We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida

An uncertain adolescent girl narrates a heart-aching tale of coming of age in a city in transition.

We Run the Tides by Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty) is a dreamy, tricky tale of girlhood, secrets and the shifting sands of truth set in mid-1980s San Francisco. This captivating coming-of-age novel asks readers to consider friendship, cruelty, deception and consequences.

Narrator Eulabee begins her story with the first-person plural point of view. “When I say ‘we,’ I sometimes mean the four of us Sea Cliff girls who are in the eighth grade at the Spragg School for Girls. But when I say ‘we,’ I always mean Maria Fabiola and me.” The foursome is close, but it is beautiful Maria Fabiola who enraptures Eulabee and, apparently, everyone else–children as well as adults–in their rarified world. Theirs is a neighborhood of au pairs, chauffeurs and views of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Sea Cliff is for solitude, for when you want to protect yourself from people.” Bad things still happen here, but the community handles them in whispers, while looking away.

Earnest, awkward, devoted Eulabee is perhaps less polished than her friends, or perhaps it only seems so because readers are privy to her insecurities. The trouble begins when she and Maria Fabiola fail to see a minor event in the same way, literally. Did Eulabee miss a small, important detail? Or did Maria Fabiola make it up? The truth almost doesn’t matter; what matters is that the girls are equally firm in their divergent truths. An insignificant moment snowballs until Eulabee’s world is shattered. Lives may be endangered; the foursome disintegrates; nothing will ever be the same again. “I stand there, on the cusp of the ocean and listen to its loud inhale. And then it recedes and takes everything from my childhood with it–the porcelain dolls, the tap-dancing shoes, the concert ticket stubs, the tiny trophies, and the long, long swing.”

We Run the Tides is an enchanting, literary novel, realistic but a little unreal. Vida gives a tender, incisive portrayal of adolescence. The girls’ cruelties are visceral and impermanent, the stressors of Sea Cliff somehow both superficial and profound. Decades later, the events of 1984-85 remain “part of the lore. The newspapers called what happened the Sea Cliff Seizures,” and in adulthood, Eulabee both has and has not outgrown them. Her friends and classmates have moved on; San Francisco has changed. “Symphonies of tiny violins play themselves to shreds.” And Vida’s readers will be changed, too, by this cleverly woven story about honesty, betrayal, charm and illusion, about what matters in youth and what matters always.


This review originally ran in the January 26, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 text messages.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

A totally captivating novel to read in as few sittings as possible (beware!), often a bit disturbing or discomfiting, but always engrossing.

We first meet Rosie and Bennett in 1983. They’re on a date, which doesn’t go very smoothly, and highlights their differences. He’s older, far more sophisticated; he comes from money, while she’s a little awkward. (Or maybe just young.) She dutifully takes his cues, but the reader is immediately uncomfortable. Rosie’s perhaps not as uncomfortable as she should be.

We rewind just a bit to gather up her backstory. A childhood of privation in Lowell, Massachusetts; an art scholarship at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She’s a student there when she meets Bennett at MoMA, and is excited and flattered at his attention. And they’re off and running.

Somewhere inside, Rosie had the idea, like a stone buried deep in the Presbyterian loam of her soul, this pregnancy was punishment for being greedy. Her orgasms were rich as chocolate cake or red velvet. Layers of sweetness and dripping icing.

What lovely lines, hm? And a good example of Finn’s expressive writing, and Rosie’s rich interiority. We follow her from here over decades, eventually to rural Vermont; and I don’t think I’ll tell you much of what happens, but she grows and changes and learns so much. She’s a riveting character. While I empathize deeply with Rosie (eventually, Rose) throughout the book, there are times I disagree with or feel disturbed by her perspectives. This perhaps only deepens the connection, though, and my need to see her through.

The Hare is told in close third person, meaning Rosie is ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ but we still see what she sees, which allows for the question of whether she is really a reliable narrator. There are a few types of unreliable ones: there’s the narrator who is being deceitful and lying on purpose, and then there are other kinds, who maybe can’t see their own worlds clearly. Do I see myself the same way that you see me? Can I reliably narrate myself? Tiny spoiler here: Rosie consistently tells us she’s not much of an artist. But some others around her think she might be gifted. Who do you believe?

