The Confession by Jo Spain

the confessionUltra-rich Harry McNamara is viciously beaten nearly to death in his house by a perpetrator who doesn’t even know him, and his wife Julie witnesses the whole thing with barely a flinch.

J. P. Carney, Harry’s assailant, turns himself in the following day, so you know who did it from early on in the book.

It’s not that Harry didn’t have enemies.  A high level banking wiz during Ireland’s boom years, Harry led a charmed existence, making deals over and under the table.  After the financial crash of 2008, he went through a highly publicized trial for bank fraud and managed to avoid any charges.

So, Harry and Julie are one lucky rich couple – that is, until his assailant puts him into the hospital with a golf club.

Through backstories, the author fleshes out Julie and J. P., and another storyline follows Detective Alice Moody and her investigation.  Moody is interesting, a physically large person who is extremely diligent at her job and quick for verbal banter with her boss.  Her interactions with Sargent Gallagher add some bawdy humor into the book (spoiler – lots of Irish-isms, but it didn’t bother me).

When reading J. P.’s personal background, the author creates him as a sympathetic person who has gotten the raw deal on practically everything.  One almost can see his chief motive behind the attack as that of resentment of Harry and his kind – the high rollers who played with Ireland’s economic boom and then left the country in shambles afterward.  Of course, there’s something much more personal than that.

Julie is…well, interesting.  A country girl originally, she falls for Harry early on and rides her good fortune with ease, but sees the cracks in Harry’s façade long before his would-be fall from grace.  There’s also much that Julie doesn’t say at the beginning that the narrative teases out of her.

To put it bluntly (no pun intended) The Confession is a gripping page turner, definitively for fans of thrillers who have an interest in the recent history of Ireland, particularly the crazy years of the Celtic Tiger and the aftermath.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

Vermont-bred Vale, sick of cold weather and small town drama, is finding a life of sortsheart spring mountain in New Orleans.  She distanced herself from her mother Bonnie years ago.  Bonnie, a heroin addict and a little bit crazy, then goes missing during a major storm in 2011, and when Vale learns of this from her aunt Deb, she takes the next bus back to a Vermont ravaged by flooding.

The only members of her extended family still living at the family’s home place are Vale’s great-aunt Hazel, the grounded one of the family who is now losing her mind, and Deb, a free-minded individual who came to a commune back in the 1970s and never left the area; she married Hazel’s son Stephen, who has long been dead.

As Vale furtively searches for Bonnie, the home and family she swore off of become more of an anchor than she would have thought.  Deb in particular is a kindred spirit, and is game to help Vale sort out family history, specifically that of Bonnie’s mother Lena, the family eccentric who lived by herself in a small hunter’s lodge and died shortly after Bonnie’s birth.

As Vale parses out details, she finds out some shocking details about her home state, and fills in gaps in the family tree that have been ignored for years.

Vale’s narrative is only one thread of the novel; Deb, Hazel, and Lena all tell their stories in alternating chapters and timelines.  This is the biggest challenge of the book – keeping track of who is who and how everyone is related, and also taking on the book’s stream of consciousness style.

My impression is that Heart Spring Mountain is a messy book, but what a glorious mess.  The characters are real and flawed, angry and jagged and maybe just a little worn out from maintaining – whether it’s the futile search for a drug-addled born again mother, or painstakingly uncovering painful family secrets.

Maybe the book’s construct is to reflect the bigger messes of where and what they are – a rural setting modified by horrendous floods, and a family held together by connection to the land but divided by shame and sorrow.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Himself : A Novel by Jess Kidd

HimselfThe circumstances of truth and the supernatural turn a small Irish town on its ear when a stranger arrives to town wanting answers.

Mahony, a youngish man of long hair and fine looks, comes calling from Dublin in the spring of 1976 and ingratiates himself among the locals of Mulderrig, a town at the end of nowhere.  He takes a room at the town’s dilapidated bed and breakfast and makes fast friends with one Merle Cauley, an elderly ex-actress who has been living at the B & B for eons.  She picks up quickly on Mahony’s talents, not just as a charmer, but as one who can see and converse with the dead.

Mahony’s visit is a homecoming of sorts – it seems that his mother was the town shame,  an errant teenager from years ago who had him out-of-wedlock, and then promptly disappeared.  Mahony then grew up in a Dublin orphanage, and had no connection of her other than a tattered photograph that he recently got from a priest associated with the orphanage.

As Mahony and Mrs. Cauley pry for clues about his mother, it’s soon apparent that someone wishes they wouldn’t pry so much.  Certain villagers, initially friendly, are not so much anymore, and an occasional unnerving happening is enough for the two to hesitate with their search.

But the dead are becoming more vivid to Mahony, and some of them need their stories told.

Himself is a murder mystery in places, a picaresque lark in others.  Amidst the scary elements there is sheer glee.  The book itself is a laughing finger pointed at small town life, where the fear of the unknown mixed with dark secrets propel all involved to an uneasy future, and perhaps some sort of redemption.

Kidd’s ghosts are playful, bawdy, and profane, a sort of Greek chorus to their living counterparts.  Most say very little; it’s in their actions where the humor kicks in.

There are lots of shifts in time and narration, so be prepared for this.  Aside from these quirks, and lots of Irishisms in the dialogue, Himself is a rollicking book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Name of the Nearest River : Stories by Alex Taylor

Reading rural noir books is a guilty pleasure.  I finish one, swear that I will never readname of the nearest river any more in this genre, and then there’s another author in the woodwork that grabs my attention.  Such is the case for Kentucky writer Alex Taylor and this collection of short stories.

