River City Reading

Helping readers of literary, contemporary and historical fiction find their next great book.
Guests on Earth - Lee Smith Following her mother's death, thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is sent to Highland Hospital in North Carolina, the same mental institution where Zelda Fitzgerald and eight other women died in an intentionally set fire in 1948. With an inventive blend of history and fiction, Lee Smith follows Evalina through the 1930's and 40's, as she experiences the treatments prescribed by Dr. Carroll, who runs the hospital, as well as the imagined events leading up to the tragedy that took so many lives.

This is not a story about Zelda Fitzgerald - she spends her time along the periphery of the novel, becoming more of a fascination for Evalina than the true friends she develops during her stay. Instead, Guests on Earth revolves around the numerous other voices that filled the hallways of Highland Hospital; the important, unsung heroes Sarah Kennedy mentioned in yesterday’s guest post. Though not all of them existed as real people, they represent the broad spectrum of lives that were impacted by the Carrolls and the time they spent at the hospital.

Smith's well-practiced ability to develop both setting and story shines from every page of Guests on Earth, a novel as enchanting as the rolling hills of North Carolina.
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Mr. Lynch's Holiday - Catherine O'Flynn Still feeling the impact of his wife’s death, retired bus driver Dermot Lynch makes the rash decision to leave his home in Birmingham, England and drop in on his son, Eamonn, in Spain. Lomaverde, the village Eamonn and his suddenly absent girlfriend, Laura, chose as their home is a ramshackle ghost town of half-finished skeletons, inhabited only by a patchwork of odd immigrants. While Dermot wakes each morning hoping to spark the father-son relationship he and Eamonn never had, his son is more concerned with winning back Laura and tying up the fraying ends of his own life.

Though Dermot and Eamonn make up the center of O’Flynn’s story, Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is layered with themes far beyond the disconnected father and son. In subtle flashbacks and side plots, the novel weaves in questions about immigration that each of the characters approach differently depending on their backgrounds. O’Flynn highlights some of the inconsistencies in the ways outsiders are approached throughout the world, without preaching or losing track of the novel’s core.

Catherine O’Flynn has crafted a novel rich with connections and nostalgia, written with a breadth of life experience and filled with endearing characters. For those seeking an entertaining but fulfilling read, Mr. Lynch’s Holiday is a trip well worth taking.
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The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War - Shahan Mufti Shahan Mufti has spent his life walking the line between two vastly different countries: the United States and Pakistan. Raised in Ohio by his parents who came to the US soon after their marriage, Mufti and his family return to Pakistan in his adolescence, the first in a series of moves between the two nations. When Mufti's work brings him to Pakistan to cover news of the Afghanistan War, he discovers documents from his ancestors that encourage him to dig into his family's past. He finds both an amazing family story and the understanding that his two homes have much more in common than many realize.

Both a personal and political memoir, The Faithful Scribe brilliantly blends the history of one family with the history of a nation as a whole. As he traces his family's past, Mufti writes with deep insight into the relationship between the two countries during the Reagan, Bush and Obama eras without ever feeling overly dogmatic. He is able to point out specific parallels between Pakistan and the United States that could have fallen flat in a strictly historical text, making The Faithful Scribe a readable, fascinating peek into the hidden connections binding the countries from around the globe.

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The Pure Gold Baby - Margaret Drabble Anthropology student Jessica Speight is at the start of a budding anthropology career when she has an affair with her professor that leaves her a single mother. Though she has an irresistible charm and sweet demeanor, it soon becomes clear that Jessica's young daughter, Anna, is developmentally behind her peers. The Pure Gold Baby spans several decades, from the 1960's to the present, and examines motherhood, friendship, love and family life through Margaret Drabble's signature prose.

The Pure Gold Baby is told in first person from the perspective of a woman in Jessica’s circle of friends, often speaking as the voice of the group. This style keeps Jessica and Anna at arm’s length, making it difficult to fully know their characters despite the time spent following their lives. While it is frustrating to read so much about a family and still end up feeling like an outsider, the novel shifted when I began to see the narrator as a mirror for Jessica's role as an anthropologist. Drabble reminds us that, when heard only in whispered gossip, a family’s story can be twisted in the same way a culture can be misunderstood by an anthropologist's field notes.

“There was no suggestion, now, that Anna would be a normal child. She would be what she would be - a millstone, an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo to carry all the slow way through life to its distant and yet unimaginable bourne on the shores of the shining lake.”

Drabble's prose is as stunning as it's been throughout her career, despite the odd narration. Though some may find it difficult to forge a connection with the novel's characters, The Pure Gold Baby is easy to appreciate and a fitting addition to Margaret Drabble's long list of accomplishments.