The visual-arts frame is a neat one – I love this stuff when it’s done right. A certain Van Eyck painting plays a small but pivotal role. And a little more subtly, Rosie’s eye for image, color, line, and perspective have an enormous impact on how we see what she sees. This is a novel with layers to it in a way that I love; I think I’ll be thinking of it for some time.

Gender is central to this book. Rosie’s position in her life, her situation in several senses, and her feelings of powerlessness are attributed to her being a woman. Her gender, and those of other characters, are always and unavoidably related to their roles and relationships. The novel itself is a commentary on gender roles; Rose eventually make explicit commentary, but she was always make implicit observations, too. The back-of-book blurb calls her “an authentic, tarnished feminist heroine,” and I think that’s about right. In some ways this is a coming-of-age story, but lasting far beyond the time in her life that we tend to think of as the coming-of-age time. She’s still growing up, as we all are (I have come to see), and I really appreciated noting that here.

Finn is absolutely expert at mood and atmosphere. We are with Rosie when she feels dread on a Connecticut (I think) back road; luxuriates in a boathouse on a fancy estate on the coast; works in fear, numb and bone-tired, in the snowy Vermont mountains. This is a book to take you out of your own life.

This review has included almost no plot summary. That’s on purpose. I want you to read this work of suspense and be as surprised by events as I was. It’s beautifully thought-provoking, often lovely, and occasionally frustrating (in that Rosie sometimes frustrated me – as I feel sure Finn intends). Haunting. The hare of the title does extraordinarily broad and deep work. I am enchanted.


Rating: 8 duck decoys.

Sophomores by Sean Desmond

A boy begins to find himself as his parents face private battles of their own in this poignant and searching novel.

With Sophomores, Sean Desmond (Adam’s Fall) evokes late-1980s Dallas and its suburbs with eerie precision. A nuclear family–father, mother, son–and the worlds they navigate are full of anxieties, choices and possibilities. Spanning just one school year, this is a novel to get lost in.

In the fall of 1987, Dan Malone is a sophomore at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. He belongs to a tight foursome of boys who support each other at school and in their forays with the girls of Ursuline Academy. A bit tortured by his shyness in both areas, Dan’s interior workings are self-consciously earnest but endearingly real. “Dan felt a sudden awareness, a shimmering sense of discovery, that his journal, the newspaper, music, writing, reading, it was all connected with some hidden purpose… The hour when he would take part in the life of the world seemed to be drawing closer, and Dan wanted to think and write and listen to his heart and find out what it felt.”

Dan’s father, Pat, is an airline executive facing a serious industry downturn, culturally Irish Catholic and miserably estranged by his displacement (for work) from his native Bronx. He drinks too much and hides it poorly from his family. He struggles with a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Mother and wife Anne provides an essential counterpoint to Dan and Pat’s heavily male worlds. As a devout young woman, Anne had been a novice at Sisters of Charity, but she grew into a worldly, quietly feminist woman, inclined to be contrary in her internal monologues. Still a serious Catholic, Anne argues with the pastor both in her head and via anonymous phone calls.

These three perspectives triangulate to offer a rich, subtle story of family grief and love, teenaged seeking and adult angst. Desmond places crises in the classroom, where Dan strives for growth and recognition from a teacher “legendary for rigor and Socratic curveballs,” on equal footing with the murder trial where Anne serves as juror. Flashbacks to Anne’s and Pat’s pasts illuminate their characters and provide nuance and empathy. Events vary from the absurd (an ill-fated swim team trip) to the profane (one particularly colorful episode in Pat’s fall from grace), but throughout this narrative there is a sense that all of this is somehow serious, important, holy.

Sophomores is a sharp, crystalline look at a few months in the lives of a “regular” family. With a keen gaze, it captures a city in transition and a boy just coming of age. Dan and his parents will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.


This review originally ran in the January 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 sticks.

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World by Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky’s memoir of early ’90s Provincetown illuminates his own coming of age and portrays gay romance under the shadow of AIDS in lyrical, thoughtful prose.

