The Plover by Brian Doyle (audio)

And no thinking on this trip, either, he said to the gull floating over the stern. No recriminations and ruminations. No logs and journals and literary pretensions neither. Thinking can only, like the boat, proceed forward.

Thank goodness for Brian Doyle. I had been in a bit of a blue funk and looked for something cheerful to pick me up; a Brian Doyle novel was just the thing, I thought, and I was right.

Based on Martin Marten and Mink River, I foolishly thought the plover in this story would be an actual plover – a bird. Ha! No, the Plover is a boat. (And to be fair, the protagonist of Mink River turned out to be a crow.) Classically, for Doyle, we open with epigraphs: from Robert Louis Stevenson, George Harrison, and Annie Dillard. (Perfect.) Then we plunge right in and meet our protagonist, an eccentric fellow (aren’t they all) named Declan O’Donnell. An Irishman (read here with an accent) who hails from the Oregon coast and a fractured family, he’s invested himself totally in a small trawler he calls the Plover for perfect reasons. He’s “edited” her by, among other things, fitting a small mast and sails; and he heads off from Oregon, intending “west and then west.”

Declan is explicitly trying to escape humankind and all their “emotional complications… expectations and illusions… analysis and explications.” But of course, he is immediately joined (page 1) by a gull, to whom he holds forth at length: we already suspect he enjoys having the company. And the comedy of the book is in all the passengers he takes on: the narrative tells us that the census reaches over one thousand, if we count barnacles, but it also at one point reaches seven human beings. Declan is in fact a more social creature than he aspires to be, and that’s the central storyline here: Macmillan’s blurb calls it “the story of a cold man melting,” and I think that’s not too far off, although I might amend to call it the melting of a man who tried to be cold. Declan has had some trauma in his life, and his reaction is to try and shut himself off. He fails, and that’s one of the joys of this book.

There are so many joys, although also much trauma. Declan’s best friend, Piko, is one of Doyle’s exuberant characters – “he had legally changed his name for a while to an adjective, he played the flügelhorn in a jazz band that deliberately played only such events as weddings between Lutherans and Presbyterians and baptisms of babies named for animals, and he had once flensed a whale by himself, over the course of three weeks, on the beach, living in a tiny blue tent about the high tide line. He was one of those guys who seemed electrified by everyone and everything, the kind of guy who totally lit up when he saw a sparrow-hawk helicoptering over a corn shock, the kind of guy who liked every kid he ever met and every kid liked him… But he had been wounded by a storm, this guy, his little daughter hit by a bus driver when she was five years old waiting for the kindergarten bus, and his light was dimmed.” Pippa, the daughter, cannot move except for a possibly meaningless fluttering of her hands; she cannot speak except to make possibly meaningless squeaks and coos that sound like bird sounds. But she has a rich inner life. (Spoiler: Piko and Pippa will become passengers and crew on the Plover.) Both Piko and Pippa are very Doylesque characters: peculiar, delightful, brimming, wounded. There are more of these in the book – a Doyle novel is made of such characters. Again: just what I needed.

So Declan explores the world, becoming increasingly reluctant to set foot on land. He cares for his boat and weathers storms. He picks up passengers and rails against their very presence, but still they come on. He and his growing crew-family have a conflict with another ship and its ill-intending captain, but everything comes out well in the end. As the small, green, red-sailed Plover swells in population, tensions rise, but so does the incidence of miracles. Doyle is unafraid to take his whimsical characters to the brink of death and then snatch them, in unlikely fashion, back. Once you’ve made peace with this inclination (and I have), it’s great fun.

Declan is a devoted reader of the Irish author and orator Edmund Burke, who is much quoted here, along with a reference or two to Robert Louis Stevenson (upon whom Doyle would base a later book). Through these outside voices, through Declan’s own and the wise voices of his friends and comrades (including one very quirky minister for fisheries and marine resources and foreign affairs), The Plover is a novel of philosophy as well as the story of one plucky little boat and its captain.

David Drummond’s reading feels perfect to me. I love the many different voices, accents, rhythms he plays. Pippa’s exuberance, Declan’s grumpy Irish lilt, the minister’s volubility and interesting speech patterns, and so much more. (Somebody should write a paper on the minister’s word coinages.) A good narrator makes all the difference, and I’m so glad we got a good one here.

Doyle’s usual strengths are all present. Characters and story are brimming and bubbling with good cheer even in the face of significant and imaginative tragedy. Sentences are often long, convoluted, and performative of their content. Details are numerous and precise and bizarre. Nothing has changed; this man is a near-perfect novelist, for this reader. I’m still so sad he’s gone.


Rating: 8 crucial silences between notes.

Lanny by Max Porter

This novel about family, the power of the woods and the creative spirit, centered on a special young boy, will charm any reader.

Following his decorated first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter again takes his reader into a weird and magical world with Lanny. Similarly short, lyric and mysterious, this touching story is partner but not sequel.