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The Tilted World - Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly As the Great Flood of 1927 threatens the Mississippi Delta, Prohibition agents Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson arrive in the town of Hobnob, Mississippi searching for a pair of agents who have gone missing. What they find instead are the remains of a robbery gone bad and an abandoned baby. Determined to find a home for the child, Ingersoll is told to take him to Dixie Clay Holliver, a local woman still grieving the loss of her own son. Though Dixie Clay and the agent feel an immediate connection, Ingersoll will soon discover he's stumbled upon the best bootlegger in the county and her increasingly dangerous husband.

Co-written novels can easily become peppered with disjointed phrases and jarring plot holes, making the venture a risky one. But husband and wife team Franklin and Fennelly combine both their storytelling and their vastly different styles to make The Titled World a gorgeous blend of grit and tenderness.

Much of the novel's balance seems to come from the fact that, while the story centers on one male and one female character, neither is held down by the gender stereotypes of their time. Much of Ingersoll's story focuses on his paternal instinct toward the child he finds, while Dixie Clay takes on a typically male role of moonshining and begins questioning her early marriage.

From two treasures of writing, The Tilted World is a gripping snapshot of American history sure to please long time fans and new readers alike.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com
Lighthouse Island: A Novel - Paulette Jiles I had been excited about Lighthouse Island since I first heard about it several months ago, instantly drawn to the idea of a dystopian novel from an author with a literary background. While the mechanics of Jiles's writing holds up, she struggles with coherent worldbuilding from the start, making it nearly impossible to feel connected to her characters. Because it was so difficult to understand the structure or history behind the world's current state, it was also difficult to find meaning behind the choices the characters were making. Rather than feeling compelled to look deeper into the story and make connections - something I am more than willing to do if I feel those connections are there - I was both bored and frustrated. Jiles started with an exciting premise, but tried to explore too many trajectories when plotting out a dystopian future for her characters to live in.

Reviewed on www.redlettereads.com

Brilliance: A Novel

Brilliance: A Novel - Anthony McCarten Despite his enormous success with inventions like the light bulb and phonograph, by the late 1800's Thomas Edison's constant desire to discover has left him broke. Thankfully, banker J.P. Morgan sees potential in Edison and offers him huge sums of money to create a company that will light up America. But before their vision can become a reality, Edison will wind up caught in a battle of currents with George Westinghouse, leading him to weigh power against morality in one of American history's greatest stories.

“The inventor poured himself a glass of milk and listened for the twentieth century.”

I read the first sentence of Brilliance over and over again. It's a perfect example of the subtle, incredibly beautiful writing that fills the pages of McCarten's novel. In someone else's hands the battle of the currents could have been dull or overcomplicated, but McCarten does more than rewrite Edison's biography, he gives him a voice. Readers are given a glimpse into Edison's thoughts as he weighs supporting the creation of the electric chair in hopes of crushing his competition and the eventual fallout resulting from its use.

McCarten honors the work of Edison in bringing him to life in a novel both well researched and infused with originality; Brilliance is exactly what fans of historical fiction love to read.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com
The Funeral Dress - Susan Gregg Gilmore After hearing Susan Gregg Gilmore as a guest on the Southern fiction episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast, I realized that my love for the genre had been limited to the Gothic side. I had assumed novels like this would be too sweet for my taste, but thankfully I was won over by Gilmore’s discussion and encouraged to expand my horizons.

“She knew the sound of death, its tone and rhythm, as well as she did that of a popular song played over and over on the radio. At her father’s house, death never acted hesitant or shy. It came barreling out of nowhere, walking straight up to the front door and announcing itself with a bold and repetitive rap.”

The most striking thing about The Funeral Dress is how real Gilmore’s characters feel. From the first page, I was pulled into Emmalee’s life as her early moments in the Tennewa Shirt Factory are detailed and the stories of those around her established. As the novel progresses, the harsh realities of life in the small Tennessee town make it easy to feel sympathetic toward both Emmalee and Leona. Still, there are multiple dimensions to the characters Gilmore has created, which are revealed in the alternating narrative of the story and come together in a touching end.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com
Cartwheel - Jennifer duBois Lily Hayes imagines her semester abroad in Buenos Aires will keep her constantly surrounded by exotic language, food, men and stories. Instead, she finds herself living with a distrusting local family and boring American roommate. Eyes focus on Lily when her roommate Katy is found brutally murdered early into their stay, with tell-tale e-mails, witnesses, and DNA all building a seemingly open and shut case.

Though the story seems to share roots with the Amanda Knox case, Lily’s tale branches off in several unexpected directions. Cartwheel is much more than an echo of tales already told. duBois uses each of her characters, particularly Lily's father Andrew, to raise questions about parenthood, marriage, culture and justice in honest, insightful prose.