In his searing, lovely memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky (The Narrow Door; Lawnboy) looks back at Provincetown, Mass., 1991-1994. It’s a place for a young gay man to find a community; a haven for artists; a belated coming of age; the height of the AIDS epidemic; a place known simply, in the author’s mind, as Town. It is “the edge of the world” both geographically and metaphorically. “Town a lyric bubble outside past and future. Town a dream that rips up all your intuitions about narrative.”

Paul is in his early 30s when he moves to Provincetown as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, after years of graduate school. Early pages express his difficulty in leaving his mother, breaking up an interdependence. In Town, he finds a community where it feels safe to be openly gay, where sex is readily available. “I’m a good ten years behind them, a hormonal teenager in adult skin.” This is a revelation, but with a heavy-looming shadow. Young men are dropping all around him; Town is also a place to die. “AIDS takes hold of a life, with all of its ideals and aspirations, and throws it to the pavement like a jar.” Even as Paul’s life blossoms, sex and death are interwoven. Later realizes that they will never be separated again.

This is not a memoir purely of loss and mourning, although those themes are always present. Young Paul wants a boyfriend, enjoys flings and explorations, settles down and breaks up. He sees sex and death and politics all around him, the patterns of the summer people (“summer is as wonderful as it is awful”), economic and cultural shifts. The literary life of Provincetown serves as background for his life there, taken as a beautiful given; careful readers will recognize other famous writers even when they are noted only by first name.

Lisicky’s prose showcases his precise ear for language and eye for descriptive detail. “If horniness weren’t narrowing my perception, I’d be able to step back and see how cinematic it is to see these bodies moving–it is like a scene out of Fellini if Fellini had been queer. No wonder the moon likes it here.” Under such loving observation, Town is both microcosm and macrocosm. Later is a personal memoir but also a witness to the way in which the gay male experience is forever, irreversibly changed by disease. “Tender boat, still afloat, even though it’s springing leaks…. As easy to tear open as skin.” This is a book of yearning, of love and sorrow and wanting and, yes, hope: deeply vulnerable and attuned to the divine. To be read for historical context or simply for its stunning truth and beauty.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ice cream cones.

Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South by M. Randal O’Wain

Disclosure: Matt O’Wain is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


I was the son who left, after all, the boy who packed a bag and tramped back and forth across the country in place of stability, but what grounded my wanderlust was the belief that I was never too far from my childhood home, my loving parents. And though I had no right to lament the loss of [that childhood home], the act of boxing it all up or throwing it all out or driving it to Goodwill made me keenly aware that the home I’d been fleeing was the very foundation that allowed me to run.

M. Randal O’Wain’s first book is the essay collection Meander Belt, subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South.” But to me, it is at least as much about home, the competing human urges to settle and to flee, and a sense of belonging.

I said the competing human urges; but within this narrator, the clear winner is the urge to run. O’Wain is originally from Memphis, where his father Chris works as a carpenter and his mother Linda collects the detritus of other lives off curbs. She is a survivor of childhood polio, and sensitive about her distinctive gait. He is a man who values hard work, preferably the manual kind, and while he loves his sensitive younger son, he doesn’t understand him. Matt (as the young narrator is called) doesn’t see a place for himself in the world he’s born into. He idolizes his father, and his older brother, also named Chris, who follows neatly in the older man’s footsteps and fits into his value system: goes to work as a mechanic, steadily builds toward a home and a family, falls asleep alongside their father in front of the television in the evenings. But Matt, from a young age, feels driven to run. At sixteen, he runs away to Montreal; at eighteen, he moves with his band to Olympia, Washington. He has just moved to Oakland, California when his father dies. He has just (finally, improbably) settled down in southern West Virginia when his brother dies.

These are the losses that give Meander Belt its subtitle, and offer the essay collection a certain shape, but I don’t feel they define it. This is a mostly-chronologic memoir-in-essays, and it ranges beyond family and beyond home. The opening essay is an inspired choice: “Mirrored Mezzanine” briefly, beautifully shows the love of a young child for his father, whom he does not understand. “The Junk Trade” explores trauma, sex, and work. With “Thirteenth Street and Failing,” O’Wain considers death. In “Halfway Between,” he recognizes the importance of place and what we lose in the compromise that is growing up. “Memento Mori Part One” (of three) takes up nearly a third of the book; the other seventeen essays vary in length but none compare to this, the long story of a father’s decline and death. Subtitled “Calls in the Night,” one of the movements it charts is ironically a growing closeness between father and the son who moved away.