Lanny’s mum and dad have moved to a village not far from London, “fewer than fifty redbrick cottages, a pub, a church.” Lanny’s dad commutes into the city while his mum works on writing her murder thriller. Lanny goes to school and plays in the woods, singing, fairy-like and joyful; he is “young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key,” “stinking of pine trees and other nice things.” He “says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say.” There is also an old man in the village named Pete, an artist who works with natural materials and was once famous in London. He describes himself as a “miserable solitary bastard” but is actually caring and sensitive; he becomes the closest friend Lanny’s family has in town.

And then there is Dead Papa Toothwort, a legend and an enigma, tied up in trees and leaves and related to the green men carved in old churches in this part of the world. When the book opens, he is waking “from his standing nap an acre wide.” As a force, it is unclear whether Dead Papa Toothwort is good or evil; he is associated with death as well as seasonal renewal. “He wants to kill things, so he sings… his grin takes a sticky hour.” “He loves it when a lamb gets stuck being born.” And he is obsessed with Lanny.

The whole village, in a way, revolves around Lanny–especially after misfortune strikes. His dad feels overwhelmed by his son’s specialness (“What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh f*ck, it’s us”); his needs are simpler, related to work, food and sex. The boy’s mum is closer to Lanny’s dreamworld, “the type of person who is that little bit more akin to the weather than most.” After agreeing to give him art lessons, Pete finds a surprising new friend in the young boy. The rest of the human population follows this preoccupation–and always there is Dead Papa Toothwort, listening.

What begins as a sweet revolution of three adult lives (mum, dad, Pete) around the boy turns sinister in the novel’s second of three parts; resolution comes in the third. Often a stream-of-consciousness style leaves the reader a bit off-kilter, but this is suited to Lanny’s dreamlike setting: trust in the story will be rewarded. Porter’s prose is undeniably gorgeous. “Mile-wide slabs of rain romp across the valley… palette-knife smears of bad weather rush past.” These elements in combination are every bit as imaginative, compelling and magical as Lanny himself.


This review originally ran in the April 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mutterings.

Galley Love of the Week: Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw

Be among the first to read Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Carol Anshaw’s Right After the Weather is, as her editor, Trish Todd, writes, “a real literary event”: taut pacing, delightful and delightfully weird characters, and a mighty shock inflicted upon its readers midway through. Protagonist Cate barely makes ends meet as a set designer waiting to make it big; surrounded by eccentric friends and lovers, she will capture your heart, and just maybe, keep it all together. Todd says, “Anshaw is a master of characterization, and I love meeting her flawed but recognizable and lovable characters. Her books are short, but they are like snapshots of an entire zeitgeist.” Hilarity, pathos, loads of quirks and a wry, behind-the-scenes look at the theater combine for an unforgettable experience.

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. This edition ran here.

Soon the Light Will Be Perfect by Dave Patterson

This sensitive debut novel about everything that can go wrong as one grows up will touch any reader who remembers being 12 and beset by the world.

Dave Patterson’s first novel, Soon the Light Will Be Perfect, is a rough-edged coming-of-age story. Set in a poverty-stricken Vermont community at the beginning of “the desert war,” it spotlights a family in crisis within a town in despair.

The narrator is a 12-year-old boy. Along with his older brother, father and mother, he remains nameless, although more peripheral characters have proper names. As the story opens, the family has recently moved out of the trailer park–an important social step up–and they have given away their old kitchen table in an act of charity. The father is supposed to be building a new one, but this project serves as a metaphor for larger troubles. Getting the new kitchen table finished and perfect will prove daunting. In the first chapters, the family’s troubles ratchet rapidly from an overpopulation of pet cats to the mother’s cancer diagnosis.

The 15-year-old brother gets a girlfriend and distances himself from the narrator, although the boys still smoke weed together in the garage, where the kitchen-table project progresses slowly. This is a devout Catholic family, and guilt plagues the young narrator, whose burgeoning sexual interests, for example, give him trouble. Struggles with faith are central to the book. The father’s work in a weapons factory seems secured by the advent of war, a fact that the narrator has trouble reconciling with Christian teachings. His mother’s suffering at the hands of cancer, chemotherapy and radiation seems senseless. He remains committed to religion, despite these conflicts and his obsession with women’s underwear. A new girl his own age from the trailer park provides further conflicts between what he feels and what he thinks he ought to feel.

While Patterson’s gift for description brings beauty to this novel, the tone is bleak. The father labors helplessly: “In the garage the saw screams in the ceremony of my father’s self-destruction.” The sick mother delivers food to those needier than herself but also covers up a small crime, as her younger son sneaks cigarettes and self-flagellates. Amid the narrator’s crisis of faith, even the priest turns away from church. Certain plot turns and characterizations may tend toward cliché, but Patterson’s striking writing and attention to detail rescue his book from that realm. To put it another way, clichés are formed from the broadest truths of life, and Patterson aims to approach those overarching truths–perhaps why his protagonists go unnamed.

Soon the Light Will Be Perfect is an ambitious work about what it is to be young and facing problems that challenge the most capable adult. At its end, much remains unresolved, just as in life, but readers will recognize just how true that ending rings.


This review originally ran in the March 22, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 junked cars.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

Where a failing writer, ill-conceived for-profit education and the American political divide come together, the result is both funny and feeling.