“She did not know to regard the absence of comfort with fear - partly because she wasn't particularly materialistic or entitled, but partly because she did not believe, not really, that such a state could ever truly be permanent. And that was entitled, Andrew saw now - that expectation of the universe's benignity.”

In this follow up to her widely hailed debut novel, Jennifer duBois guides readers along the line between belief and doubt, showing that it often blurs far beyond what we’re capable of seeing ourselves.

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Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution - Brett Martin When I opened Difficult Men and found a gorgeous, graphic timeline of cable shows layered over one other and broken down by season, I gasped and nearly threw my other books across the room. Brett Martin had found his target audience. I don't watch a single show on network TV, nor do I watch comedies. Yes, I'm willing to admit that I'm a boring, typical product of my generation.

And my generation is one that grew up watching, what Martin calls, the Third Golden Age of television. Starting in the mid-1990's, with shows like Oz and The Sopranos, the TV drama began to shift in a radical way. Rather than the safe, self-contained storylines of network shows, cable writers began developing plots that spanned seasons and often left viewers with more questions than answers. Soon, those developing the shows came to be as complex and unpredictable as the characters they were creating.

Though I understand that the focus of Martin's book is, as the title states, the difficult men behind the television revolution, I think there was a bit of a missed opportunity to examine the role of female writers in Hollywood. While it could potentially fill a separate book on its own, I would have liked to see discussion of the low number of female showrunners as well as their comparatively harsh criticism from the media.

Still, Difficult Men is a fascinating peek into the evolution of television over the past 30 years, digging into backstories and histories of shows like The Wire, Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad, that will thrill even the casual fan.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com
The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt When thirteen year-old Theo Decker narrowly escapes a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother, he takes with him a small, famous painting called The Goldfinch. As he is shuffled between the ritzy Park Avenue apartment of a family friend and his absent father’s empty Las Vegas suburb, Theo keeps The Goldfinch at his side - both a memento and a chain. Yet, when he grows up and into the practice of art restoration, Theo's connection to the painting unintentionally thrusts him into the underbelly of the art world.

Much of The Goldfinch is a fantastic journey through American culture and lifestyle. From the wealthy, overly connected families of Manhattan living in richly wooded buildings to the hollow homes of Las Vegas, separated by spaces too vast to fill with empty homes. Tartt fills each page with spotless descriptions of the people and places Theo encounters, making it simple to fall into his world and become part of his increasingly knotted life.

It is Tartt's ability to blend vibrant descriptions and brilliantly developed characters that makes her novels so compelling. What starts as a book focused on the close relationship between Theo and his mother expands to include a wide cast of characters, each with an intricate background. Yet, in the end, none of the time spent drawing these connections feels wasted; they feel like relationships built in real life.

“When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a glancing sunstruck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch's ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”

Understandably, anecdotes on the heftiness of the text and comparisons to Tartt's classic debut, The Secret History, are high on most reviewer's lists when discussing The Goldfinch. But both seem to distract from the novel itself, as Tartt's third book has pushed her to a point worthy of deeper conversation. Ignore the name on the cover and the page numbers in the corners. Take in The Goldfinch for what it is: a breathtaking and engaging novel that combines the best of everything readers seek when we pick up a book.

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Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital - Sheri Fink While post-Katrina news stories were focused on looting in the streets of New Orleans and the horrendous conditions inside the Superdome, the city’s hospitals were also at the center of chaos. At Memorial Medical Center, floodwaters rose to the point of cutting power, eliminating both air conditioning and life-sustaining devices and stranding caregivers. In Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink records attempts to evacuate the hospital and the ensuing triage decisions made by the medical staff that would come to haunt Memorial long after the waters receded.

Fink’s book builds from a paced introduction of the hospital’s history and staff to the heightened tension found in a pageturning courtroom drama. Along the way, she tells the stories of patients, nurses, doctors and families – shining light into each corner of the multifaceted tale that makes up the five days spent in Memorial Medical Center. Truly deserving of her Pulitzer Prize, Fink relays each account as its own truth, without injecting bias, leaving the reader to come to a conclusion in the situation’s harrowing ethical dilemmas.

Sheri Fink's six years of work is evident on every carefully researched page of her book, as is her determination to truthfully portray all of those involved. Filled with heartbreak and even moments of careful hope, Five Days at Memorial is a peek into the full spectrum of emotion felt both in and outside the hospital walls.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com
The Dark Path: A Memoir - David Schickler Raised in a strictly Catholic family in upstate New York, author David Schickler long dreamed of being a priest. But as he grew older, he realized that his love and desire for women might prove to be a challenge to his goal. Schickler recalls this personal battle in his hilarious, heartfelt memoir The Dark Path.

