Tom Deignan

It makes sense that this debut novel, which speaks loudly and clearly to our troubled racial times, is set during the early years of the Clinton administration, when rap songs by Geto Boys and House of Pain were blasting from cassette decks all over Boston.

Green’s engaging, self-deprecating narrator is David Greenfield, “the white boy at the Martin Luther King Middle [School]. Well, one of two.” David’s “hippie parents” are big believers in public schools and in making sure David is exposed to a diverse range of people. None of which helps David endure daily humiliations—not only because of his race, but also because of his clothes, poor athletic skills and lack of friends. David’s family only aggravates him further—which is to say, they offer him quite a bit of guidance, but he’s unable to appreciate it. An unlikely friendship eventually blossoms between David and a black classmate named Marlon, which may or may not be doomed from the start, given their vastly different backgrounds. Along the way, there is plenty of comic relief, a love triangle and enough Celtics lore to please Larry Bird’s biggest fans.

Sam Graham-Felsen—who served as Barack Obama’s chief blogger in 2008 before earning degrees from Harvard and Columbia—imbues David’s voice with an infectious level of urban wit and slang, which only occasionally feels excessive. For better or worse, the narrative at times ventures into YA turf, yet Green’s examination of race, class, education and (most interesting of all) religion is weighty and substantial without being stuffy.

“I’m just sick of being nothing,” David says at one point. Yet as poor, befuddled David goes on (and on and on) trying to put together an identity for himself, he—like the reader—is inevitably floored when he takes the time to so much as glance at the adversity people like Marlon must endure every day.

It makes sense that this debut novel, which speaks loudly and clearly to our troubled racial times, is set during the early years of the Clinton administration, when rap songs by Geto Boys and House of Pain were blasting from cassette decks all over Boston. Green’s engaging, self-deprecating narrator is David Greenfield, “the white boy […]

Wiley Cash’s third novel is a sweeping, old-fashioned saga with an inspiring but ill-fated heroine at its center. The year is 1929, and Ella May Wiggins toils six days a week at a rural North Carolina textile mill to support her four children. Unlike most residents of the segregated town, Ella May mingles comfortably with African-Americans, including her best friend, Violet. Ella May’s bleak existence brightens just a bit when a union attempts to organize the mill workers. This angers many locals, forcing Ella May to choose between keeping quiet or standing up for what she believes is right. That choice is made for her when she is asked to speak at a union meeting, only to end up revealing herself to be a mesmerizing singer.

Ella May’s performance (“While we slave for the bosses / Our children scream and cry,” she sings) transforms her into a new kind of labor leader—one who just might be able to bring black and white workers together. But she also becomes an enemy to those who consider the union a band of Yankee invaders and “bolshevicks.”

Cash—whose previous two novels, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy, were Southern-set bestsellers—eventually splits the narrative, and we see the looming labor violence through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters. We even move fast-forward to the present day, to see Ella May’s now-elderly daughter pass down stories of her heroic mother. This sometimes diminishes The Last Ballad’s narrative urgency, especially since Ella May is such a rich, sympathetic character. Overall, however, The Last Ballad is powerful and moving, exploring complex historical issues that are still with us today.

Wiley Cash’s third novel is a sweeping, old-fashioned saga with an inspiring but ill-fated heroine at its center.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, September 2017

New York City on the cusp of World War II is brought to glorious, messy life in Brendan Mathews’ sprawling debut saga. The Dempsey brothers—Francis, Michael and Martin—all left Ireland under clouds of trouble. But Martin has started a new life in New York, marrying into a powerful political family, with ambitions to become a groundbreaking jazz musician. The trouble begins when his brothers come calling, and it becomes clear that the past is about to catch up with the Dempsey clan.

Mathews deftly handles a large cast of characters in The World of Tomorrow. On a collision course with the Dempseys is an IRA killer, an ambitious photographer fleeing Nazi-dominated Europe and a troubled heiress, among others. Perhaps the most vibrant character of all, however, is New York itself. In hard-boiled prose that ranges from gossipy to poetic, Mathews takes us from humble Bronx homes to rowdy Manhattan jazz clubs, from grimy back alleys to palatial Fifth Avenue estates.

Looming over these interconnected lives is the 1939 World’s Fair, held in Queens and seen by many as a light of hope in an increasingly dark world. But just as Old-World troubles follow Mathews’ immigrants to the New World, so will the war in Europe inevitably involve America. Until then, the Dempsey brothers—and all of the characters who’ve become entangled in their lives—may have only one choice: kill or be killed.

The World of Tomorrow is a sweeping, impressive accomplishment. Perhaps it could have been 50 or so pages shorter, and the ghostly appearance of an Irish literary icon may push past the cusp of believability. Still, Mathews has written an insightful immigrant epic, not to mention a first-class literary thriller.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

New York City on the cusp of World War II is brought to glorious, messy life in Brendan Mathews’ sprawling debut saga. The Dempsey brothers—Francis, Michael and Martin—all left Ireland under clouds of trouble. But Martin has started a new life in New York, marrying into a powerful political family, with ambitions to become a groundbreaking jazz musician. The trouble begins when his brothers come calling, and it becomes clear that the past is about to catch up with the Dempsey clan.

