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

SEDALIA CHRONICLES

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 nosey 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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Murder most foul and mayhem most entertaining. Another worthy page-turner from a protean master.

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BILLY SUMMERS

The ever prolific King moves from his trademark horror into the realm of the hard-boiled noir thriller.

“He’s not a normal person. He’s a hired assassin, and if he doesn’t think like who and what he is, he’ll never get clear.” So writes King of his title character, whom the Las Vegas mob has brought in to rub out another hired gun who’s been caught and is likely to talk. Billy, who goes by several names, is a complex man, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War who’s seen friends blown to pieces; he’s perhaps numbed by PTSD, but he’s goal-oriented. He’s also a reader—Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin figures as a MacGuffin—which sets his employer’s wheels spinning: If a reader, then why not have him pretend he’s a writer while he’s waiting for the perfect moment to make his hit? It wouldn’t be the first writer, real or imagined, King has pressed into service, and if Billy is no Jack Torrance, there’s a lovely, subtle hint of the Overlook Hotel and its spectral occupants at the end of the yarn. It’s no spoiler to say that whereas Billy carries out the hit with grim precision, things go squirrelly, complicated by his rescue of a young woman—Alice—after she’s been roofied and raped. Billy’s revenge on her behalf is less than sweet. As a memoir grows in his laptop, Billy becomes more confident as a writer: “He doesn’t know what anyone else might think, but Billy thinks it’s good,” King writes of one day’s output. “And good that it’s awful, because awful is sometimes the truth. He guesses he really is a writer now, because that’s a writer’s thought.” Billy’s art becomes life as Alice begins to take an increasingly important part in it, crisscrossing the country with him to carry out a final hit on an errant bad guy: “He flopped back on the sofa, kicked once, and fell on the floor. His days of raping children and murdering sons and God knew what else were over.” That story within a story has a nice twist, and Billy’s battered copy of Zola’s book plays a part, too.

Murder most foul and mayhem most entertaining. Another worthy page-turner from a protean master.

Pub Date: Aug. 3, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982173-61-6

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 2, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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