A masterful assemblage of tales that illuminate life in a flagging American town.

I'LL BE HERE FOR YOU

DIARY OF A TOWN

In this linked short story collection, the inhabitants of a Pennsylvania steel town grapple with aging and the shifting rhythms of their community.

Ganaego is a typical mill town in Western Pennsylvania, where the steel jobs have disappeared and taken much of the rest of the local economy with them: “The closure of the steel plant had, to be sure, clobbered all of Ganaego—one more casualty in the hollowing out of America’s industrial heartland.” Even so, American lives roll on, much in the way that they always have. Maddy Schoolcraft, a divorced community college administrator and a woman whom nobody takes seriously, is convinced she is responsible for the car accident that killed one of her son’s high school classmates. As she copes with her guilt, she must also assist her aging, philosophical father, who is going blind. The obese and aging Max Fischman operates a jewelry and appliance shop in Ganaego’s failing commercial district. When his window is smashed in the middle of the night and his inventory stolen, the police chastise him for his broken security system, but Max already has an idea who might have committed the crime. Pleasance Stubbs is a schoolteacher in her mid-50s resisting her doctor’s orders to retire or face crippling damage to her hips while dealing with her long-furloughed husband’s insistence that they pay for the suit of a recently deceased millworker. The 12 stories span the period from 1971 to 2015, and characters from one tale will often pop up as minor players in another. As a cycle, they offer a series of windows into the small, domestic lives of the town’s inhabitants as things change—or don’t—in the fortunes of Ganaego.

McKean’s prose is measured yet probing, revealing the hidden theatricality of even the collection’s minor characters. Here, Maddy describes the movements of her father’s eye doctor: “Barking out his conclusions in acronyms to an assistant who typed his comments into a computer, the doctor would strap on a helmet with a light attached—much like, Maddy would think, what a spelunker might don before descending into a cave—and gaze through a scope into his patients’ eyes.” A melancholic specter haunts the collection, and yet the author largely resists the urge to dwell in nostalgia or sentimentality for the town’s bustling past. Instead, a quiet fatalism imbues each of these tales, in which the inevitable march from youth to old age and death is mirrored in the plights of each of his protagonists. The episodes McKean chronicles are mundane, and yet in them, he discovers the perennial American drama of hopefulness giving way slowly—and then all at once—to disappointment. Standout pieces include “Dance of the Little Swans,” about a woman with a failing dance studio; and “Death in the 5 and 10,” about a librarian who learns of the tragic death of a child. But nearly every story will succeed at striking something in readers’ hearts.

A masterful assemblage of tales that illuminate life in a flagging American town.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 222

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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