Combining elements of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family with Dennis Lehane’s contemporary classic Mystic River, Danya Kukafka’s debut novel is an intricate, seductive murder mystery, in which a single awful crime exposes conflicts and traumas in an entire community.

“When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead,” Girl in Snow begins, “Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.” Thus, Kukafka plunges us into the story: Lucinda is dead, though it turns out this high school beauty is not quite the angel everyone remembers her to be. Then there’s Cameron, the creepy kid next door, who peeked though Lucinda’s windows (and worse), making him a likely suspect in the crime. Told largely over the course of a few winter days following Lucinda’s murder, Girl in Snow unfolds through deftly alternating chapters, through the eyes of many different characters. There’s Jade, an angry misfit with an abusive mother who disliked Lucinda. And Russ, a police officer with secrets. And Lee, another cop and Cameron’s absentee father, accused of his own violent crime.

Digging deeply into each of these lives paints a vivid, compelling canvas. Kukafka makes it seem eminently plausible for several of these characters to have killed Lucinda. “Everyone’s looking for the truth,” Jade thinks at one point. “I’m so afraid I’ll have to pry open its grave.”

Girl in Snow may not quite be perfect. Some sections are a tad breathlessly overwritten, and one (or two) of the many secrets that spill out may stretch the bounds of credulity for some readers. But overall, Girl in Snow is not just an impressive debut but one of the best literary mysteries to come along in some time.

Combining elements of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family with Dennis Lehane’s contemporary classic Mystic River, Danya Kukafka’s debut novel is an intricate, seductive murder mystery, in which a single awful crime exposes conflicts and traumas in an entire community.

The Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick channels the political anger that is all the rage these days in this scorching family drama. The Reason You’re Alive is narrated with ire and eloquence by David Granger, a Vietnam vet in his late 60s who has just had brain surgery. It’s as if Holden Caulfield grew up to be a reflective, even soulful, Archie Bunker. David’s voice is intimate, personal, occasionally poetic and sensible, even sympathetic. He is, however, filled with right-wing rage directed at everybody—from the government that sent him off to war to his art-dealer son, Hank, a liberal and a hypocrite (two of David’s least favorite traits).

David is recounting his life story for an unspecified report, and we spiral back to his wartime experiences, the harrowing meeting that led to his marriage, the tragedy that followed and the roots of his rocky relationship with Hank. Like Holden, the one thing David seems to love unequivocally is a little girl—Hank’s 7-year-old daughter, Ella. The question coursing throughout The Reason You’re Alive is whether or not Ella—or anything—will prevent David from yielding to his darkest impulses.

For the first half of the novel, the force of David’s voice is electric. After some time, his rants begin to wear thin, dabbling in a certain kind of narrow-mindedness and self-pity we see in angry folks on both sides of the political aisle. The book does move toward an emotional conclusion, offering Hank and David an opportunity for redemption. For all of David’s political bluster, this is a touching, old-fashioned drama about the ties that sometimes choke, but always bind.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick channels the political anger that is all the rage these days in this scorching family drama. The Reason You’re Alive is narrated with ire and eloquence by David Granger, a Vietnam vet in his late 60s who has just had brain surgery.

J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest novel opens with a brief but shocking scene, in which tragedy and family secrets tumble forth with urgency. It is 2009 and Nora Rafferty—the matriarch of an Irish-Catholic clan living in the Boston area—is on her way to the hospital. The emergency has something to do with her troubled oldest son, Patrick.

Once Sullivan (author of the bestsellers Maine, Commencement and The Engagements) has set this stage, Saints for All Occasions jumps back to 1950s Ireland, when Nora was just 21 and about to leave home with her more playful sister, 17-year-old Theresa. The pace of the book becomes more leisurely as Sullivan conveys the rhythms of family life in Ireland and the difficulties of the sisters’ voyage to the states, which may remind readers of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Once the sisters are settled with family in Boston, the narrative shifts from the late 1950s, when Nora and Theresa both begin dating and make a fateful decision, to 2009, when Nora and her children must confront the far-reaching consequences of this decision.

Sullivan captures the nursed grievances and festering wounds of sibling rivalry, not to mention the finer touches—for better or worse—of Irish-Catholic life. The comprehensive portraits of the Rafferty children and their decidedly more bourgeois 21st-century problems may be a bit extensive for some readers. But the tensions simmering under the surface are raw, lending explosive power to the conflicts once they detonate. Particularly well done is Sullivan’s portrait of Theresa and her unlikely path to a life she could not have envisioned when she left Ireland.

Saints for All Occasions is a complex and honest portrait of a very American family—stumbling through the present because they never made sense of the past.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest novel opens with a brief but shocking scene, in which tragedy and family secrets tumble forth with urgency. It is 2009 and Nora Rafferty—the matriarch of an Irish-Catholic clan living in the Boston area—is on her way to the hospital. The emergency has something to do with her troubled oldest son, Patrick.

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