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 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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A warm and winning "When Harry Met Sally…" update that hits all the perfect notes.

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PEOPLE WE MEET ON VACATION

A travel writer has one last shot at reconnecting with the best friend she just might be in love with.

Poppy and Alex couldn't be more different. She loves wearing bright colors while he prefers khakis and a T-shirt. She likes just about everything while he’s a bit more discerning. And yet, their opposites-attract friendship works because they love each other…in a totally platonic way. Probably. Even though they have their own separate lives (Poppy lives in New York City and is a travel writer with a popular Instagram account; Alex is a high school teacher in their tiny Ohio hometown), they still manage to get together each summer for one fabulous vacation. They grow closer every year, but Poppy doesn’t let herself linger on her feelings for Alex—she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship or the way she can be fully herself with him. They continue to date other people, even bringing their serious partners on their summer vacations…but then, after a falling-out, they stop speaking. When Poppy finds herself facing a serious bout of ennui, unhappy with her glamorous job and the life she’s been dreaming of forever, she thinks back to the last time she was truly happy: her last vacation with Alex. And so, though they haven’t spoken in two years, she asks him to take another vacation with her. She’s determined to bridge the gap that’s formed between them and become best friends again, but to do that, she’ll have to be honest with Alex—and herself—about her true feelings. In chapters that jump around in time, Henry shows readers the progression (and dissolution) of Poppy and Alex’s friendship. Their slow-burn love story hits on beloved romance tropes (such as there unexpectedly being only one bed on the reconciliation trip Poppy plans) while still feeling entirely fresh. Henry’s biggest strength is in the sparkling, often laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue, particularly the banter-filled conversations between Poppy and Alex. But there’s depth to the story, too—Poppy’s feeling of dissatisfaction with a life that should be making her happy as well as her unresolved feelings toward the difficult parts of her childhood make her a sympathetic and relatable character. The end result is a story that pays homage to classic romantic comedies while having a point of view all its own.

A warm and winning "When Harry Met Sally…" update that hits all the perfect notes.

Pub Date: May 11, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0675-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

WISH YOU WERE HERE

A young woman finds herself at a Covid-induced crossroads in Picoult’s latest ultratopical novel.

Sotheby’s associate Diana O'Toole, age 29, and her surgical resident boyfriend, Finn, are planning a trip to the Galapagos in March 2020. But as New York City shuts down, Finn is called to do battle against Covid-19 in his hospital’s ICU and ER, while Diana, at his urging, travels to the archipelago alone. She arrives on Isabela Island just as quarantine descends and elects to stay, though her luggage was lost, her hotel is shuttered, and her Spanish is “limited.” What follows is the meticulously researched depiction Picoult readers have come to expect, of the flora and fauna of this island and both its paradisiacal and dangerous aspects. Beautiful lagoons hide riptides, spectacular volcanic vistas conceal deep pits—and penguins bite! A hotel employee known only as Abuela gives Diana shelter at her home. Luckily, Abuela’s grandson Gabriel, a former tour guide, speaks flawless English, as does his troubled daughter, Beatriz, 14, who was attending school off-island when the pandemic forced her back home. Beatriz and Diana bond over their distant and withholding mothers: Diana’s is a world-famous photographer now consigned to a memory care facility with early-onset Alzheimer’s, while Beatriz’s ran off with a somewhat less famous photographer. Despite patchy cellphone signals and Wi-Fi, emails from Finn break through, describing, also in Picoult’s spare-no-detail starkness, the horrors of his long shifts as the virus wreaks its variegated havoc and the cases and death toll mount. Diana is venturing into romantically and literally treacherous waters when Picoult yanks this novel off life-support by resorting to a flagrantly hackneyed plot device. Somehow, though, it works, thanks again to that penchant for grounding every fictional scenario in thoroughly documented fact. Throughout, we are treated to pithy if rather self-evident thematic underscoring, e.g. “You can’t plan your life….Because then you have a plan. Not a life.”

Warning: Between lurid scenes of plague and paradise, whiplash may ensue.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984818-41-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2022

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