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SEDALIA CHRONICLES

A humorous, charming collection of tales set in a Midwestern town.

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A volume of short stories probes the foibles and fascinations of the residents of a small Indiana town.

What goes for excitement in Sedalia may be different than in other places, but its residents are ready to swarm at the first hint of it. The nosy breakfasters at the local cafe speculate about an unknown car with New York plates that spent the night in a neighbor’s driveway. The idlers at the gas station are curious about how the local undertaker’s behavior has changed since the death of his wife. The sheriff has been getting reports of people buying night-vision goggles at the gun store, and the town doctor may be getting audited by the IRS. Nothing in Sedalia is too small to escape notice. “I mean, naked trucker, running along the bottom of the embankment below the northbound lane,” reports a state police officer at the beginning of one tale. “Nothing but shoes. Obviously trying to avoid being seen. Which is obviously impossible. We get eleven different calls.” Gossip is the fuel of the local discourse, though sometimes the really interesting things are the ones that don’t get said. People who spot bears, for example, can’t tell anyone about them given that the Department of Natural Resources’ official line is that there are no bears in Indiana. Most people born in the town stay in the town. Sedalians tend not to fare as well when they try to make it in the wider world, as with Wanda Sue Blankenship. Wanda moves to New York to be a lawyer and tries to hide her Southern Indiana accent—unsuccessfully. In these 19 stories, the residents of Sedalia are held up for readers’ appraisals, though they can never be judged as thoroughly by an outsider as they are by one another.

Johnson’s prose is easy and wry, perfectly calibrated to the speed of life in his fictional, eponymous municipality. “The skinny young man lay asleep in a filthy sleeping bag just a foot from the edge of the bridge abutment,” begins one tale about an anti-capitalist hitchhiker who has a short but memorable stay in town. “The drop to the dry stone river bed was fifteen feet. His head lay on folded pants, his long brass-colored hair hopelessly tangled. The snore suggested nasal occlusion.” The author has a knack for pinpointing not only the way characters look to the people around them, but also how they appear to themselves. Sedalia’s slight inferiority complex regarding the rest of America—and its snooty neighbor, Elmira, Indiana—is a recurring theme. “Dysfunction in the Mole Challenge Group” is a particular standout, but the strength of these stories is the way that characters weave in and out of them, offering a larger view of the dynamics of the town. Neighbors who appear in one piece are often explored at length in another. As in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and subsequent works of locality-based fiction, Johnson’s book manages to simultaneously poke fun and celebrate small-town American life.

A humorous, charming collection of tales set in a Midwestern town.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2021

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 257

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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SWAN SONG

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

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A stranger comes to town, and a beloved storyteller plays this creative-writing standby for all it’s worth.

Hilderbrand fans, a vast and devoted legion, will remember Blond Sharon, the notorious island gossip. In what is purportedly the last of the Nantucket novels, Blond Sharon decides to pursue her lifelong dream of fiction writing. In the collective opinion of the island—aka the “cobblestone telegraph”—she’s qualified. “Well, we think, she’s certainly demonstrated her keen interest in other people’s stories, the seedier and more salacious, the better.” Blond Sharon’s first assignment in her online creative writing class is to create a two-person character study, and Hilderbrand has her write up the two who arrive on the ferry in an opening scene of the book, using the same descriptors Hilderbrand has. Amusingly, the class is totally unimpressed. “‘I found it predictable,’ Willow said. ‘Like maybe Sharon used ChatGPT with the prompt “Write a character study about two women getting off the ferry, one prep and one punk.”’” Blond Sharon abandons these characters, but Hilderbrand thankfully does not. They are Kacy Kapenash, daughter of retiring police chief Ed Kapenash (the other swan song referred to by the title), and her new friend Coco Coyle, who has given up her bartending job in the Virgin Islands to become a “personal concierge” for the other strangers-who-have-come-to-town. These are the Richardsons, Bull and Leslee, a wild and wealthy couple who have purchased a $22 million beachfront property and plan to take Nantucket by storm. As the book opens, their house has burned down during an end-of-summer party on their yacht, and Coco is missing, feared both responsible for the fire and dead. Though it’s the last weekend of his tenure, Chief Ed refuses to let the incoming chief, Zara Washington, take this one over. The investigation goes forward in parallel with a review of the summer’s intrigues, love affairs, and festivities. Whatever else you can say about Leslee Richardson, she knows how to throw a party, and Hilderbrand is just the writer to design her invitations, menus, themes, playlists, and outfits. And that hot tub!

Though Hilderbrand threatens to kill all our darlings with this last laugh, her acknowledgments say it’s just “for now.”

Pub Date: June 11, 2024

ISBN: 9780316258876

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 9, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2024

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