After three mementos mori, the collection sees O’Wain’s adult life settle in some ways, and several essays tend to sum up, where many earlier essays stuck more closely to narrative storytelling. The essays marking brother Chris’s death, and a new love with Mesha Maren (she of Sugar Run), fit this more expository model. This is not a criticism, though; as the subtitle promised, coming-of-age is the book’s work, and it feels appropriate to see O’Wain’s later years laid out only in service to the whole, if that makes sense. Also, let me note that the essays take various forms throughout; some are segmented with numbered sections, and “How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate” uses the second person.

I appreciate these essays because they are both narrative and essayistic, meaning that they search, seek, question, assay. I trust the narrator because he is so honest about his confusion, the ways in which he’s lost in the world, the ways he is surprised by life. This is a narrative voice with a grasp of the difference between the man or boy these events happened to and the writer telling them now, but even now, he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. I also appreciate a writer equally pleased to bring in the voices of Virginia Woolf, DC Comics, and Leonard Cohen to help him see his own life. These reference points serve as cultural markers but also as conversationalists as O’Wain interrogates the past.

I’m very pleased I got to read an advanced copy of this collection, which will be published October 1; look for my interview with O’Wain coming up at Shelf Awareness (and eventually here as well). Meander Belt is thoughtful, brave, and unflinching, and I think it’s a book for every reader who cares about real lives, whether they have much in common with O’Wain’s background or not.

Preorder here.


Rating: 8 cigarettes.

Let’s No One Get Hurt by Jon Pineda

A teenaged squatter with a poet’s heart and a stolen fly-fishing rod struggles to map her own way.

“I know I’m not a woman yet. But I’m also not a girl. I’m a poem no one will ever translate.” With Let’s No One Get Hurt, Jon Pineda (Apology) offers a wild, yearning, strong-willed protagonist and a novel with both tenderness and violence at its core.

“In a few months, I’ll be sixteen, but my body doesn’t know it.” Pearl’s father says she’s 15 going on 50. She lives in an abandoned boathouse with her father and two other adult men. Dox and Fritter are father and son, and Dox remembers Pearl’s mother, from before. Now, they form a family of sorts, subsisting on catfish and crayfish from the river, mushrooms and wild rice from the woods and building scraps from the wealthy subdivision nearby.

Pearl has made new acquaintances: the upper-class boys who live in the development surrounding the golf course near her makeshift home. They drive tricked-out golf carts and shoot their daddies’ fancy shotguns for fun, filming it all for the Internet where they hope to go viral. One of them takes a special interest in her, playing his father’s wealth against her household’s tenuous living. Pearl’s coming-of-age and her troubled liaison with these boys define the novel’s timeline. As she grows up, her old dog, Marianne Moore, prepares to die. (If her father had his way, Pearl would do the right thing and shoot her already.) A former poetry professor who named the dog after one of his favorite subjects, her father also suffers from increasingly poor health. Fritter paints a never-ending mural of pitch black and Dox noodles on his cigar-box guitar.

Pearl’s mother was a scholar who said that “poems were never finished, that they were only abandoned.” Pearl likes to think that maybe all abandoned things are poems. She lives in an abandoned place; maybe she lives inside a poem. As a narrative voice, she fights the urge to see poetry in images and to describe her world lyrically: “I hate that I even see them as wings. They’re just napkins.”

Let’s No One Get Hurt is about race (most pointedly when Pearl unintentionally crashes a Civil War reenactment with Fritter, a dreadlocked, 300-pound black man) as well as class. It is about families and how they hurt and help one another, the mysteries of Pearl’s mother and of the rich boys’ everyday cruelties. “The river waits for me, and that’s all that matters.” As a river-based adventure of difficult adolescence, Let’s No One Get Hurt inevitably recalls Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s female-centered Once Upon a River. Pineda’s writing is thick with the lush warmth of the American South and the harshness of a life scavenged out-of-doors, and his teenaged girl’s perspective is spot-on. This novel of exploration, exploitation and the poetry in it all will stun readers of all kinds, especially those who appreciate strong characters and tough choices.


