Kristy Kiernan

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The short stories in New York Times bestseller and PEN/Faulkner award finalist Ron Rash's new collection, Burning Bright, flow so seamlessly into each other that the reader is tempted to devour them all in one sitting like a novel. But doing so would mean losing the formidable power of each individual story.

Ranging in time from the Civil War to the current day, the authentically short stories—the longest by far is 29 pages—are tight, hauntingly melancholic studies of men and women in their darkest hours, their remarkable strengths and sobering, fascinating faults, set against the lush, atmospheric backdrop of Appalachia that Rash has so firmly mastered.

From the first story, "Hard Times," about the brutality of family and community survival during the Great Depression, Rash weaves a thread of desperation and longing for brighter days throughout the collection. In "The Ascent," one of two current-day stories dealing with the demon of meth addiction, a young boy finds solace in the company of two frozen corpses; in the title story, "Burning Bright," a recently remarried widow calmly protects her mysterious but loving new husband—who just might be an arsonist—from the town that conveniently forgot her after her first husband's death.

"Falling Star" is the heartbreaking tale of a man who knows his wife has outgrown him and the suspended moment in time just before his unforgivable attempt to keep her is discovered, and in "Lincolnites," a young Civil War wife protects her family's future with an act of intimate, matter-of-fact violence.

The region is a character in and of itself. Its myths and legends and history permeate every story, even if Rash has not obviously placed them within the narrative—though when he does, in stories like "Corpse Bird," about a modern, educated man's fear for a neighbor's child when an owl lands in his tree three nights in a row, it is exquisitely effective.

All 12 stories are worthy, a rarity in many short-story collections, and all call for a slow, careful re-read. Those readers who normally eschew short stories for lacking character development or depth will want to take a chance on Burning Bright, and those who embrace the art form already will want Rash's newest offering in their permanent collection.

The short stories in New York Times bestseller and PEN/Faulkner award finalist Ron Rash's new collection, Burning Bright, flow so seamlessly into each other that the reader is tempted to devour them all in one sitting like a novel. But doing so would mean losing the formidable power of each individual story. Ranging in time […]
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In the opening pages of Darling Jim, the American debut from Danish writer Christian Moerk, three women are found horribly murdered in a house in Dublin, Ireland, and local police are left with more questions than answers. It appears that Moira Hegarty had imprisoned her nieces, Fiona and Roisin Walsh, and was slowly poisoning them to death. But from the shovel marks on Moira’s forehead, at least one of them fought back. Even more intriguing, it looks as though a third prisoner might have escaped.

This gothic story-within-a-story is told through the diaries of the two dead girls and a third-person narrative following Niall, a young postman who’d prefer to be a comic book artist. After he discovers Fiona’s diary in the dead-letter bin, Niall feels compelled to find out what happened in that house.

Fiona’s diary introduces us to Jim Quick, a traditional Irish storyteller or seanchaí, who roars into Fiona’s town on a vintage red motorcycle and proceeds to seduce half the inhabitants with his stories, and the other half with his good looks and slick moves. Unfortunately, some of the latter group have turned up dead, and the seduced and discarded Fiona is determined to figure out if Jim and his mysterious cohort, Tomo, are involved. When Jim sets his sights on Moira, a fragile and desperate woman, Fiona and her sisters, Roisin and Aiofe, are destined to become too involved to turn back. Once the sisters get too close to the truth, Jim turns his violent nature on Aiofe.

When Niall’s obsession threatens his job, he decides to uncover the rest of the story in another diary, this one written by Roisin. Foiled in turn by a precocious student and her father bent on justice, and a cop eaten up with guilt, Niall finally gets his hands on the prize and the story continues as told by the second troubled Walsh sister. But what has become of the third?

Thick with Irish atmosphere and colloquialisms and peopled with characters right out of the darkest of fables, Darling Jim is a page-turning tribute to the art, history and power of classic storytelling.

Kristy Kiernan is the author of Matters of Faith.

In the opening pages of Darling Jim, the American debut from Danish writer Christian Moerk, three women are found horribly murdered in a house in Dublin, Ireland, and local police are left with more questions than answers. It appears that Moira Hegarty had imprisoned her nieces, Fiona and Roisin Walsh, and was slowly poisoning them […]
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PEN/Faulkner nominee and O. Henry Prize winner Ron Rash has produced a riveting, epic tale of greed, blood lust and revenge in Serena, his fourth novel. George Pemberton, a fledgling lumber baron in North Carolina in the late '20s, returns from a short trip to Boston with an ambitious and beautiful wife, Serena. Details of Serena's past are scarce, but the sheer force of her personality makes that seem unimportant when Rash thrusts us into the current story, which begins with a knife fight as the newlyweds arrive at the train station. The scene is startling in its swift brutality, but the reader soon comes to realize that the Pembertons do not shy away from violence. Instead, they embrace it and use it to their advantage at every turn.

