Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin

Marcus, fresh out of foster care following his mother’s untimely death, goes to live withgrief cottage his mother’s aunt Charlotte, a solitary sort who paints landscapes of the South Carolina island where she resides.

Marcus, despite his recent personal turmoil, is a dependable kid.  Being as his mother was a single working parent, he’s learned how to run a household, and this puts him in good stead with his great-aunt.  Although Charlotte keeps to herself, the two get along a fair amount, and Marcus learns to give her room, which in turn gives him plenty of time to sort out his island surroundings.  Two things of his interest are a clutch of loggerhead turtle eggs in the dunes next to Charlotte’s house, and a ruined house at the north end of the island that the locals call Grief Cottage, named because of a family who died there when Hurricane Hazel hit the island in 1954.

Marcus obsesses about the cottage, particularly after he first senses a presence there, and then more so when the ghost appears to him.  It’s in Marcus’s mind that the ghost is the teenage son of the family that perished, and identifying this family becomes his main goal.  That, and being the caregiver for Charlotte, who hurts herself during a fall.

Marcus, despite being a solitary type, and caring for one, finds that there are some things that he doesn’t have to shoulder alone.  He meets some unlikely wayfarers on his island journey of self-discovery, including the unforgettable Lachicotte Hayes, antique car restorer extraordinaire and Charlotte’s close friend, who becomes a stalwart supporter of Marcus, and Coral Upchurch, a wheelchair-bound ninety-five year old who knows more about Grief Cottage than the locally produced history books of the area.

Grief Cottage is a quietly written but lively novel.  There’s no sensationalism or mind-blowing action here, just an incisive pondering of bereavement and guilt, as told by an eleven-year old kid who’s seen too much for his lifetime.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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The Weight of This World by David Joy

Aiden McCall, orphaned at age twelve, is soon taken in by his buddy Thad Broom, andweight the two grow up inseparable, albeit in an unusual circumstance.  They live in a trailer down the hill from Thad’s mother’s house.  Thad basically got kicked out by his stepfather, and he fends for himself.  His mother is distant to him.

Flash forward to when the two are twenty-four.  Thad has finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan; he’s a damaged soul with a messed up back and too many memories of the front.  Aiden has spent most of his young adulthood committing petty crimes and riding the pre-recession building boom in their corner of western North Carolina.  Of course, the jobs are largely gone, and Aiden and Thad eke it out filching copper from the shells of unfinished houses and doing an occasional drug deal.

A chance visit with their local meth dealer finds our two friends witnessing a horrible accident that leaves them with a serious stash and more money than either have seen in years.

For Aiden, this windfall, ill-fortuned as it is for some, is the ticket out of their dead-end town.  If only it were this easy.  As it is, Thad has the gift of gab when he’s on a meth bender, so too many other people become interested in what the two have.

Interwoven with Aiden and Thad’s stories is that of April, Thad’s mother, who still has the house up the hill and has her own dreams of leaving.  She has always carried an internal burden that has kept her cold to her son.  It’s ironic that she and Aiden have been intimate since before Thad got back from the army.  The two men are still the best of friends, but this affair is certainly a friction point.

The Weight of This World is hardcore grit lit, a tale of woe in which nothing is a clear-cut choice.  Our heroes, as they were, are beat-up and doomed people who wish for better things than fate is willing to give them.  I found the book a sad but well-written read.

This is the second novel by David Joy; read his first (Where All Light Tends to Go).  It’s perhaps even grittier than this one.

Fans of Daniel Woodrell and Ron Rash – take note.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

happinessHelen Carpenter, first grade teacher, divorced, and washed-up at thirty-two, decides that a three-week group wilderness hike in Wyoming is exactly what she needs to jump-start her life.  She doesn’t realize that she’ll be sharing the experience with her younger brother’s best friend, beginning with the long drive from Boston to Wyoming.

By association, Jake Archer, as her brother Duncan’s buddy, should be as big a slacker as she perceives Duncan to be.  To be sure, he’s snarky and infuriating at first, but Jake grows on Helen – there’s way more depth to him than she expected.  They do slightly more than flirt, and then argue.

On their arrival at the trailhead, Jake agrees to ignore Helen as much as possible, and she is determined to make her time on the trail a personal transformation.  Helen doesn’t count on the remainder of her trail cohorts all being college age, or that Bennett, their director, looks like he’s barely started shaving.  Or that she hasn’t a clue what challenges in the great outdoors entail.

Through beating treks, weather extremes, and injuries, our group of collegiate misfits (plus Helen) learn how to click with each other and survive.  Jake proves amazingly resourceful, a renaissance outdoorsman skilled enough to pull Helen and others from the brink of peril more than once.  Unfortunately, there’s a pretty girl who’s smart as hell that Helen admires and Jake apparently falls for – and Helen finds that growing past her jealous tendencies is sometimes harder than dealing with foot blisters or snowstorms.

Happiness for Beginners is a feel-good/sad-in-places chick-litty kind of book that is a breezy read, driven more by dialogue than narrative.  It’s not high literature, but the book is still a good read.  I always enjoy fiction about arduous hikes and outdoor challenges, and Happiness… delivers in this regard.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseEvery nine years someone disappears inside sinister Slade House, a house no one but its intended victims seem able to find. The quest to solve the riddle of Slade House will lead several innocent characters to their doom, while a final confrontation with the evil that resides there threatens to unleash its malevolent force upon the world…

Slade House is a recent book from David Mitchell, author of such epic, genre-warping works as Cloud Atlas (adapted into a film in 2012) and Black Swan Green. This novel expands upon characters and situations first introduced in his The Bone Clocks, although it is not necessary to have read that work in order to understand this one.  As in his earlier works, Mitchell uses time as a structuring device, with each chapter narrated by a different character in a different time-period.  The author’s careful attention to period-appropriate slang and pop-cultural references in these sections helps plant the reader firmly in each character’s milieu, and the sympathy generated for otherwise unlikable characters through this technique is one of the major achievements of this book.