This review originally ran in the March 1, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 blue cats.

Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked by Aaron Burch

A writer’s examination of the writing that shaped him–even reluctantly–yields layers of self-awareness.

stephen kings the body

Ig Publishing’s Bookmarked series features writers contemplating the literature that has made deep impressions on their lives and work. Aaron Burch’s entry is Stephen King’s The Body, a brief but incisive consideration of King’s novella and Burch’s life in ways that surprise the author and intrigue the reader.

“The Body” is one of four novellas in King’s Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). It is perhaps better known for the film adaptation, 1986’s Stand by Me. Burch’s lifelong fascination began with the movie; he writes here about coming later to King’s written work as he becomes a reader, a writer and a teacher. King’s protagonist, Gordie Lachance, is also a writer and very much resembles King himself. The layers of meta-awareness continue in Stephen King’s The Body: Burch refers to his writing of the book and to its earlier drafts.

“The Body” is a Bildungsroman circling themes of friendship, nostalgia and loss as four childhood friends trek cross-country to view the dead body of a boy their age. Burch explores these themes with tenderness and sentiment, even as he resists the latter. Although “The Body” and Stand by Me provide the framework for Burch’s contemplation, his work is at least as much self-reflective memoir or personal essay as it is literary criticism. As he writes, his marriage looks to be breaking apart–a parallel Burch forces himself to confront. The two processes, writing and considering a marriage, prompt a direct gaze into difficult truths, but as King writes (as Gordie Lachance): “The most important things are the hardest to say.” This is a recurring sentiment in Burch’s slim book, where he earnestly attempts to address those hard things.

Burch exposes himself as a striking character who has a complicated relationship with art–the art he produces (up until now, only fiction) and the art he enjoys. He is an unlikely writer of literary criticism, with his resistance to considering authorial intent, and purposefully avoids behind-the-scenes perspectives on his favorite works. “It can be fun to take apart a magic trick and figure out how it actually works, but it also ruins the magic of the trick.” Having pushed himself, however, Burch is surprised to find his venture into literary criticism extraordinarily enlightening.

Burch elaborates on King’s themes of loss and friendship with those of transitions, of firsts: first date, first kiss, first job, first road trip. As Gordie (or King) writes, “There’s a high ritual to all fundamental events… the rites of passage, the magic corridor where the change happens.” The beauty of Stephen King’s The Body is in Burch entering that magic corridor, and splitting the experience wide open–uncomfortably, even–for the reader to study with him.


This review originally ran in the August 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scenes.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

tender barI loved this one.

The Tender Bar is a memoir of one man’s life in a bar. JR was a little boy surrounded by women and girls: he lived with his mother, grandmother, aunt and four girl cousins (and a grandfather, uncle and a boy cousin, but still). He felt drawn to men: in his hindsight telling, he felt the lack of a father, and sought male attentions and teachings, and a model for becoming a man. He found this in his uncle, but even more so, in the hallowed space just 142 steps away, where his uncle tended bar.

This is both a bildungsroman and the story of a bar. By some extension, it is thirdly the story of a place: Manhasset, Long Island, a town historically fixated on drinking and comfortable, sociable places to do it in. We see JR’s childhood – deeply chaotic and troubled in his home life, but bolstered by a beloved and mostly stable (if chaotic in their own way) group of men from the bar. We see him grow up, learn about himself and the world, and experiment with concepts of what he owes to his world and what he’ll do with himself. There is always the bar, at the center of these concepts. Eventually, JR becomes an adult, and the bar ages alongside him. Losses come with age, culminating in the losses of September 11, 2001, which were widespread for a town that commuted into the City and into the World Trade Centers.