When Serena—a near-mythological figure in camp due to her advanced knowledge of logging, her strict management of the workers from astride a white Arabian and her eerie control over both a rattlesnake – hunting eagle and a one – handed employee—turns her vengeful eye on Rachel, a local girl who bore George's son shortly after Serena's arrival, George begins to doubt that his love for his bride is as pure as he once believed, though it continues to burn bright and powerful until the final astonishing pages.

Rash presents the struggle between environmentalists striving to establish a national parks system through buyouts and eminent domain laws, and lumber and land barons, who often partnered to first clear the land of trees, then mine it for precious metals and gems, with crisp, acerbic dialogue and dead-on period details. The backbone of the Depression the author builds his tale on is often communicated by the impoverished, superstitious workers in the camp, who face death daily, either by the dangerous nature of the work itself, or by a desperate life on the road. It is through these characters, an Appalachian Greek chorus, that we're able to place the Pembertons' actions in context.

An impressive work, Serena has all the markings of a career-making novel, and should firmly establish poet and novelist Rash as a literary star.

Novelist Kristy Kiernan writes from southwest Florida.

 

PEN/Faulkner nominee and O. Henry Prize winner Ron Rash has produced a riveting, epic tale of greed, blood lust and revenge in Serena, his fourth novel. George Pemberton, a fledgling lumber baron in North Carolina in the late '20s, returns from a short trip to Boston with an ambitious and beautiful wife, Serena. Details of […]
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In 1903, the wilds of Montana and Alberta, Canada, and the frozen peaks of the Rockies challenged the most adventurous and experienced explorers. Only someone desperate, perhaps even mad, would dare consider them a viable escape route, but then Mary Boulton, most often referred to in Gil Adamson’s suspenseful debut, The Outlander, as “the widow,” is surely both.

After the death of her infant, Mary slowly begins to work her way out of a crippling depression, only to be confronted with evidence of her husband’s infidelity. Alone in a desolate and friendless landscape, Mary loses her last shred of sanity and kills him, living with his body while sewing her mourning gown. Her reckless act is discovered soon enough, sending the widow fleeing across the harsh land with her twin brothers-in-law, seeking revenge, hot on her trail.

Throughout her travels the widow suffers from frightening delusions, as well as the ever-present threats of starvation and frostbite, but she presses onward and upward, making her way through treacherous mountain passes, dodging wolves, deadly arrows and capture. A host of interesting characters cross her erratic path, providing shelter, company or simply an opportunity to steal provisions, and her encounters with a notorious mountain man known as the Ridgerunner are especially compelling.

As the widow’s wilderness knowledge and competence improves, so does her mental condition, and by the time she arrives in Frank, a mining town in southwest Alberta, she’s nearly got a grip on her sanity. But nothing will stop her husband’s brothers, and soon after the famous Frank Slide, when 74 million tons of mountain crashed to the valley below, they manage to catch up to her.

Readers will feel as breathless as Mary as they follow her frantic dash across the snow-bound mountains. Combining the best escape-over-hazardous-terrain action from novels like Cold Mountain with moody, literary prose, The Outlander is an utterly gripping debut.

Kristy Kiernan writes from South Florida and determinedly avoids all snowy mountains.

Combining the best escape-over-hazardous-terrain action from novels like Cold Mountain with moody, literary prose, The Outlander is an utterly gripping debut.
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Class and politics, lust and art, ego and madness—all are grand themes in literature, and all play a part in Russell Banks' new novel, The Reserve, set in the Adirondacks in the 1930s. The Tamarack Reserve, a secluded enclave of faux-rustic cabins on remote lakes in the mountains, is a painful microcosm of the haves and have-nots of the era—specifically the rich part-time residents and the local guides, cooks and caddies who serve them. Jordan Groves, a prominent artist whose leftist leanings mark him as suspicious, can't seem to support the workers in The Reserve in any meaningful way despite his politics, especially when he depends upon the wealthy for his own living. And Vanessa Cole, the fiercely untamed, beautiful and possibly completely off-her-rocker daughter of a brain surgeon and a socialite, can't seem to stay out of trouble. The two meet when Jordan lands his plane on the lake of Vanessa's family cabin. The attraction is immediate, but Jordan, despite repeated indiscretions on his biennial retreats to the wilds of Greenland, Bolivia and Peru, envisions his wife Alicia and two sons waiting for him at home, and rejects Vanessa's advances.

