An introspective tale that offers a beautiful ending but few surprises.

BEDSIDE MATTERS

A dying millionaire reads the Persian poet Rumi on his deathbed in this novel.

Walter is a successful businessman who has earned money above and beyond even the wildest dreams of his youth, when he was nothing more than a scrappy kid raised in foster care. But Walter is dying. He’s laid up in bed, knowing that his muscles have already started to fail him and will soon quit entirely. There is no cure. His family visits: his ex-wife, Polly, who chose to end their marriage; his grown daughter, Paula, who has inherited his business acumen; his estranged son, Gavin, who has been in and out of rehab during his adulthood. But it is only when Paula leaves Walter a book of Rumi’s poetry that his perspective on life (and his impending death) starts to shift. He begins to fully understand how he built his life around his work—becoming a slave to his job—and that before he dies, he can make new choices. In his fifth novel, Alther impressively tackles what many writers call “the bathtub story” because the protagonist can only sit and think—in a bathtub or, in Walter’s case, a bed. Working within these deliberate constraints, the story shines the most through moments of humor that break the initial melancholy and acerbic tone. For instance, Irma, Walter’s nurse, brings in a high school a cappella group to serenade her patient, and it’s a humorous moment because it’s so unexpected. The situation is doubly amusing because Walter doesn’t know that “these talented young people contribute to Elderly Services that gets funded by United Way” and that he is “their Platinum Placard donor.” The author clearly intends this book to be a meditative novel, one that is driven by Walter’s character traits and interactions with Rumi’s poetry rather than a flashy plot. And yet the tale moves slowly, often frustratingly so. Perhaps some of this annoyance stems from the fact that Walter’s journey can feel as if it has an expected outcome, and it’s not clear whether there will be a payoff. While there is indeed a striking conclusion, it’s still hard to engage with Walter, especially when readers can guess his character arc fairly early on.

An introspective tale that offers a beautiful ending but few surprises.

Pub Date: March 23, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-64428-163-5

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Rare Bird Books

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2021

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Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME

When a devoted husband and father disappears, his wife and daughter set out to find him.

Hannah Hall is deeply in love with her husband of one year, Owen Michaels. She’s also determined to win over his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, who has made it very clear that she’s not thrilled with her new stepmother. Despite the drama, the family is mostly a happy one. They live in a lovely houseboat in Sausalito; Hannah is a woodturner whose handmade furniture brings in high-dollar clientele; and Owen works for The Shop, a successful tech firm. Their lives are shattered, however, when Hannah receives a note saying “Protect her” and can’t reach Owen by phone. Then there’s the bag full of cash Bailey finds in her school locker and the shocking news that The Shop’s CEO has been taken into custody. Hannah learns that the FBI has been investigating the firm for about a year regarding some hot new software they took to market before it was fully functional, falsifying their financial statements. Hannah refuses to believe her husband is involved in the fraud, and a U.S. marshal assigned to the case claims Owen isn’t a suspect. Hannah doesn’t know whom to trust, though, and she and Bailey resolve to root out the clues that might lead to Owen. They must also learn to trust one another. Hannah’s narrative alternates past and present, detailing her early days with Owen alongside her current hunt for him, and author Dave throws in a touch of danger and a few surprises. But what really drives the story is the evolving nature of Hannah and Bailey’s relationship, which is by turns poignant and frustrating but always realistic.

Light on suspense but still a solid page-turner.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7134-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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