I loved many things about this book. I loved the format, which begins with some (presumably research-based) backstory about Manhasset, and with some musings on bars and life. (See my book beginning.) I loved Moehringer’s tone: of immense and frequent humor, often self-deprecating, but also of sober reckoning. He made me laugh out loud until I had to put the book down and hold my belly. I liked the perspective he took, the places where his adult’s wisdom did and did not inform his telling of the child’s experience. I felt drawn to the family, the bar community, and JR’s difficulties with differences in class (when he goes off, of all places, to Yale) and geography (moving at one point to Arizona, where his accent stands out). Despite being totally foreign to me, the Manhasset setting made sense, came alive in this telling. (And not for the first time: Manhasset is the model for the setting of The Great Gatsby.) And of course as much as anything I loved this bar: I loved his love for the bar, and sympathized with it, and I loved the place itself. I recognize and feel affection for a place with playfully rude, unhurried service, a divey atmosphere but with professional cocktail construction. It is a literary place, named Dickens in Moehring’s youth and later changed to Publicans but keeping its nod to culture, song and theatre, and especially words. JR tried for years to write about the place while in the place – the concept that the reader knows would eventually become The Tender Bar.

In this place he meets men (and some women) from all walks of life, professors and police officers and bookies and poets and more. He compares the bar to the Iliad (sure to either win my heart or offend me; here, the former):

In fact the bar and the poem complemented each other, like companion pieces. Each smacked of ageless verities about men.

And he goes on to identify the Ajax, the Hector, the Achilles he finds in Publicans.

I’m sure I give the impression that this is a book seeped in testosterone, and that’s not untrue, but it’s more nuanced than that. For years, JR looked for men to teach him what it meant to be a man. It was something of an obsession for this mostly-fatherless boy (although one wonders how much of that is inserted in hindsight). There are women in the story, too, of course: a girl cousin, a girlfriend, female friends, but centrally his mother, from whom he learns a lot. In the end, he acknowledges that she did a better job of many of the virtues he looked to men for, than did the men he found.

He offers nuggets about writing. As attributed to a priest he meets in the bar car of the train from the City back to Manhasset:

Do you know why God invented writers? Because He loves a good story. And He doesn’t give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we’ve hung between Him and our true selves. Try not to think about the words. Don’t strain for the perfect sentence. There’s no such thing. Writing is guesswork. Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader’s as much as yours. Think about that the next time you curl a piece of paper into your typewriter.

I could spend all day on this quotation alone, some of which I’d take issue with – I think words are very important, and I think the perfect sentence is to be sought – but there’s a lot to ponder and a lot of wisdom there.

I feel like I’ve gotten to know JR Moehringer by reading his story, and I like him. I acknowledge his flaws but would be his friend. That’s a fine outcome for a memoir, I think. This was an excellent book, in its stories, its characters, its format, the details of its writing, and its emotional tone. It’s a little like The Liars’ Club in its best parts: funny, self-deprecating, sad, beautiful, brave, honorable, ironic. I raise my glass.


Rating: 9 pet mice.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), finished

rathbonesSee also my review of the first half.

The Rathbones finished, as it started, an odd and unusual book; which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and in this case worked out nicely. It was certainly memorable. I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have (not much), because I think this unique reading experience does best when the reader goes in blind, as I did. So this review will be brief.

In regards to an earlier stated concern, I will say that the threads were pulled together in the end, but only in a loose weave. All the stories connect, but aren’t tied up with great neatness. I’m fine with this. It’s a dreamy tale, with vaguely supernatural elements. It nods to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick – or maybe more than nods. I liked the characters very much, by which I mean both that they are well crafted (with some complexities), and also likeable; they are not drawn in firm black lines, but a little blurrily, which is true of the book as a whole, and part of its charm.

The story of the Rathbone family is centered around the sea, with notes on the whaling industry that shaped the New England coast for a time. There are elements of a bildungsroman, a literal journey as well as a journey toward adulthood, the uncovering of family legacy and forming of new bonds. Travel and adventure on the sea are only part of what brings the Odyssey into play; more explicit references are made with The Rathbones‘ own Circe character, for example. But I’m going to stop there.

My experience in listening to this audiobook was excellent, even if I was perplexed halfway through. The reading is grand. The story is fanciful, and the narration fits it well. For those who enjoy relinquishing control and floating along with a fine author’s imagination, I think The Rathbones is an engaging and entertaining adventure.