When Vanessa's father dies the same evening, her already uncertain sanity seems to slip even more, eventually leading to a horrific accident and cover-up that winds up uncovering more than any of them bargained for. Banks' male characters are manly men, in the way Hemingway wrote manly men, and indeed, Hemingway's name and themes crop up repeatedly. While Banks' writing style is lovingly reminiscent of the era he writes about, he approaches his plot in a clear and conscious manner, and all of his characters, including the women, are obviously well understood by the author and are humanly, if extraordinarily, flawed. Jordan is barely able to see past his own rich internal life to note that he might not be the only one in need of a companion in his marriage or that another manly man might betray him, and Vanessa either cannot adequately confront or cannot adequately prove a chillingly remembered childhood trauma. Their own selfish needs land them squarely on their reckless, inexorably merged path. Interspersed with the unfolding drama at Tamarack Reserve are alternating stories of the Spanish Civil War and the Hindenburg.

The initially obscure vignettes provide a tension and sense of inevitability to the book as a whole and describe an attempt at redemption of which Hemingway himself would be proud. Russell Banks is at the top of his game here, and The Reserve is sure to please his fans and make new ones.

Kristy Kiernan once made a memorable trip to the Adirondacks.

Class and politics, lust and art, ego and madness—all are grand themes in literature, and all play a part in Russell Banks' new novel, The Reserve, set in the Adirondacks in the 1930s. The Tamarack Reserve, a secluded enclave of faux-rustic cabins on remote lakes in the mountains, is a painful microcosm of the haves […]
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Nostalgia can be dangerous. It makes us ask old friends to visit before we remember what made us distance ourselves from them to begin with; it keeps us wearing shoulder pads and leg warmers well past 1985; and it imbues otherwise average memories with the glow of legend. But once in a while, nostalgia proves itself a brilliant historian and returns us to the best of our pasts without losing any of its luster. Armistead Maupin's Michael Tolliver Lives is nostalgia at its sweetest, and yet manages to be as current and even, yes, as occasionally shocking, as his original Tales of the City, the groundbreaking series first published in the 1970s. Maupin reintroduces us to Michael Tolliver, the beloved Mouse, and moves us easily into his world of gay middle-age in a San Francisco that he still writes about with obvious love and tenderness.

Michael, diagnosed with HIV in the Tales series, is very much alive thanks to modern pharmaceuticals, and is in love with his husband, Ben, a much younger version of himself: beautiful, kind and enamoured of romance. Maupin again peoples his tale with a cast of lovable, flawed and sexually open or repressed characters, and he presents it all with a wit, compassion and confidence undiminished by time. Like many of us nearing a certain age, Michael must come to terms with his family, though determining which one will eventually win his time and devotion his religious relatives in Florida dealing with an imminent death or his diverse made family in San Francisco is a poignant struggle with which many readers will identify. His final decision is heart-wrenching, believable and sadly appropriate.

Maupin never cheats us by making a petulant point of not bringing back favored characters from the Tales series (yes, the delightful Mrs. Madrigal is here), but it never feels like a simple catching up on old times book, either. Maupin's latest story is as fresh and engaging as the originals, and I am grateful that he has chosen to grace us with another beautifully written, stylish and respectful tale.

 

Kristy Kiernan is an author living in Naples, Florida, which Maupin briefly skewers in Michael Tolliver Lives. He is happily forgiven.

Nostalgia can be dangerous. It makes us ask old friends to visit before we remember what made us distance ourselves from them to begin with; it keeps us wearing shoulder pads and leg warmers well past 1985; and it imbues otherwise average memories with the glow of legend. But once in a while, nostalgia proves […]
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At first glance, Min Jin Lee's debut epic could be mistaken for an Amy Tan-inspired "Asian American tries to balance two worlds" family drama. But upon closer inspection, Lee is gently but firmly pushing the genre in a more modern direction, and in the process manages to create her own niche in the literary world.

Lee tells her story using a device currently out of vogue: the omniscient point of view, in which the reader is privy to every character's thoughts, sans section breaks or other indication that the point of view has changed. Readers will find that they not only quickly become accustomed to this narrative style, but eagerly turn each page to see who they'll get to eavesdrop on next: a worried parent, a romantic doorman, a cheating boyfriend, a driven boss or a pining lover. All are complex and worthy of the attention, no matter how brief or extended, that Lee lavishes upon them.

At the heart of this story is Casey Han, Korean-American daughter of dry-cleaners Joseph and Leah, older sister to Tina, and seeker of her own American dream. Casey doesn't try to live in two worlds; she simply tries to stay afloat in one world: the expensive, class-driven society of New York City. After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton with a degree in economics, Casey finds that there are no scholarships in real life, and the debt she incurs after graduation trying to keep up with her wealthy friends and co-workers, or simply trying to fulfill her own sartorial lusts, dogs her throughout the novel.

