Tom Deignan

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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 […]
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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New York City’s renaissance—safer streets, graffiti-free subways, suddenly trendy neighborhoods—has brought with it a nostalgia for grittier times. A wide range of books from Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire to Patti Smith’s Just Kids have explored the drama and poetry of New York’s so-called bad old days. John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters fits neatly into this subgenre. It unfolds in Manhattan during the mid-1970s when crime was rampant and New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

The book revolves around 13-year-old Griffin Watts, who lives with his mother, sister and various boarders in a dilapidated Manhattan brownstone. That is, when he’s not roaming the city at night with his father, who “liberates”—steals—gargoyles and other architectural ornaments from the city’s aging but beautiful old buildings. Griffin wants so desperately to spend time with his dad that he can’t see the looming danger, both emotional and physical. Scaling a building to swipe another treasure for his dad, Griffin says, “I wasn’t sure whether I felt like a mountain climber or a marionette.”

At a deeper level, Gill—who knows the city intimately and is even a real estate columnist and editor—is wrestling with the nature of change. Cities like New York evolve (for better or worse) the same way people do, and the real danger comes when we ignore that reality. Fans of Richard Russo will appreciate the complex dynamic between needy, young Griffin and his father, whose breezy affability masks profound, even abusive, flaws.

Some of Gill’s dialogue strains to be humorous, and readers outside of New York will have to decide how interested they are in some of Gotham’s long-lost landmarks and sports stars. Overall, though, The Gargoyle Hunters is an absorbing family tale and a wise meditation on aging.

New York City’s renaissance—safer streets, graffiti-free subways, suddenly trendy neighborhoods—has brought with it a nostalgia for grittier times. A wide range of books from Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire to Patti Smith’s Just Kids have explored the drama and poetry of New York’s so-called bad old days. John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters fits neatly into this subgenre. It unfolds in Manhattan during the mid-1970s when crime was rampant and New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

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The 1979 new wave hit “Pop Muzik” had an infectious chorus that began: “New York, London, Paris, Munich.” PEN/Faulkner winner Sabina Murray sends her characters to all four of these locales—and many others—in her sprawling, colorful new novel.

Based on real-life events and people, Valiant Gentlemen opens in 1880s Africa and closes in postwar Paris, where Murray’s characters, and the world, have been changed utterly by World War I.

Murray’s tone is light at the outset. Englishman Herbert Ward and Irishman Roger Casement are in Belgian-ruled Congo, just two of many young, careless expeditionaries. They mingle with the local population and brainstorm about how to make money; Ward eventually decides to write for magazines about his time living amid “naked natives and cannibalism.” 

The story picks up steam with the introduction of Sarita Sanford, a sharp-tongued heiress who marries Ward. Casement, meanwhile, must deal with multiple identity crises: He is a revolutionary for Catholic Ireland, but a Protestant, and is often taken for an Englishman. He is also living a closeted gay life. Complex characters in exotic locales combined with Murray’s deft use of language (trees in Niger, for example, are described as having “crabbed fingers”) are the strongest aspects of Valiant Gentlemen.

The approach of World War I creates tension between Ward and Casement, and their differences build to an emotional, even wrenching climax. Valiant Gentlemen offers some sharp satire on culture clashes and colonialism. Casement even makes a flip remark about some “horror,” echoing the conclusion of Joseph Conrad’s African-journey classic, Heart of Darkness. Though a bit too long, Valiant Gentlemen is ultimately an impressive accomplishment, offering an immersive read for historical fiction fans.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Based on real-life events and people, Valiant Gentlemen opens in 1880s Africa and closes in postwar Paris, where Sabina Murray’s characters, and the world, have been changed utterly by World War I.
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Readers have long been fascinated by stories of women apart from the world, from 19th-century tales of girls imprisoned in convents to more contemporary gems like Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars (1992). Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, is a wonderful entry into this rich tradition.