Rating: 7 sons.

Maximum Shelf: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

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 January 15, 2014.


weight of blood

“That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body.” So opens Laura McHugh’s delightfully and darkly disturbing debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The town of Henbane is agitated because it is so good at keepings its secrets–and bodies are so easy to hide in the twisted, wooded Ozark Mountains.

The story begins with the first-person perspective of 18-year-old Lucy Dane. Lucy has it pretty good: she has a reliable best friend, a loving relationship with her father, and neighbors who make up an extended family of sorts. And she’s just begun working in her uncle’s store, where she gets to rub elbows with the sexy Daniel. But Lucy is troubled by the disappearance of her sort-of friend Cheri, a developmentally disabled schoolmate whose freshly dead body was only recently discovered–a year after she went missing. She’s also still troubled by the unexplained disappearance of her mother, Lila, who walked out of the house carrying a handgun and nothing else when Lucy was a year old.

The perspective then shifts to that of Lila herself as a young woman, newcomer to the Danes’ hometown of Henbane. Henbane is almost a character unto itself, insular, suspicious and largely unmarked by passing time. For a fee, residents can avoid a “city burial” (embalmment and the involvement of the authorities) in favor of a private grave-digging service. And the local lawyer will advise you not to trust local police until you find out who’s related to whom. It is anything but a friendly destination for a damaged teenager like Lila, who immediately runs up against the Dane brothers: the older Crete, who runs several businesses including a farm and a store, and his little brother, Carl, who becomes her husband before she turns 19. Superstitions have her labeled a witch before she’s unpacked her few belongings.

Through Lila’s eyes, the reader will find out slightly more about her background than Lucy knows, but Lila works hard to remain a mystery to both the reader and Henbane locals, including Carl. The perspectives continue to alternate. While Lucy keeps the reader up to date on current goings-on, it is through Lila that we begin to learn the ugly secrets that Henbane keeps. Other characters, too, get occasional chapters told from their point of view (in omniscient third person; only Lila and Lucy get first-person treatment), and one of the strengths of The Weight of Blood is that its engaging, complex, fully wrought characters extend beyond its protagonists. Lucy’s best friend, Bess, and Bess’s mother, Gabby (who was, in turn, best friend to Lila); Carl and Crete; the love interest, Daniel; a surrogate grandmother; and a local drug dealer all get sensitive handling and character development. But it is the measured building of tension and the careful doling out of hints of evil that star, as Lucy’s coming-of-age experience brings the classic bildungsroman to meet the gritty thriller.

While helping Daniel clean out an old trailer belonging to her uncle, Lucy discovers a clue: a lost item that she knows used to belong to Cheri, because Lucy gave it to her. Next, Bess overhears a reference that she shouldn’t have. With Daniel’s cautious support, Lucy begins to look into Cheri’s death, and the matter of where she spent that unaccounted-for year. But, of course, in a town this small, where everyone recognizes headlights and knows where a particular truck might be heading, investigations are dangerous. Like her mother before her, Lucy is told outright that it would be risky to go to the police for help. And as she probes the question of Cheri’s fate, and finds it apparently linked to her mother’s, Lucy will be disturbed at how close her inquiries lead her to home.

Carl and Crete, the Dane brothers, are heir not only to the off-the-books grave-digging business, the combined local grocery store and restaurant, and various secrets, but also to mental illness and corruption. As its title suggests, The Weight of Blood is concerned with the strength of our bonds to our family, and the tension between biological ties of blood and the families we choose for ourselves. In a remarkably convincing portrayal of young adulthood, Lucy allows McHugh to explore themes of loyalty: where it’s owed, and to what extremes.

The atmosphere McHugh evokes in this masterful debut is wonderfully spooky, exemplifying Southern noir with a backwoods mountain twist and a matter-of-fact willingness to bury its dead out back and walk away. Taut pacing, lively suspense and atmosphere are the strongest points of a novel that also has an engaging plot and beautifully built, sympathetic characters to its credit. For fans of dark, suspenseful, well-structured thrillers, The Weight of Blood is a delicious and nail-biting treat.


Rating: 7 baby possums.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with McHugh!

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