Great Reads

Goolrick, Robert. Heading Out to Wonderful

Goolrick’s second novel (after A Reliable Wife, 2009) is an Appalachian folk ballad given life.  It’s just after WWII and Charlie Beale drives into the small Blue Ridge town of Brownsburg, Virginia, looking for something. A place to call home, a place to put down roots. Brownsburg, where no crime has ever been committed and where the landscape makes Charlie’s heart sing, seems to be the perfect place. He offers his services to the local butcher, Will Haislett, buys up land, and begins to settle in.  But even as he finds his way in the town, he remains an outsider. The locals love him, but do not socialize with him much. And Charlie makes mistakes, too. He visits every church in town before finding a spiritual home in the African-American Episcopal chapel; he buys more land than he truly needs; he begins to feel like a second father to Sam, Will Haislett’s 5-year-old son; and most dangerously, he falls in love with Sylvan Glass, the young beautiful wife of local small-time plutocrat Harrison Glass, who looks at Sylvan more as an investment than a wife. Sylvan is an outsider like Charlie; born in a small backwoods hollow, she nevertheless dreams of Hollywood and dresses and acts like a movie star. As their affair progresses toward the inevitable explosive climax, poor young Sam struggles to understand something far beyond his young experience and is altered irretrievably by what he witnesses.

Told in alternating viewpoints, this is a timeless tale of illicit passion and violence that builds slowly to a haunting climax. Fans of Goolrick’s first novel will not be disappointed.

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Bledsoe, Alex. The Sword-Edged Blonde

Eddie LaCrosse is a self-described “sword jockey,” a private investigator for hire in a world of kings, queens, missing princesses, murder most foul, and magic of all stripes. He’s initially hired to find a missing princess, but along the way finds himself enlisted to solve the case of a particularly heinous murder and prove the Queen accused of the crime innocent. Unfortunately for Eddie, the King who’s hired him is Eddie’s long-lost best friend and part of a past Eddie’s been running from for most of his life. The solution to the mystery, too, lies in a part of Eddie’s past he’d rather forget. But circumstances force him to confront the tragedies he’s been hiding and come to grips with his own guilty conscience.

A spirited blend of sword-and-sorcery fantasy with hard-boiled-noir, The Sword-Edged Blonde is a fast-paced, one-liner-littered delight. It’s only the first in a series featuring the wise cracking sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse, so look out for Burn Me Deadly, the second Eddie adventure.

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Millet, Lydia. How the Dead Dream

Pulitzer finalist Millet begins a loosely connected trilogy with this deliberately paced character study of a novel.  Real estate developer T. has always been obsessed with money; he was the first boy his age to have a bank account and he found creative ways to fill it.  As a young man, he is already a success, building retirement resorts in the desert and vacation resorts on remote islands.  But his entire world is shaken when he first falls in love with a woman and then unexpectedly loses her to a car accident.  Now lost and alone except for his increasingly senile mother, his competent but distant secretary, and his secretary’s brash paraplegic daughter, T. becomes obsessed with things that are lost and things that are last…specifically, on animals close to the brink of extinction. He begins a series of late-night commando break-ins of zoos, trying to be close to the animals so he can attempt to understand how they feel and therefore, how he feels.  When he visits his holdings in South America and attempts to track down the endangered jaguars living on a preserve nearby, his quest comes to a definitive conclusion as he is forced to come face-to-face with his deepest and most bare self.

A lyrical, vivid meditation on self vs world, self vs others, and humanity vs nature, Millet’s novel is involving, disturbing, and insightful.

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Rash, Ron. The Cove

Laurel Shelton is a lonely young woman.  Living alone save for her brother Hank in an isolated, deeply shadowed cove in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, she is shunned by the townspeople of nearby Mars Hill and feared as a witch because of a large purple birthmark on her shoulders.  Hank has only recently returned from WWI missing one hand and he is fixing up the farm with the help of a neighbor, intending, Laurel believes, to propose to a local girl and bring her to live with them.  Living in darkness and shadow and loneliness as she does, Laurel still dreams of sunlight and beauty, having had ambitions to become a teacher and move away from the cove—ambitions thwarted by her mother’s death and father’s long depression and illness.  But when she finds a strange man in the cove, sick and feverish with hornet stings, and nurses him back to health, Laurel begins to dream once more—of love, and a life outside the cove. The man, Walter, plays flute like an angel but is otherwise mute, a note in his pocket claiming childhood illness. He falls into step with the siblings, helping Hank about the farm and playing his flute and falling in love with Laurel as she has fallen for him.  However, Walter is not all he seems and harbors secrets of his own—secrets that could prove explosively dangerous to his new friends.  Meanwhile, a cowardly and bombastic recruiter in town, Chauncey Feith, tries to prove his true worth by exposing supposed “Hun” spies in their midst.  When the fires of xenophobia he has stoked collide with cursed Laurel, disabled Hank, and silent Walter, tragedy can be the only result.

Atmospheric, taut, and expertly realized, The Cove is a tale of passion, fear, and superstition with clear parallels to the overheated political rhetoric of today.

Zama, Farahad. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People

Retiree Mr. Ali is at loose ends, knocking about the house aimlessly and annoying his wife. She is happy, then, when he decides to start up a marriage bureau to assist families looking to set up arranged marriages for their children. Contemporary India has modernized in many ways, but it is still considered inappropriate for people to make their own matches, or love marriages, and after a slow start, Mr. Ali’s Marriage Bureau for Rich People begins to do a lively business—so much so that he takes on an assistant, young Aruna. Aruna herself has marriage woes; her family is suffering financially and her father refuses to entertain any matches because he will not be able to pay for a large wedding and a good dowry.  Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Ali are fighting to keep their son, a young man now and a political activist, safe—but he defies their wishes and leads demonstrations against the government on behalf of India’s poor farmers.

Often mentioned as a readalike for Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the comparison is a fair one. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People shares the interconnected-vignette style, charmingly wise and understated tone, and emphasis on culture and community seen in McCall Smith’s series.  Though the characters have their problems, nothing very terrible happens to anyone, and the reader is swept quietly along as the characters go about their daily lives in modern India.

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