A pleasing retreat into American pastoral life.

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BETTER DAYS

This nostalgic view of pastoral life on an Iowa farm delivers the warm fuzzies without sentimentality.

Cal and Helen Earlywine have spent a lifetime working the land and raising a family, but tragedy has shadowed much of their lives. Twenty-six years ago, their son Tom was struck by lightning and killed while helping Cal plant a field. The tragedy complicated an already fraught relationship between Cal and his remaining son, Wayne, an artist who showed no interest in taking up the family’s farming business. Now, with Cal’s ailing hip threatening his mobility and his mood, Helen is having second thoughts about the once-jovial man she married. Enter Nancy Bannister, town booster extraordinaire. Her plans to build a revenue-generating corn maze on the parcel of land where Tom died could either be the poultice Cal needs to begin to finally come to terms with his son’s death or an abomination that disgraces Tom’s legacy. A picturesque yet sober look at a quickly retreating American archetype, Kasten’s (Ten Small Beds, 2011, etc.) portrayal of rural life ably situates readers in Cal and Helen’s world, often skillfully shifting between their perspectives to untwine a thorny issue. But the narrative often lacks the gravitas to really connect to readers. Throughout, Cal and Helen contend with a variety of obstacles—with varying degrees of success—that have the potential to derail their comfortable lives, but independent of the outcomes, the momentum remains as flat as the land the Earlywines have cultivated for generations. Still, there’s plenty to like here. The bristly relationship between Cal and Wayne is well-articulated, the evolution of Nancy’s corn maze from idea to reality is fun to watch, and Helen’s struggle to come to terms with her beloved older sister’s Alzheimer’s is both illuminating and touching.

A pleasing retreat into American pastoral life.

Pub Date: July 11, 2013

ISBN: 978-0983195931

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Kate Kasten

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2013

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LAST ORDERS

Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

Pub Date: April 5, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-41224-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1996

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Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of...

FIREFLY LANE

Lifelong, conflicted friendship of two women is the premise of Hannah’s maudlin latest (Magic Hour, 2006, etc.), again set in Washington State.

Tallulah “Tully” Hart, father unknown, is the daughter of a hippie, Cloud, who makes only intermittent appearances in her life. Tully takes refuge with the family of her “best friend forever,” Kate Mularkey, who compares herself unfavorably with Tully, in regards to looks and charisma. In college, “TullyandKate” pledge the same sorority and major in communications. Tully has a life goal for them both: They will become network TV anchorwomen. Tully lands an internship at KCPO-TV in Seattle and finagles a producing job for Kate. Kate no longer wishes to follow Tully into broadcasting and is more drawn to fiction writing, but she hesitates to tell her overbearing friend. Meanwhile a love triangle blooms at KCPO: Hard-bitten, irresistibly handsome, former war correspondent Johnny is clearly smitten with Tully. Expecting rejection, Kate keeps her infatuation with Johnny secret. When Tully lands a reporting job with a Today-like show, her career shifts into hyperdrive. Johnny and Kate had started an affair once Tully moved to Manhattan, and when Kate gets pregnant with daughter Marah, they marry. Kate is content as a stay-at-home mom, but frets about being Johnny’s second choice and about her unrealized writing ambitions. Tully becomes Seattle’s answer to Oprah. She hires Johnny, which spells riches for him and Kate. But Kate’s buttons are fully depressed by pitched battles over slutwear and curfews with teenaged Marah, who idolizes her godmother Tully. In an improbable twist, Tully invites Kate and Marah to resolve their differences on her show, only to blindside Kate by accusing her, on live TV, of overprotecting Marah. The BFFs are sundered. Tully’s latest attempt to salvage Cloud fails: The incorrigible, now geriatric hippie absconds once more. Just as Kate develops a spine, she’s given some devastating news. Will the friends reconcile before it’s too late?

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of poignancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-312-36408-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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