An intoxicating tale that’s simultaneously gaudy and exquisite.

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THE LAND OF GRACE

A satirical novel about a religious cult built around the worship of Elvis Presley. 

Doyle Brisendine grew up in a small city in West Texas, largely raised by his grandmother. He was a lonely child without any notable talents, but he dreamed of going into show business as an alternative to a life of humdrum labor. He also inherited his grandmother’s (and absentee mother’s) infatuation with Elvis. After a stint as a pool hustler, Doyle puts together a traveling Elvis-impersonation act—the “King of Kings Elvis Tribute”—and after a newspaper reporter writes an article about him, he lands an agent and suddenly finds himself with semiregular work. He performs in Alabama for a largely female, geriatric crowd, and afterward, he’s invited out to dinner by Rhonda Price, a fetching young woman whom he’d normally consider out of his league. She drives him back to her gated community, which is weirdly reminiscent of Graceland and ominously guarded by a dour man named Uncle Vester. The next morning, Rhonda invites him to attend a religious ceremony that’s extravagantly devoted to Elvis: A woman referred to as “Mama” delivers a sermon from the “Book of Gladys” that asserts Elvis’ divinity, and an aging impersonator wows the crowd with musical numbers. Doyle stays a while with the Our Lady of TCB (“taking care of business”) crowd—they pay him generously for singing in church as Elvis, and he enjoys the respite from the lonesomeness of life on the road. However, when he tries to leave, he’s poked with a cattle prod, handcuffed to a bed, and subjected to a forced reading from Mama’s ersatz Bible.  Burrell’s first novel skillfully combines the macabre with the clownish. On the one hand, the cult, as portrayed here, is utterly ridiculous, as it’s essentially a maniacal fan club that transforms its members’ celebrity crush into a rhapsodic spirituality. Everyone in the cult plays a theatrical role, drawn from Elvis’ real life, in a laboriously staged effort to replace the disappointment of cult members’ reality with one of imaginative fantasy. “And our King lives,” one character says. “Not just in our hearts but in the flesh. We see him onstage every week.” However, the author tempers the humor with descriptions of the group’s ghoulishly nefarious practices, including kidnapping and murder; teenage girls are compelled to sleep with “Elvis”—or his troop of apostles—as a rite of purification, and the resident physician, Dr. Nick, is revealed to be a known sexual predator. That said, Burrell’s story can also be marvelously subtle, as the whole narrative hinges on the differences between Mama’s crazed idolatry of Elvis and Doyle’s own lifelong fandom. In both cases, the legendary performer is seen as a source of meaning and solace—a fount of spiritualized hope. Overall, the book artfully asks probing questions about the basic human need for mythology of whatever kind and about the point at which the tensile cord of innocent fascination snaps.

An intoxicating tale that’s simultaneously gaudy and exquisite.

Pub Date: June 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60489-207-9

Page Count: 255

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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