Maximum Shelf: Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 10, 2015.

did you everAcclaimed memoirist Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man; Ninety Days) offers a profound jolt with his first novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, the impetus for the creation of Gallery Books’ new literary imprint, Scout Press.

June Reid’s world is splintered and lost in an instant. In the early morning of her daughter’s wedding day, her farmhouse explodes and burns, killing June’s ex-husband; her current boyfriend, Luke; her daughter, Lolly; and Lolly’s fiancĂ©, Will. Did You Ever Have a Family maps the circumstances of the blaze and follows the aftermath of this tragedy as it affects June and other members of the families and communities of the victims.

In Clegg’s unusual composition, each chapter belongs to a different person, with the reader left to configure their connections. Some of their stories are told in first person, some in third, and almost all in flashbacks. This ever-shifting perspective highlights mistakes and misunderstandings, including June’s; other characters provide small revelations, thereby contributing to larger questions. The relatives and acquaintances of the deceased are joined by others with less clear ties, who appear to the reader in ever-widening concentric circles. Thus Clegg slowly and skillfully reveals the night of the fire and the nuances of the surrounding community in deft disclosures, through different points of view and with deep feelings.

June’s farmhouse is located in the small Connecticut town of Wells, where the locals are employed, somewhat resentfully, in serving weekend people from New York City. June had first been a weekender, and later moved in full-time. She ruffled some feathers when she began dating Luke, a handsome young man some 20 years her junior with a complicated history, about whom everyone in town had an opinion. June’s own family is not uncomplicated: following her divorce, she struggled to get along with her daughter, Lolly, a dreamy girl who apparently blamed her mother for the fracturing of the household. But June had worked to get to know Lolly’s fiancĂ©, Will. She was counting on a future. In a moment of unguarded exasperation, she rhetorically asked Will’s sister: “Did you ever have a family?” After losing hers in such a spectacular, gruesome fashion, June eventually departs Wells carrying no identification, with only her car keys and a bank card left in the jacket she was wearing when she ran out of her house.

Early chapters focus on native Wells residents: friends, neighbors, the florist contracted for the wedding, the caterer who never got paid. But as characters gradually expand and diversify, the geography of Did You Ever Have a Family also spreads as the narrative unfolds, until its focus ranges from the east to the west coast of the United States. The lives of many are altered by the loss of June’s family; their simply expressed, easily understood emotions belie the gut-wrenchingly awful stories they tell. And each is ultimately working to build or define family, with varying degrees of success.

Lydia is Wells’s town outcast, busty and socially awkward, who gave birth years ago to a baby whose father had to have been African-American, although Lydia’s husband was red-haired and pale. That baby would grow up to be an intelligent, athletic, convicted felon–June’s boyfriend, Luke. When readers meet her, Lydia is chafing under the opinions of small, mean minds and loud voices. Town gossip holds Luke responsible for the tragedy, and thereby confirms Lydia’s low social status. Following an estrangement of several years between mother and son, June had orchestrated a tentative reconciliation. But when June leaves town following the funerals of everyone she loved, Lydia loses not only her son but her only friend. After June deserts Wells, gossip gains strength, and may yet destroy what the fire didn’t.

Supporting characters include a teenage neighbor who helped fix up the yard for the wedding and who carries his bong with him everywhere, and the family of June’s never-to-be son-in-law, Will, who return home to Washington State to mourn him. At a small seaside motel on the West Coast, a couple who have fled their own tragedy in Seattle worry over their new guest, a ghostlike woman who rents by the month and never leaves her room. And with yet another perspective, the reader learns the identity of Luke’s father, although Luke himself never did. These characters and vignettes are not disconnected, although their relationships become clear only over the course of Clegg’s masterfully woven story.