While Slade House is described and marketed as a “haunted house” tale, it reads more like a straightforward fantasy/speculative fiction novella aimed at a Young Adult audience. The villains of the book are revealed at the end of the first chapter as a set of telepathic twins who have mastered the occult arts and then created Slade House as a sort of immersive mirage to lure victims into their “time-bubble” where their souls can be drained by the psychic vampires. Their efforts eventually run into a snag which, in the interest of keeping this column spoiler-free, the readers will simply have to discover for themselves.

Ultimately, Slade House is a quick, well-written read that touches on the classic theme of good versus evil with a cursory examination of the ethics of revenge thrown into the mix. Those in search of scares, however, might find themselves disappointed.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

Lawton and Hunter Loggins are brothers in their twenties, one a Navy Seal, the other inriver of kings college.  After their father’s death, they set out on a kayaking trek, navigating the wilds of Georgia’s Altamaha River to a specific place where they intend to empty their dad’s ashes.

As we travel with Lawton and Hunter, two other tales intertwine with their story – that of their father in his earlier days, and that concerning the first French settlers of this area of southeast Georgia.

Hiram Loggins was a harsh man – unlucky with shrimp boats and the law, and in love with the wrong woman.  As the brothers grew up, he raised them hard and tender – hard with the physical abuse, and tender in the ways that he taught them to revere the Altamaha and its swampy terrain.  It is to this river that they fare, to do their unforgiving dad one last favor.

The third strand of the book concerns the settlement of Fort Caroline, begun by the French in 1564.  Varying alliances with natives and clashes with the Spanish ultimately spell doom to the settlement.  The main character here is Jacques Le Moyne, an artist charged with rendering the sights of the new world with his sketches.

Le Moyne was an actual person; facsimiles of his works illustrate the book.   The River of Kings plays on the proposal that Fort Caroline was situated on the Altamaha rather than the St. Johns River; a theory about this came out about three years ago.

The area of the Altamaha in all three storylines is rich with myth, including the accounts of a mysterious aquatic creature that inhabits the lower reaches of the river.  The French hear tales of it from the natives, and Le Moyne is obsessed with seeing the creature, if anything to sketch it.  The monster also plays into Lawton and Hunter’s story – Lawton especially believes that their father was aware of the creature.  Their leg of the book is its own odyssey, a hero’s journey of siblings and their discovery of each other, while keeping sharp eyes on the dangers of the river, should they be river monster or two-legged nemesis.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Vine That Ate The South by J. D. Wilkes

vine that ate the southThere is a mythical part of western Kentucky knotted by rivers where the supernatural reigns supreme.  Angels and monsters lurk here, time forgets itself, and stories tell of a vicious vine of kudzu that has eaten an older couple in their own house.

Our nameless hero, a man-child in his thirties, is a shy and shamed member of his small town.  Fatherless at an early age, he has existed into adulthood without much of a mark in the world.

His friend Carver Canute is a societal outsider like himself, but stranger and crazier, with an Elvis pompadour and bad teeth.  Together, our fabulous duo travel on an epic bicycle ride to find the legendary vine and do battle with the supernatural critters that populate the Deadening, the forest of mystery in which they journey.  Along the way, they encounter torrential rain, rideable dust devils, gun-toting property owners, snakes, and a haunted Masonic temple.   What they intended as a day lark becomes an odyssey of horrors.

Suspend all belief when reading The Vine That Ate The South.  Instead, just dig in and enjoy this hillbilly hero’s journey to the dark side.  The humor is earthy and profane, the imagery that of old-time religion and the natural world, all slammed together into a ghastly, funny conglomeration.  Oh, and the pictures are interesting too.

To see what the author is about, check out J. D. Wilkes’ website here.  He appears to be about as crazy as his book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Fateful Mornings by Tom Bouman

Maiden’s Grove Lake in Wild Thyme Township in northeastern Pennsylvania is an oasisfateful mornings for the well-off in an otherwise hilly, hard-bitten place where crimes both petty and strange happen semi-regularly.  Here in this beautiful but harsh place, there is an uneasy truce between poor and rich, meth labs and natural gas interests.  All of this tends to keep Officer Henry Farrell busy enough.  Being a native of the area himself, he well understands the foibles of his neighbors.

When investigating a burglary at a house on the lake, Henry gets involved with one of the suspects, a young man who lives with his girlfriend in a trailer on the edge of property belonging to Andy Swales, a moneyed lawyer about town.  The girlfriend, with a history of drug abuse, has been missing.  The couple have a small child with health issues, but she has long been in foster care.

The missing person case and a purported shooting has Henry digging deeper and farther, crossing the state border into Binghamton and elsewhere, and finding trouble in all the wrong places.  Extended family resentments are revealed, the body count mounts, and bigger menaces come into play beyond the relative calm of Wild Thyme.

As if his job doesn’t provide enough drama, Henry has his own affairs (literally) to sort out, including one he’d love to end, and another that shows strong promises.  He still grieves for his deceased wife, drowns his share of sorrows on a regular basis, and moonlights as a construction worker for his close friend Ed Brennan, with whom Henry plays old-timey fiddle music.

Fateful Mornings moves at a slower pace than most thrillers.  Not to say that there aren’t sudden surprises here – they come with their own grisly quickness – but the nature of the book is that of character development, slow and sure and ultimately worth it.

This one can be read as a standalone, but if you prefer to read things in sequence, start with Dry Bones in the Valley, the first book in the series.

(William Hicks, Information Services)