rerun: Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson

A lyrical, textured, and meticulously researched meditation on Hemingway from a fresh new angle.

Paul Hendrickson, NBCC award-winning nonfiction author for Sons of Mississippi, pulls off the remarkable feat of finding a fresh, new angle from which to approach Ernest Hemingway: his boat Pilar. Purchased in 1934 with an advance from his longtime publisher Scribner, she saw him through three wives, great achievements and critical failures in his writing career, big fish and little ones, and the beginnings and the endings of many relationships. Hendrickson suggests that Pilar may have been the love of Hemingway’s life.

This is not a biography but a careful and compassionate rumination on the man through the lens of the boat. Hendrickson has brought to his readers a Hemingway who is neither object of worship nor monster, but a full and complex human who made serious mistakes in his relationships and fought pitched battles against his own demons, and finally lost.

The Hemingway fan will be enthralled with new details of his life, and the study of figures previously treated as minor but now revealing new facets of the man. The less familiar reader will be fascinated by this comprehensive account of the master and his complex spiderweb of varied effects on so many lives, large and small. Hendrickson presents his unusual and noteworthy story with beautifully quiet intensity and contemplation. Hemingway’s Boat achieves a terrific feat in reworking Hemingway’s story.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Further notes… Hendrickson treats Hemingway sort of gently, but doesn’t spare the man in his moments of monstrosity. Hendrickson comes from several different angles, interviewing different people who knew Hem more or less well, unearthing some new details. Hemingway’s Boat approaches the subject with the relatively unique concept that he was just a man – a great artist, but also human, with flaws and moments of everyday beauty. This book was noteworthy in all my reading about Hemingway and the surrounding literature. It made me laugh and cry. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for fans of Hemingway, or of literary biography, or of well-written nonfiction, or for those looking for vignettes in Key West or Havana history.


Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning

This gorgeously evocative novel of the early-1900s American West takes on issues of race, class, labor and women’s rights via a remarkable young woman’s coming of age.

“Strikes are all the same. Same songs. Same reasons. Same hope and rage. In those years it was struggle and strife all over the mountains, in the cities and on the plains of the country, wherever there was industry or toil.” Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning (Whitegirl; My Notorious Life) is an expansive novel of passions: love, beauty, suffering; struggles for labor rights, women’s equality and the rights of formerly enslaved people. Set in the early-1900s Colorado mountains, this enthralling story stars Sylvie Pelletier, who travels west at age 17 to find the world broader, more lovely and more terrible than she’d imagined. Gilded Mountain tracks her coming of age and the troubles of her family and the marble miners of Moonstone.

Sylvie’s father, Jacques, is beloved by his family and his coworkers in the marble quarry, who call him “Frenchy,” but Sylvie’s mother fears he will again meet danger with his union organizing. Sylvie graduates from high school and apprentices as “printer’s devil” to the freethinking K.T. Redmond, who further shocks townspeople by being a newspaperwoman. As conditions in the mines deteriorate and K.T. nurtures Sylvie’s rebellious streak, the young protagonist is also invited into the household of Company owner Duke Padgett and his wife, the Countess. Their royal titles are self-assigned, but their wealth is real. The Duke’s son, Jace, becomes something of a romantic interest, but there is also United Mine Workers’ representative George Lonahan. Sylvie is torn between her principles and love for her family, her class and her boss, and the temptations of the other life. “I forgot to observe with the sharp eyes of a printer’s devil because my sight was dulled by sugar and awe,” she realizes. “My loyalties gnarled and snared me.”

Gilded Mountain is an ambitious novel, swelling to encompass labor rights (complete with Pinkerton Detective Agency goons), women’s rights, the societal role of the free press, the rights of Black Americans immediately following the Civil War, lynching, immigration and more. Starring real characters from history (union organizer Mother Jones, Belgium’s King Leopold II), it contains romance, historical fiction and inspired, high-minded thinking on important issues. Moonstone, Colo., is a fictionalized composite town, but its marble mining and the standard operating procedures of the Company are well based in historical fact. It also contains lovely writing about the natural world: “[T]he Diamond River overflowed its banks and rushed downhill, rooks sang in the trees, and leaves unfurled like new little salads on the ends of their branches. A corduroy of greens softened the hard folds of the mountains, and the meadows bloomed with swaths of blue columbine and dashes of yellow sneezeweed.” The result is a painfully beautiful novel of big ideals, heartbreaks and tragedies, sewn together by an admirable and unforgettable heroine.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 maraschino cherries.

