The Ghost Clause by Howard Norman

This smart, literary novel of human relationships–and a ghost–in a small town in Vermont is heart-wrenching, heart-warming and life-sustaining.

Muriel and Zachary are newlyweds living in their newly purchased old farmhouse in small-town Vermont. She has just defended her dissertation on translations of Mukei Korin’s erotic Japanese poems; that she brings this work home is a boon for their marriage. He is a private detective investigating the disappearance of a local girl who’s been missing for months now. They bought the farmhouse from semi-famous painter Lorca, a recent widow whose husband, Simon, had a heart attack and tipped overboard on a ferry en route to Nova Scotia.

The first surprise of Howard Norman’s (The Northern Lights, What Is Left the Daughter) riveting novel The Ghost Clause is that their stories are told in the voice of Simon’s ghost. The title refers to a section in Vermont real estate contracts that allows a buyer to return a house to its seller if there turns out to be a ghost in residence.

Simon still occupies the farmhouse, and feels very involved in the lives taking place there now. He appreciates that Lorca still visits, too. He observes Muriel and Zachary in their daily activities (often including their prodigious lovemaking), reads Muriel’s academic work and Zachary’s case notes, and sits in on their conversations around the clock; this gives him a near-omniscient perspective. He causes few problems, except that he keeps setting off the MOTION IN LIBRARY alarm on the home security system, which might drive his cohabitants nuts. He spends a lot of time reading Thomas Hardy; Muriel owns plenty.

Supremely enjoyable, The Ghost Clause is about the intersections of lives. At its center are two marriages–one new, one a bit older and recently rent by death–but it features many other town residents as well, and is ultimately about human relationships and families, and how we try to make it all work. Beyond this rich daily-life material lie extra layers: Korin, the poet Muriel studies, is fictional, so the erotic poems in the novel (and the difficulties of their translations, and the modernist issue of their parentheticals) are Norman’s invention. The missing-child investigation that threatens to consume Zachary for more than half the book is a thorough, often disturbing diversion. Finely detailed in its particulars and simultaneously revealing of grand-scale humanity, The Ghost Clause is both poignant and frequently gut-laugh-funny.

Norman’s prose is inspired; Simon’s narration is adorned with lyric moments (remember, he was a novelist in life): “A hammock of moon was traveling pale in hazy light,” Norman (or Simon) writes of an evening at home with Lorca when they were still alive together; there is more poetry here than Korin’s. Simon observes, “Scholarship as a form of courtship, it seemed to me.” The charm of local culture is part of the appeal, too. Muriel notes after a party that “People stayed kind of late, for Vermont.”

The Ghost Clause is one of the best kind of novels, excelling in every way: it’s delightful at line level, humorous, absorbing in individual stories and wise on a higher plane. A book for any reader who cares about people.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 crabapple trees.

Cygnet by Season Butler

An island of elderly separatists and one teenaged girl face essential human angst in this remarkable debut novel.

Cygnet is a powerful, poignant, smart debut novel by Season Butler. Her protagonist, known only as Kid, lives on an island otherwise populated entirely by elderly separatists. Ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire, Swan Island’s inhabitants call themselves Swans, and they want nothing to do with the rest of the world, which they call the Bad Place. Seventeen-year-old Kid has no business there, but her parents abandoned her with her grandmother, who has since died. Now she works part time for one of the residents, digitizing and editing photographs, home videos and the woman’s children’s diaries: “I’ve given her real breasts, grateful children, a husband whose eyes never wandered…. I’ll be up here forever, fixing Mrs. Tyburn’s memory.” She spends her lunch breaks with an Alzheimer’s patient, who has no memories to fix.

Swan Island is slowly crumbling into the sea, with Kid’s grandmother’s house set to go first: her backyard shrinks by the day, and Kid hates and fears the ocean, its relentless “waves that never tire of the same old dance moves. The cliff and the ocean, a mosh pit of two.” The Swans are always going on about how you can view the sea from anywhere on their island; she doesn’t see the appeal. With few exceptions, the Swans are cruelly frank about their displeasure at her presence, her very existence. She is desperate for her parents to return for her, but over the course of the story, the reader understands how unlikely this is. Memories and flashbacks touch briefly on their drug addiction and neglect, and hint at past traumas.

Cygnet covers a brief period of time on Swan, in Kid’s first-person voice. Her thoughts are true to those of an unhappy teenager: “I’m such an idiot” is a refrain; she disparages her own strange stream of consciousness. The prose style ranges widely from this (realistic) awkwardness to inspired lyricism. For such a young person, Kid has a surprisingly clear and sympathetic view of the Swans, appreciates their beauty and their choice to segregate from the Bad Place. She wishes her choices were so clear. On her 18th birthday, she bakes herself a birthday cake, using her mother’s remembered instructions; it comes out with a “perfect crumb” but she finds she’s no longer hungry: “I… take it outside, plate and all, and throw it off the stupid cliff.”

At the intersection of teen angst and sobering end-of-life realities, Cygnet contains some powerfully depressing material. But Kid’s disarming voice and unlikely will to push forward save this novel from doom and gloom. Kid and the Swans have more in common than they think–age and youth being more alike than either perhaps accepts–and Butler’s conception of this particular world-within-a-world is easy to lose oneself in. With the house literally falling out from under her, Kid will have to face her own future, create it for herself. By the end, this feels like a situation we all have in common.


