tensions in America.

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A debut novel about the troubled relationship between a working-class father and his son.

McDermott’s work is divided into four conceptual categories: “Trouble,” “Hope,” “Desire,” and “Control,” and it maps those categories onto the story of the boyhood and coming-of-age of George Johnson Jr. in 1970s and ’80s upstate New York. Young George’s father’s dreams of big-league baseball ended when he accidentally got his girlfriend, Mary Goldberg, pregnant. As McDermott opens his story, George Sr. is a widower, his wife and daughter having died in a car accident. He’s working a spiritless local job and trying his best to raise his son, who’s also beginning to have dreams of escaping small-town life. McDermott paints an effective, touching portrait of the relationship between George Sr. and Jr., skillfully catching the realistic tension between affection and boundary-testing conflict. The two clash over George Jr.’s willfulness and youthful misbehaviors and bond over baseball and a shared outlook on life. They begin a rabbit-breeding business together, and the father beams with pride when the son is valedictorian of his class in 1977. In an economically paced series of scenes, young George goes away to college and broadens his experience of life while his father stays working at his job. The novel’s later segments lack the forward momentum of the earlier coming-of-age sections; George Jr. finds himself in a corporate job every bit as restrictive as his father’s and impulsively decides to break the family pattern (“My father’s given me a good example of how not to live,” he tells one of his bosses). Overall, McDermott does a smooth job of incorporating the politics and pop culture of his story’s setting. Although he never quite succeeds in making George Jr. anywhere near as sympathetic a character as his father, he populates the peripheries of his story with colorful secondary characters, including one, Ursula Brombecker (“long-time Village matriarch and self-proclaimed repository of Salt Point’s oral history”), who commands every scene she's in.

A readable, if somewhat programmatic, story of generational tensions in America.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61457-139-1

Page Count: 179

Publisher: Cune

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

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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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THE GREAT ALONE

A tour de force.

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  • New York Times Bestseller

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

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