Lee's background—she's a Korean-American who went to Yale and lives in New York City—gives her story an unmistakable authenticity. She writes the inside language and nuances of ambitious Columbia business school grads as fluently as she writes of the longings of an undereducated, middle-aged Korean mother and choral singer afraid of her own talent.

At 512 pages, Free Food for Millionaires is not a novel to be entered into lightly, but the rewards are well worth the time. It's not a day trip; it's an immersion into a fully realized and beautifully written world.

Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius.

 

At first glance, Min Jin Lee's debut epic could be mistaken for an Amy Tan-inspired "Asian American tries to balance two worlds" family drama. But upon closer inspection, Lee is gently but firmly pushing the genre in a more modern direction, and in the process manages to create her own niche in the literary world. […]
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Masha Hamilton's compelling third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, leaves no room for doubt: Books are essential. Cookbooks, novels, parenting books—they all matter to Fiona "Fi" Sweeney, a librarian from Brooklyn searching for fulfillment atop a book-laden camel in the arid and dangerous bush of Kenya.

Tiny, far-flung villages populated by nomadic tribes, largely forgotten and neglected by the greater population of a more modern Africa, welcome the bookmobile and Fi with a combination of curiosity and wary distrust of Westerners' belief that the rest of the world needs guidance. That division is most evident in the small farming community of Mididima, and it is here that the entire program is put in danger. The bookmobile relies on a stringent policy: If a single book goes missing, the entire village is dropped from the route. When books disappear in Mididima, the village is bitterly divided between those who would prefer the bookmobile never return, and those who are convinced that their people need the wisdom of the outside world to survive.

At the center of the maelstrom are Kanika, a young woman whose future relies upon the contact with the modern world the bookmobile provides, and Taban, a talented artist and outcast who refuses to return his books. When Fi arrives in the village to coax the books from him, she is thrust into Kanika and Taban's drama as well as the more adult dramas of the progressive teacher, Matani, his traditional wife, Jwahir, and her lover, Taban's father, Abayomi.

The Camel Bookmobile vibrates with the life and landscape of Africa, and Hamilton shines when presenting the foreign, and often brutal, traditions of Mididima. She neither condones nor condemns, but profiles daily existence with clear, sparkling prose and a well-executed plot peopled with characters readers can't help but care about deeply. The author's background as a journalist and world-traveler is evident, and her experience combined with her impeccable research into the real-life Kenyan Camel Mobile Library program makes for an enlightening new novel.

Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius (Berkley).

 

Masha Hamilton's compelling third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, leaves no room for doubt: Books are essential. Cookbooks, novels, parenting books—they all matter to Fiona "Fi" Sweeney, a librarian from Brooklyn searching for fulfillment atop a book-laden camel in the arid and dangerous bush of Kenya.

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We book lovers have things in common, and Margaret Lea, the heroine of Diane Setterfield's heralded debut novel, is one of us. So besotted is she by books that she makes sure she is sitting down whenever she reads, so as not to fall over and hurt herself while engrossed in a story. Margaret works in her father's bookshop, reading 19th-century novels and writing the occasional biography of obscure literary figures. The most exciting thing in Margaret's life is a family secret she discovered as a child that has branded her like a scar.

Then one day she receives a letter requesting her services as a biographer from Vida Winter, an author of such magnitude that 22 biographers have already attempted (and failed) to write her life story. Vida has told any number of tales about her life, but only now, says Vida, is she prepared to tell the truth. During their collaboration, which takes place mostly in a library of any book lover's dream, they manage to work through both of their stories, alongside a small cast of dutiful servants and one canny feline in the present, and a large cast of twins, ghosts and one wily governess in the past.

Setterfield gives us a fairy tale complete with a giant and abandoned babies, a gothic suspense novel with a creepy family estate and crazy relatives, and a ghost story with disappearing books and a girl in the mist. But more than that, Setterfield has provided a rarity: a beautifully written novel with a swift plot, atmospheric setting and witty dialogue that combine to provide a read that will leave any book lover well satisfied.

Publishing simultaneously in 28 countries, The Thirteenth Tale is going to make Setterfield, a former academic living in England, a very busy woman. Not only is she scheduled for a 14-city tour in the States, she'll need to write her next novel quickly, because there is no doubt that we book lovers will be clamoring for more.

 

Kristy Kiernan's first novel will be published in 2007 by Berkley.

We book lovers have things in common, and Margaret Lea, the heroine of Diane Setterfield's heralded debut novel, is one of us. So besotted is she by books that she makes sure she is sitting down whenever she reads, so as not to fall over and hurt herself while engrossed in a story. Margaret works […]

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