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press by Katherine Corcoran

The unsolved murder of a Mexican journalist has implications for the free press and free society everywhere in this in-depth investigation.

In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-Up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press is American journalist Katherine Corcoran’s first book, focusing on the murder of Mexican journalist Regina Martínez in 2012, its aftermath and implications for the free press in Mexico and beyond. Corcoran details the years she spent investigating Martínez’s death, without the satisfaction of a final conclusion; the case remains unsolved, along with many other cases of slain journalists.

“To the foreigner, Mexico charms, cajoles, and seduces. There are so many Mexicos: so many climates, cultures, foods, and languages; contiguous, concentric, stacked; native and colonial; current and past; invisible yet present.” With this same attention to multiplicity, Corcoran relates the complicated nature of a single murder case and all that it represents. Already familiar with Mexican culture, politics and journalism, Corcoran, as Associated Press bureau chief in Mexico City, had also received threats to her staff by the time that Martínez was brutally killed in the bathroom of her own home in Xalapa, Veracruz. Killings of journalists had been on the rise, but this case was different, not least because Martínez was nationally known: “Everyone, including me, knew she was beyond reproach. I had tried to hire her once.” Martínez was known for covering potentially dangerous subjects, frequently including the connection between government corruption and organized crime. No one in her tight-knit circle of journalist friends could say what she’d been working on when she was killed, and the official line quickly became that she had been the victim of a crime of passion–something none of her friends believed, but a difficult theory to disprove.

Into a mess of stories and theories, and still under threat of surveillance and violence years later, steps Corcoran, with archival research and hundreds of interviews with a dizzying cast of characters (helpfully listed in the front of the book) from the media, politics, organized crime, and Martínez’s family and friends. She brings a journalist’s careful accounting of where truth meets speculation, where the author has chosen between versions of the same story, where corroboration has been impossible. In the Mouth of the Wolf offers the results of this research, numerous unconfirmed theories and the personal story of a journalist chasing an elusive truth. By its finish, Corcoran has become alarmed by the state of the free press in the United States as well as in Mexico, and concludes that Martínez’s unsolved murder–and so many like it–have chilling effects not only on the freedom of the press but on society itself, all over the world. This compelling, carefully researched investigation is a sobering clarion call.


This review originally ran in the August 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 vests.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Love and mourning, betrayal and hope, ancient legends and modern conflicts come together in the atmospheric Cornish countryside in this engrossing novel.

Jane Johnson (The Sea Gate; The Tenth Gift) transports readers to rural Cornwall in the years just after World War II in The White Hare, a fanciful novel of family, village life, history, mythology and more.

In the opening pages, first-person narrator Mila, her daughter, Janey, and her mother, Magda, arrive at their new home, a grand but dilapidated Cornish seaside estate, in the summer of 1954. Timid Mila is fleeing an unnamed scandal in London; the irascible Magda has taken charge of their little troop. Janey, age five, is eager to explore her new surroundings, accompanied by Rabbit, her stuffed toy and best friend. The estate, purchased with unexplained but apparently significant funds, has a mysterious history; locals make foreboding remarks and then clam up. “Best not talk about unlucky things too much, or you may attract unwanted attention,” Mila is warned. Magda plans to refurbish and open a grand guest house, with Mila to cook and clean. Immediately and surprisingly latching on to their odd household is Jack Lord, a local who is (like all these characters) unforthcoming about his past, but handy with repairs and good with high-spirited, imaginative, clever Janey. Things go bump in the night, there are hints of ghosts and old crimes, and the vicar in town is inexplicably, aggressively sinister.

Mila and her parents immigrated from Poland just before the war, so she must deal with several layers of outsider status in this insular and remote setting. Janey and Rabbit are oddly at home in the natural world and its legends, while Mila struggles with local culture; her mother’s hostility is considerable, but Jack’s influence is calming, if enigmatic. The White Hare is jam-packed with slowly released secrets: those between mothers and daughters, those kept by the villagers, and those locked away within traumatized minds. It addresses class and war, mysticism and folklore, the persistent influence of history and bloodshed; it dabbles in romance, but remains centrally concerned with the relationships of family, community and place. With lush descriptions of fashion, food and especially nature, Johnson’s prose appeals to sentiment and expertly evokes an often-menacing mood. The intrepid, uncanny Janey and her Rabbit, however, joined by several wise women of the village, offer hope that Mila and her family can move into a happier future in the end. The White Hare is enthralling, as filled with secret passages as the stately home in which it’s set.