This review originally ran in the May 23, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nickels.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (audio)

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

My mother gave me this audiobook for my birthday. With her own print copy ready, we set out to read together. She had already very much enjoyed the audiobook. Now I’ve finished, and she hasn’t yet, so we haven’t done our final debrief together; but we have discussed as we’ve leapfrogged down the middle.

A Tale for the Time Being is unusual in a few delightful, fresh ways. The opening voice is that of Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. (In this time-obsessed novel, you can bet her name is a meaningful homonym.) Nao is Japanese but has lived most of her life in Sunnyvale, California, and the recent move to Tokyo has been very hard on her. She is the victim of criminal bullying at school, and has decided to end her life, but before she does, she wants to record the amazing life of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and radical anarchist feminist. She sets out to do this in a diary. The diary is being read by Ruth, a novelist living on Canada’s west coast on a remote island with her husband Oliver and their cat, named Schrodinger but more commonly called Pest, or Pesto. (Ruth’s life matches that of author Ruth Ozeki suspiciously closely.) Ruth found the diary and a few other artifacts, well-wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted ziploc bag, on a beach near her home: the beach near Jap Ranch, as she calls it, her own Japanese heritage giving her the right and motivating her to remember the mistreatment of her people during World War II in these parts. (Oliver, who is of German heritage, cannot call it Jap Ranch.)

The story is told in alternating sections, in Ruth’s present and in Nao’s diary-recorded recent past, and then supplemented by other artifacts: documents found with the diary, and Ruth’s email correspondance as she begins searching for Nao in the present. There are several voices, then. And in several senses: there is the narrative first-person voice of Nao in her diary; Ruth’s perspective, told in third person; and then there are the voices as recorded in this audiobook. The author reads her book herself, which I love, and she does a lovely job of performing her set of characters. Oliver is stoic, a man of intellect and not emotion. Ruth is pensive; their neighbor Muriel is a bit nasal-y, and a bit annoying anyway. Nao is whimsical and impatient, sometimes immature and sometimes resignedly dour: a teenager indeed. The audio performance is absolutely perfect. It’s always comforting knowing we’re hearing the voices the author does.

The story expands and swells like a less well-packaged diary would have done in the ocean waters… We learn about Nao’s family, her depressed and defeated father, her no-nonsense mother, the deeply loveable Jiko, and more. It turns out that there is a thread of suicidal thoughts in her family: her father makes several suicide attempts, which they do not talk about; and his uncle, Nao’s great-uncle, died as a kamikaze pilot in WWII. Call that a reluctant suicide, perhaps. Three generations, then, dealing with tendencies to suicide in very different ways and originating in very different places. Meanwhile, Ruth’s family includes a now-dead mother who had Alzheimer’s but experienced a relatively sweet decline; Oliver is a decidedly quirky but, I felt, very likeable guy. He is a self-taught naturalist seeking to replant a preserve on their island so as to weather climate change. Even Pesto the cat plays an important role.

As the title indicates, this is a story about time, about moments, about whether we control the past or the future or even the present. As in the quotation that heads this review, the phrase “time being” takes on a new meaning here, in Nao’s dreamlike, imaginative ruminations. Ruth and Nao are both distant and very close together; the question of how far or near takes on a mystical quality, as Ruth worries if she is going crazy (or developing her mother’s disease – a worry I’ve seen in people I know too). Under Oliver’s wise guidance, even quantum physics comes into play late in the book, where I got quite lost but I think (hope) that I followed the ideas, the feeling of mystery and wonder.

Ruth Ozeki is a remarkable writer. This tale is multi-layered: mental health, the bendiness of time and space, linguistics (Japanese and English and also French, the bendiness of language, too), literature, and the love and personalities of animals… there is something here for everyone. For example, I thought of my father every time Oliver worries over the trees he’s planted in the preserve. Technically, the species he’s chosen violate the covenant of the trust because they are not native to the region; but he’s planted them for the climate-changing future, when species move north, and he’s put great thought into his choices, and the idea of destroying them is indeed heart-breaking. This issue is glancing within the book, but clearly opens up into something large and thought-provoking and timely – qualities that apply to every aspect of A Tale for the Time Being. Add to all of this Ozeki’s pitch-perfect performance, and I can scarcely recommend this audiobook highly enough.

And speaking of bendiness, consider the similarities between the author Ruth and the character Ruth. Of course I have 100 questions about their boundary lines. And what of Nao’s washed-up diary? What is its real-world equivalent? There are some mind-expanding puzzles here to be sure. It’s delicious.

Note: Ozeki (as herself) comments at the end that the print version includes footnotes, illustrations, annotations, and appendices. She appreciates the audio version very much for some reasons – she writes for musicality and sound, and loves its immediacy – and the print for others. Hopefully my mother, who is finishing the print version now, will have some thoughts to share with us about those differences. I suspect audio first, followed by print, is the right order.

If you love cats, trees, or people; if you’re interested in history and legacy, the power of words, or the questions posed by the passing of time – then this delightful, expansive novel is for you.


Rating: 9 crows.

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.