June and Lydia inhabit the center of this wondrous, grave and glorious story, but each voice that speaks up in Did You Ever Have a Family is gripping and invokes the reader’s sympathies. Every character and every small tragedy is a sensitively portrayed, complex, and compelling study on its own. What first appears to be a tale of grief in the face of unspeakable loss grows with its own momentum, until finally its scope is much wider than initially suspected. The expansive and surprising result eventually portrays the building of community and the possibility of recovery, even forgiveness. Did You Ever Have a Family is an elegant first novel, carefully composed and beautifully, hauntingly written.

Rating: 8 daisies.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Clegg.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

The fictional portrait of a real-life, rough-edged, hard-drinking “Mother Teresa” on New York City’s tough streets in the early 20th century.

saint mazie

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins) brings to life a true historical figure–movie theater proprietress Mazie Phillips–as a fully realized, full-color, unlikely hero.

They called her Queen of the Bowery. She was bottle-blonde, busty, husky-voiced and crude; she was a self-described good-time girl with a gruff manner, partial to men and drink. But she was also a humanitarian, though she would never have admitted it. Attenberg’s inspired story takes the form of a historian’s fictional collection of material: entries from Mazie’s diary, excerpts from a draft of her unpublished autobiography and interviews with descendants, acquaintances and local experts on New York City’s past.

Mazie begins her diary on her 10th birthday, in 1907. She is new to New York City; her older sister, Rosie, has rescued her and the youngest, Jeanie, from domestic violence in Boston. The three sisters form an odd but lasting household with Rosie’s husband, Louis, beloved of all three. From this day forward, Mazie remains in the city, drinking through Prohibition, assisting the wounded at the Wall Street bombing in 1920, and pinching pennies to help her neighbors through the aftermath of the 1929 crash.

Saint Mazie‘s structure establishes an evocative tone of both ancient history and immediacy. Mazie’s love affairs and friendships are wrought with sensitivity and nuance; Nadine, the barely-named researcher behind the story, surfaces with rare, delightful hints to her own personality and motivations. Mazie’s life is compelling, heartrending and irresistibly paced, but it is Attenberg’s subtle storytelling decisions that make this novel unforgettable.

This review originally ran in the June 2, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 postcards.

Creative Nonfiction: The Memoir Issue

Full disclosure: I am a fan of the folks over at Creative Nonfiction. I’ve taken one of their classes (and think I’ll do another this winter), and I attended their conference in Pittsburgh last month (also excellent!). This post is about the magazine, which comes out quarterly. Summer 2015 is “The Memoir Issue,” fatter than usual at just over 100 pages, and filled with memoir stories and essays about the genre. I read it from cover to cover, but wanted to share a few of my favorite pieces.

cnf memoirLee Gutkind’s “From the Editor” column asks, “What’s the (Personal) Story?” It’s brief, but a fine backdrop to creative nonfiction and the rise of the memoir. If you ever get a chance to hear Lee speak, expect to be entertained; I enjoyed his energy at the conference, where he helped us all wake up first thing in the morning with his extraordinary energy and enthusiasm. Next, Robert Atwan contributes an essay called “Of Memory and Memoir,” in which he argues that we’d benefit from a better understanding of how memory works (and doesn’t work), in a world where the memoir is so popular and ubiquitous. I think this is an interesting challenge; memoir is often, and appropriately I think, concerned with the line between truth and perspective, and the failure to remember perfectly. I don’t know if we can expect to solve the mystery of our imperfect memories, but Atwan does well to consider the problem.

And then there are the memoir essays themselves, of which I had a few favorites. “Do No Harm” by Kelly Fig Smith won the magazine’s prize, and naturally makes my list. She tells the story of a terrible tragedy that hits her family, and the hospital experience that came with it; it’s about perspective and compassion, I think. “Steps” by Scott Loring Sanders recounts the hike shared by a newly sober father, a young son, and their two dogs; it’s about mistakes and rehabilitation. Gina Warren’s “Girl on Fire” observes the difficulties of caregiving. The final essay, “The Grief Scale,” is by Suzanne Roberts, who wrote Almost Somewhere, a book I rated 6 small but important steps. This essay is better, I think. I like how she circles back at the end to reference the story she thought she was writing, was trying to write; but what we are treated to is instead the story that flows out of her, about being griped at on an airplane, and losing or fearing to lose our loved ones. I found it very effective.