Taylor’s literary world is a grim one, made up of hard weather and harder living.  His characters run the gamut from sinister to comic.  Most of these stories take place in an undetermined time, although one (“A Courier Among Green Trees”) is obviously historical.

In the title story, two friends look for the drowned body of a disliked man so they can heap more abuse on it.  In “Things Both Right and Needed”, a young man ponders revenge while in a field looking for coyotes to kill.  The daughter and father in “Winter in the Blood” are destined a bigger misfortune after discovering three of their cows shot dead.  And in “Equator Joe’s Famous Nuclear Meltdown Chili”, a ragtag family drives a drive in theater owner to distraction when their chili concoction wins over the attendees of his business.

These are just a few of the bunch, and they’re all worth reading.  Taylor writes a highly descriptive prose style so it’s easy to imagine the temperature extremes, the hilly terrain, the hardscrabble folk who people his stories.  Some passages are worth slowing down when reading because the writing is that good.

I haven’t read the author’s most recent novel The Marble Orchard, but I think this collection has sold me on it.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Southernmost by Silas House

southernmostAn ex-church pastor from a rural community finds his humanity and sense of home while running afoul of the law.

Asher Sharp heads a small Pentecostal church and is very close to his young son Justin, who is older than his years and a sensitive soul.  After a major flooding of the Cumberland River in Tennessee, Asher Sharp finds himself in a quandary when he offers hospitality to a gay couple.  His actions raise the ire of his church members, especially when the two men begin attending services at the church.

Asher admonishes the congregation in an overwrought sermon that is caught on phone and quickly goes viral.  The church votes him out.  His wife, adamantly strict in her beliefs, splits from Asher and gets full custody of their son, with Asher having very limited interaction with Justin.

As he stumbles with doubts of his own beliefs, and remembers his long ago rejection of his own gay brother Luke, Asher rashly takes his son on a trip to Key West, the origin of a series of enigmatic postcards that he thinks are from Luke.  He hopes to find his brother and make amends, although it’s a very long shot.

When they arrive there, the last thing that Asher expects from anyone is refuge, but he finds this from his employer, an inn owner who cooks incessantly and plays the piano, and another employee, who is avoiding her own demons as best as possible.  As Asher and Justin settle in to their new environment, they find Bell and Evona to be kindred spirits, a couple of damaged sorts who accept father and son without judgment.

With this improbable family, Asher and Justin make their secretive way, doing their best not to draw attention from the general public.  This is ever harder, with Asher’s video still circulating online, and Justin’s missing child picture appearing in the post office.

Southernmost is a novel that I wound up liking very much, and one of the first books in a while that had me in tears.  The settings – a flood-torn rural community, the colors and sounds of Key West – are vividly rendered.  The author also brings out the fears of a wanted man very well.  You will feel for Asher even as you grit your teeth.  He is flawed and fearful, a good man who does some unwise things, but has a true love for his child.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Debatable Land by Graham Robb

For those with an interest in British history, the border country of Scotland and EnglandDebatable Land is always a fascinating area to study.

The Debatable Land comprises the southwesternmost section of the Borders.  When the two countries were independent of each other, this area developed a long reputation for inaccessibility and lawlessness.  The reiver culture, in which rival families on both sides raided and stole from each other, defined much of the border region.

The Debatable Land functioned almost as a country unto itself.  Officials from either side were often clueless about governing the area.  The reivers themselves varied.  Certain high-handed individuals plundered their neighbors ruthlessly; others allied with whomever was the flavor of the month in power.  To call oneself English or Scottish was a state of flux.

This book is a study of the geography and the unique environment that gave rise to the culture of the borders.  The main focus of the book is the five hundred year stretch of time prior to the unification of Scotland and England, when the culture of the reivers was most active.  The author also expounds on Arthurian legend, Celtic and Roman influences in the area, and how the Scottish referendum of 2014 affected the border region.

The Debatable Land is fascinating in detail, but can be a bit of a slog in places.  However, for those who love historical minutiae and maps, and don’t mind digesting it slowly, the book is a worthwhile read.

If you’re interested in other books about the Borders of Scotland and England, try The Marches : A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland and/or Battle Valleys : A Portrait of the Border.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Half Broken Things by Morag Joss

half broken thingsSixty-something Jean is an afterthought of a person, a house sitter by trade who will soon be forced into retirement after her final job, which involves the caretaking of a stately country house for eight months.

With the owners completely absent and a long list of don’ts for a rule book, Jean is at first stifled by her situation, and then liberated, and when she begins to make some unsanctioned decisions (using off limit rooms, discovering the wine cellar, etc.) life acquires new dimensions for Jean.  Now if only she could share her new contentment,  and chores, as the estate requires more upkeep than she can manage.

Company and help come with Michael, a forty-ish petty thief, and Steph, an abused young pregnant woman.  Through a meeting of sheer accident, Jean invites the couple to live there, and Walden Manor, as the house is known, becomes a thriving refuge for them, after making hard decisions, some of them illegal.

Their haven is temporary, and although the house is isolated to an extent, it’s not long before the outside world comes calling.  But Walden Manor is easily the best thing that has ever happened to any of them, and keeping the proverbial wolves at bay involves taking extreme measures.

Half Broken Things is a slow-burner of a country idyll that goes horribly wrong.  Told alternatively in Jean’s journal entries and third person chapters, the book takes awhile to take off, but it does nicely, and you will quickly get wrapped up in the tension.  Suffice it to say, you’ll be alternatively rooting for Jean, Michael, and Steph,  and reeling in shock.

This book came as a recommendation via a New York Times weekly column called By the Book, in which they interview authors and their literary preferences; Half Broken Things got an affirmative nod from Sophie Hannah.

(William Hicks, Information Services)