The Gulf by Belle Boggs (The Art of Waiting) is a hilarious, pitiable, thoughtful first novel not to be missed. A rare combination of silliness and poignancy, with momentum and compassion, this is a story for every reader, but especially for struggling writers.

Marianne is desperately underemployed and about to lose her apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and her poetry manuscript has been long stalled. Eric, her best friend and ex-fiancé, has an annoyingly good job teaching overseas, as he works to complete the second novel in his two-book contract. When he calls from the United Arab Emirates with a business offer, Marianne wants to say no, but she has no other option.

Eric has inherited an aging motel on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and wants to realize an old college joke of Marianne’s: a low-residency writing school for Christian writers. Marianne, a liberal atheist, soon finds herself in business with Eric, his venture capitalist brother, Mark, and their silent partner, great-aunt Frances. Ensconced in the crumbling motel with occasional hurricanes passing through, Marianne doesn’t precisely want to fleece the applicants sending in embarrassing manuscripts, but she certainly could use the money.

What follows is part hilarity: Marianne and Eric flub their Bible references and flirt with hooking back up; the earnest students have no idea how a writing workshop is supposed to work; and the down-and-out instructors (all the Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch can attract, or afford) prove eccentrically dysfunctional in various ways. It’s part pathos: as real as Marianne’s struggle to complete her own manuscript is the troubled calling of Janine, poet, home economics teacher, mother of two, who writes about Terri Schiavo. Mark lands a big investor that specializes in for-profit education for the Christian market, but their intervention quickly upsets everyone involved. Marianne finds herself, against all odds, rooting for her students–those right-wing nuts she once laughed at. As the biggest storm of the year approaches the ramshackle Ranch, she’ll have to make a stand.

Boggs’s gifts are many. The Gulf‘s plot is inspired, even accounting for the arguable overabundance of novels about MFA program shenanigans. Perhaps the greatest genius is in her characters: Marianne, Eric, the writing instructor who can’t remember anyone’s name, the hotelier next door, Janine and the former R&B superstar now banking on an autobiographical novel to make his comeback. Each of these is perfectly developed and flawed just enough to be lovable, if hapless. The book hums along with fitting momentum, so that when the storm hits, the reader is entirely invested in this well-meaning but ill-fated crew. Redemption is a risky ambition, especially with inspirational writing, but Boggs pulls it off with The Gulf‘s denouement. This is a novel of keen comedy, insight and empathy.


This review originally ran in the March 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 applications.

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

A disenchanted teenager in 1980s Mexico City runs away from home hoping to find Ukrainian dwarfs on a Oaxacan beach in this lovely, surreal novel.

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis (Books of Clouds, Asunder) is a dreamy, wandering tale of teenage ennui and searching, and the pull of the sea.

Luisa is 17 and bored with school, her parents and her classmates (nearly all of whom have bodyguards waiting outside their elite Mexico City international school, which Luisa attends on scholarship). Her interests include her best friend Julián, who lives above a restaurant, and his stereo, as well as her French teacher’s encouragements and the books he lends her. And thanks to her professor father’s storytelling, Luisa is fascinated by shipwrecks. Perhaps this is partly why she is so taken in by the newspaper headline: “Ukrainian Dwarfs on the Run.” It is suggested that these escapees from the circus have headed to the beaches of Oaxaca, and for Luisa, they become crossed in her mind with a sort of hidden treasure: something to seek.

There is a boy, too. “I didn’t even particularly like him at first; intrigued would be a better word. He was a sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning.” Tomás Román: even the syllables of his name have power. “He had been a snag in the composition, somehow inserting himself in the picture in a way the others had not.” Luisa has trouble understanding his pull on her, but as it resembles the pull of the Ukrainian dwarfs at the beach, she follows the impulse, and boards a bus with Tomás for the coast.

Because it is 1988, a soundtrack of Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure and Joy Division back up Luisa’s surreal travels. Her attention drifts between the immediate present–where she observes dogs and waves with as close an eye as she does people–and an interior world populated by French poetry, ancient shipwrecks and imagined worlds. She makes up lives for the people she encounters, daydreams about the magic powers of a city billboard and a man she meets on the beach. She styles him a merman. “But that was the problem with mysterious people,” she tells him, “once you spend time with them they’re not so mysterious after all, and as [she] said this the merman smiled as if promising, no matter what, to remain a mystery.”

As Luisa dreams away her days in a little village called Zipolite, a community of hippies, nudists and beachcombers, her father searches for her. And he will have some of the best stories to tell by the end of this weird, captivating novel. Aridjis’s prose is well suited to this kind of story: her sentences are luminescent and imagistic, expressing Luisa’s tendency to fancy: a great marble horse “[chooses] the sea, and was there to this day, the horse that gave them the slip, galloping along endless banks of seabed, kicking up whole paragraphs of sand.” The plot of Sea Monsters is somewhat quiet, Luisa spending much of her time inside her own head, but Aridjis’s style makes this an absolute pleasure even when nothing is happening.


This review originally ran in the January 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hammocks.