Finally, “The Perils of Perfect Memory” by Daphne Strassmann questions our new reliance on social media and its effects on memory and memoir. Were we better off keeping our memories to ourselves, letting them brew and cure inside us before releasing them on the world? And in “Pushing the Boundaries,” Rolf Potts offers a different format, of found texts assembled in a piece he calls “Age, Formative,” which is powerfully disturbing.

These are just a few of the pieces I found most intriguing; the whole issue is definitely worth taking in. You can view parts of it or buy it here.

Slow Burn by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Brisk pacing and a complex plot make this mystery novel a juicy, satisfying thriller.

slow burn

Slow Burn follows Fourth Down and Out as the second Andy Hayes mystery by Andrew Welsh-Huggins. Private Investigator Andy is struggling in both his personal and professional lives when the grandmother of a convicted arsonist/murderer contacts him with a request to clear her grandson, who confessed to the crime. The case looks like a loser, which makes it about right for Andy. This fast-paced, complex mystery will satisfy genre fans, while spotlighting its Columbus, Ohio setting.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published in the Summer 2015 issue of ForeWord Reviews.

My rating: 7 book dedications.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

lola quartetAnna is seventeen, with a baby, and she’s on the run. Ten years later, Gavin’s life is falling apart: he loses his job and his New York City apartment, and returns to small-town Florida with his tail between his legs. As he tries to patch a life back together, he also searches for a piece of his past that’s gone missing: an old girlfriend who disappeared, and a daughter he never knew he had. To solve the mystery and unravel the intrigue that has followed them into the present, Gavin will have to reconnect with the members of the Lola Quartet, his old jazz group from high school.

The Lola Quartet is told from several different perspectives in disjointed chronology, like Station Eleven, although its circumstances are less imaginative: Gavin and his former band members inhabit the same world that we do. The characters are all fully-developed and interesting people, with complexities and inner conflicts, and the story keeps us moving right along; this is a difficult book to put down. The thread of music that runs through the book – as a down-and-out jazz musician obsesses, and the gifted are said to “have the music” – is another sparkling element that brings these people to life. The Florida that Mandel evokes is hypnotic in its humidity and quiet threats. I found it an interesting twist that Gavin is a boy from Florida who can’t handle the heat.

This is not the masterpiece that Station Eleven is, although it’s a very enjoyable read. There were a few plot twists that I felt could have used a little more explaining, or else been left out. The character who compels all those around her, for whom everyone else makes sacrifices, didn’t show the kind of charisma I would think necessary to draw those loyalties; and I know sometimes these things are just inexplicable, but I still would have appreciated a little more expression of her magnetism. But the setting and the characters are as real as can be; the story has momentum and suspense; The Lola Quartet is a novel to lose yourself in.

Rating: 7 photographs.

“Landspeak” by Robert Macfarlane

Here is another that I cannot improve upon by commenting. Words and places, beautifully composed? I am sold. I’ve heard a lot about Robert Macfarlane but this short piece is all of his writing that I’ve actually read. Clearly I’ll need to find more.

Please enjoy

The Savage Professor by Robert Roper

This dark thriller has an intelligent side, and pleases on several levels as the bodies pile up everywhere this professor goes.


The Savage Professor, by Robert Roper, is a complex, scientifically minded whodunit. The professor is Anthony Landau, a formerly prominent epidemiologist settling into obscurity in the hills of Berkeley, California. He has enjoyed escapades and conquests over the years, both professional and in the bedroom. When a series of murdered women starts turning up awfully close to home, he is challenged in new ways.

…Click here to read the full review.

This review was published in the Summer 2015 issue of ForeWord Reviews.

My rating: 7 balloons.

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