An unforgiving story about abuse in a fractured and ruined family.

On A Fool's Errand

A young girl struggles through life with an alcohol-swilling mother and a violent stepfather in this debut novel.

Liz Burke, age 9, is growing up hard in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania in the 1940s. She has two brothers—one older, one younger—named Patrick and Matthew, and a dictator of a mother named Clare. Dad died years before in an accident at work, and Clare struggles to make ends meet working at the local brewery. One day, Liz and Patrick cut school to go to the river, and Patrick hits his head and drowns. Liz blames herself for the accident and now has to endure grief, problems at school, and a mother who is drinking heavily. She also needs to take care of Matthew, a sensitive boy who is just starting first grade. Unable to make rent, Clare begins to bring home gentlemen in the evenings, and Liz faces taunts at school for her mother’s descent into prostitution. Seeking a permanent mate, Clare latches on to Nick Sinclair, a veteran who has started working at the brewery. It is not long before he and Clare are brawling in the kitchen in drunken spats. Nick also physically abuses the kids and later rapes Liz. She tells no one of the crime, and the insanity at home continues. By the time Liz is 12, she is pregnant with Nick’s child, and the veteran, who fears exposure, takes her to Seattle. Clare, who had abandoned the family in disgust, is reunited with Matthew, while Liz begins anew in Washington under the impression she is in a loving relationship with Nick. Wammer’s narrative about wartime life in coal country describes the sometimes-brutal realities faced by his characters with a good deal of emotion and does well to add several kindhearted characters to the madhouse, including Liz herself and the departed dad. But parts of the story strain credulity. Too many people believe the often told lie that Liz is almost 18, and an additional sexual pairing with her and another man in Washington is unnecessary. Through a series of about-face personality changes from several characters and a tale that spans decades, the sad novel begins to feel overdone and a tad gratuitous.

An unforgiving story about abuse in a fractured and ruined family.

Pub Date: March 25, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5333-6849-2

Page Count: 346

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2016

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

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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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More about grief and tragedy than romance.


Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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