Four girls, all improbably named Guinevere, are left by their parents with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. The convent, at first, seems similar to an all-girls high school, complete with cutely named factions. The titular girls (known as Vere, Gwen, Ginny and Win) initially bond over their shared name as well as their desire to escape. It turns out, however, that the convent is not unlike the real world. The girls experience friendship and romance, tragedy and betrayal. 

The Guineveres is mainly narrated by the more reserved Vere, who tells the story as an older woman looking back, and Domet deftly handles this retrospective voice. Brief chapters on the lives of various female saints imbue The Guineveres with a broader sense of the adversity women have faced over the centuries. All the while, Domet sustains a sense of humor. “Who’s the patron saints of patron saints?” Win quips at one point.  

At times sacred, occasionally profane, The Guineveres is a heavenly read from an author worth watching.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Readers have long been fascinated by stories of women apart from the world, from 19th-century tales of girls imprisoned in convents to more contemporary gems like Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars (1992). Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, is a wonderful entry into this rich tradition.
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Maribeth Klein has it all—and that’s the problem.

The main character in Gayle Forman’s absorbing first adult novel has a career, family and a home in a Manhattan zip code so desirable “it seemed as if even the nannies have nannies.” Juggling all of these responsibilities has left Maribeth “overtaxed and overburdened, but show her a working mother who wasn’t.” So, when Maribeth feels twinges in her chest, she thinks she’s merely eaten something bad or is feeling the pressure from her latest deadline at work. But it turns out she has had a heart attack.

Things go from bad to worse when, following surgery and a hospital stay, Maribeth’s family seems to expect her to return to the same demanding and stressful routine: “dancing on a surfboard, juggling knives, while they all went about business as usual.” So Maribeth simply takes off. She heads from New York City to Pittsburgh, for reasons that Forman slowly but skillfully makes clear. Once in Pittsburgh, Maribeth takes up with a younger set of neighbors and an older doctor, who help her come to terms with what she’s left behind. But a more glaring revelation awaits, providing Leave Me with some of its most tender moments.

Occasionally, Forman’s dialogue is a little clunky and her attempts to balance comedy and drama don’t always work, though she is to be credited for exploring the lighter side of some rather dark material. Ultimately, Leave Me deftly explores the domestic struggles of 21st-century bourgeois life. This is an insightful ode to—and cautionary tale for—the overburdened working mother.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Maribeth Klein has it all—and that’s the problem.
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The title of Jacqueline Woodson’s brief, powerful first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, could mean many things. Is it an acknowledgment of the difference between the Brooklyn of the 1970s and today’s hipster kingdom? Is it meant to distinguish her gritty book from Colm Tóibín’s bestseller, Brooklyn, which became an Academy Award-winning film? Or is Woodson referring to the ways in which memory can change a place in our minds as the years go on?

Woodson—a National Book Award winner for Brown Girl Dreaming—introduces her narrator, August, as she looks back on her arrival as a young girl to 1970s Brooklyn, in the midst of upheaval that includes white flight and poverty. August’s parents left behind a farm in Tennessee, and Woodson’s descriptions of both rural and urban settings are vivid and poetic. As she approaches her teens, August befriends three tough but vulnerable girls. The four friends pursue divergent dreams, which are meant to transport them from Brooklyn, but are also fueled by their experiences there. Powerful subplots explore the fates of August’s uncle, drafted to Vietnam, and August’s mother, drifting off into madness.

Another Brooklyn is so slim as to almost be a novella, and the scenes are brief and impressionistic, sometimes just a few sentences long. This, however, does not detract from the vibrancy of this coming-of-age story. Though August—and most of the characters in the book—are at times overwhelmed or enraged, they persevere. A question posed by August late in the book resonates with nearly all of the characters in this tender yet searing novel: “How do you begin to tell your own story?”

 

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The title of Jacqueline Woodson’s brief, powerful first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, could mean many things. Is it an acknowledgment of the difference between the Brooklyn of the 1970s and today’s hipster kingdom? Is it meant to distinguish her gritty book from Colm Tóibín’s bestseller, Brooklyn, which became an Academy Award-winning film? Or is Woodson referring to the ways in which memory can change a place in our minds as the years go on?

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