Schickler had me from the first page of The Dark Path, as a ten year-old sitting in a pew, staring at his "wife", tagged as such because she also has a four syllable last name ending in -er. As he carries readers through his teenage years, where he begins to battle over his course in life, he introduces his hilarious idiosyncrasies and endearing quirks. Schickler’s best flirting is learned from the Grease soundtrack, courtesy of his house full of sisters, and his most intimate conversations are the brutally honest heart-to-hearts he has with God.

Schickler’s struggle continues in college, where he parties with his hard-drinking friends and non-religious girlfriend, but sneaks away to explore life as a Jesuit priest. Constantly pushing back his ultimate decision, but feeling increasing pressure to choose, Schickler begins to lose control before a radical change is able to ground him.

While it’s framed around religion, David Schickler’s memoir is less about Catholicism and more about finding yourself, despite where you imagined you might be. Believers and non-believers alike will find unforgettable honesty journeying along The Dark Path.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com
Mother, Mother - Koren Zailckas Josephine Hurst has done a stellar job holding up the facade of her perfectly successful family until her oldest daughter, Rose, runs away with an elusive boyfriend. Soon, her daughter Violet has joined her hippie friends in taking hallucinogenic drug trips and exploring Eastern religions. Convinced her husband is involved in a torrid affair, Josephine turns to her young son William as her pillar of strength, keeping him under strict control in a last ditch effort to save her family.

As the Hurst family secrets are slowly revealed in Violet and William's alternating chapters, it becomes clear that the reliability of Mother, Mother's narrators and their caretakers stand on shaky ground. Following a violent incident in the home, Violet is hospitalized under psychological care, unsure if she committed the crime her family is accusing her of. Will, recently moved to homeschool for his own safety, feels crushed under the pressure of pleasing his mother without alienating everyone around him.

In a carefully layered, dark tale of psychological control, Koren Zailckas twists her American family to the breaking point. A perfectly creepy book for snuggling up through Fall, Mother, Mother becomes compulsively readable as the Hurst's secrets and lies collide in its bold conclusion.

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Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom - Deborah Yaffe Deborah Yaffe grew up loving books, even breaking school rules about reading in gym class, but nothing compared to her early love for Jane Austen. Before the internet allowed fans to easily connect with one another and the infamous Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice put Jane Austen on everyone's reading list, Yaffe's obsession felt very personal. It wasn't until she discovered the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) that she realized she was not alone in her love for the author; in fact there were thousands of "Janeites" throughout the world, many with stories much more extreme than her own.

In Among the Janeites, Deborah Yaffe explores into the Jane Austen fandom from both the inside and the outside. Though a regular attendee of JASNA conferences, for the first time Yaffe spends hundreds of dollars on a period costume to wear to the conference ball. She also travels to Jane Austen's Chawton home in England with a group of Janeites in a sort of pilgrimage, aiming to walk the same paths as their favorite author. Yaffe talks to several others: famous fan fiction writers, people with outrageous theories, a man deciphering what he believes to be a secret code found in Austen's work.

Even those with minimal Austen knowledge simply curious about an extreme group of fans will find a great deal to enjoy in Among the Janeites. Without ever shutting out the casual reader nor chastising the Janeites for their excessive enthusiasm, Deborah Yaffe's book celebrates both Jane Austen and the impact the written word can have on all of us.

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Son of a Gun: A Memoir - Justin St. Germain In September 2001, twenty year-old Justin St. Germain receives news that his mother has been shot and killed in her Tombstone, Arizona trailer. Though evidence and witnesses are scarce, it appears that Debbie St. Germain's death came at the hands of her fifth husband, who quickly vanished, leaving behind Justin and his brother as the family's remains.

After relocating to San Francisco and starting a new life in the years following his mother's murder, Justin soon realizes that he can't simply wish away her death. He revisits Tombstone, where he recognizes that he knows more about Wyatt Earp and the tale that made the town famous than he does about his own mother. Working toward closure, St. Germain meets with men from his mother's past and digs into case files, filling in pieces of the stories only half seen from the eyes of a child.

"...sometimes I blame her, too - not Ray, but her - because she chose him in the first place. But what are the right choices? My mother married the first man she loved, had children, tried to make it work, to do what was expected. He left. After that she raised her kids. It cost her her youth, most of her dreams. It meant that when we were gone she had nobody else, nothing to do, nowhere to go. Men took everything from her, finally her life. Now men blame her for dying."

Filled with stark but powerful sentences, Son of a Gun is a memoir both haunting and captivating, tracing the journey from grief to acceptance with self-discovery in between.

Blog: www.rivercityreading.com

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