Messily executed, but the author’s emotional commitment to her material makes it compelling.

THE SEVEN OR EIGHT DEATHS OF STELLA FORTUNA

Her many near-fatal mishaps aren’t as deadly as marriage and motherhood for a fiercely independent Italian-American woman in this century-spanning novel.

We know from the scene-setting preface that Mariastella Fortuna’s “eighth almost-death” led to a mysterious hatred for her formerly beloved younger sister, Tina. Debut author Grames, who based the novel largely on her own family’s history, launches it in a stale magic-realist tone that soon gives way to a harder-edged and much more compelling look at women’s lives in a patriarchal society. Born in Calabria in 1920, Stella is given the same name as a sister who died in childhood because her father, Antonio, refused to get a doctor. He heads for America three weeks after the second Stella’s birth and comes home over the next decade only to impregnate his submissive wife, Assunta, three more times. During those years, young Stella’s brushes with death convince her that the ghost of her dead namesake is trying to kill her, but that’s not as frightening as the conviction of everyone around her that a woman's only value is as a wife and mother. Stella has seen enough during her brutal, domineering father’s visits to be sure she never wants to marry. When, after a 10-year absence, Antonio unexpectedly arranges for his family to join him in America in 1939, readers will hope that Stella will find a freer life there. But the expectations for women in their close-knit Italian-American community in Hartford prove to be the same as in Calabria. The pace quickens and the mood darkens in the novel’s final third as it enfolds an ever growing cast of relatives—with quick sketches of the character and destiny of each—and Antonio’s actions grow increasingly monstrous. The rush of events muddies the narrative focus, and the purpose of the epilogue is equally fuzzy. However, a tender final glimpse of elderly Tina conveys once again the strength and hard-won pride of the Fortuna women.

Messily executed, but the author’s emotional commitment to her material makes it compelling.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-286282-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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

THEN SHE WAS GONE

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. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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