This review originally ran in the August 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 Latin phrases.

Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

Art, gender, love and friendship are all under consideration in this novel of twisted relationships in the 1970s L.A. art scene.

Heidi Sopinka’s Utopia opens at a party with the first-person perspective of Romy, a performance artist, directly addressing her months-old daughter. The evening ends with an unexplained tragedy, and from there the novel jumps forward some months to follow a young woman named Paz, who is now raising Romy’s baby and is married to Romy’s husband, Billy. It is 1978, and Paz, Billy and all their friends are steeped in the Los Angeles art scene, where sex, drugs and free expression are soured by competition, infighting and wildly different rules for male and female artists. Paz attends women’s groups and wishes for a freer life for herself, but many women see her as having taken over Romy’s life in decidedly unfeminist fashion. Romy, the more successful and established artist, casts a long shadow; Paz loves Billy but is perhaps more in love with Romy, whose life and art obsess her. Caring for Romy’s baby, lost in reading Romy’s journals, Paz finds herself in something of a love triangle with a ghost, and begins to lose grasp of her own life and art. And then a postcard arrives, apparently from Romy. It is labeled “disappearance piece.”

Utopia cleverly investigates layers of social issues: feminism and its intersections with race and class; gender roles in life and in art; women’s relationships; the artist’s relationship to commerce and social justice. The central narrative belongs to Paz, but that narrative is always shadowed by Romy, and intermingled with Romy’s voice via her journal entries. “Everything Romy said assumed importance. She lived her life so strongly.” The two women and all they have in common (including an art-star husband and a baby) offer plenty of room to examine questions about art and gender. Paz’s best friend Essa (also an artist and mother) is another powerful character and model for Paz to chart her own path. They are surrounded by other women of the art scene and feminist groups; the novel is populated by strong women questioning norms.

Sopinka (The Dictionary of Animal Languages) excels in characterization and the evocation of the power of creation. In pursuing her predecessor’s mysterious end, Paz must put herself in real danger and explore the very edges of not only art but existence. “She’s driving a speed addict’s car in an inside-out shirt, on painkillers, with a hand wrapped in gauze, on her way to find her husband’s dead ex-wife. If she concentrates hard enough, these things will snap into a logical pattern.” By the time the perspective shifts to that of a third woman near the novel’s conclusion, Utopia has asked that the reader journey through some weighty questions–but all will be rewarded.


This review originally ran in the August 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 matches.

Curing Season: Artifacts by Kristine Langley Mahler

These experimental essays about place, home and the failed effort to belong are closely tied to Eastern North Carolina, but will resonate everywhere.

Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts is an essay collection selected for West Virginia University Press’s In Place series, which features strongly place-based literary nonfiction. In these often experimental essays, Mahler considers a brief but powerful part of her youth spent in eastern North Carolina: four years of preadolescence in which the young Mahler struggled with feeling that she didn’t belong. While this is arguably a universal preadolescent experience, Mahler’s story is indelibly linked to the community in which she lived, made and lost friends and attended school.

In Pitt County, N.C., the author encounters matters of race and class for the first time. The profitable sale of her family’s home in Oregon has enabled them to enter a prosperous suburb where her neighbors attend cotillion. White children, like Mahler, who go to public school are bussed into a majority-Black part of town as part of 1990s desegregation efforts. Her neighbors’ families seem to all rely on generational relationships to the place. She feels her outsider status at every turn. Also characterizing Mahler’s experience are difficult preadolescent friendships, including the “mean girl” type, and one relationship in particular: Mahler’s best friend Annie, long estranged and eventually deceased. By the end of Curing Season, the troubled, dead friend haunts the author as much as the place does.

While some essays use relatively straightforward narrative storytelling, others are fragmented, rely on images or borrow forms from other works. There are list essays and hermit crab essays based on dictionary entries and proposals for project fundings; Mahler explores astrology, references Joan Didion’s famous rational detachment and borrows lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and the local history Chronicles of Pitt County. “I grafted my history onto theirs; I twisted the lessons until I could wring out similarities between my past and theirs; I removed and imprinted my history on top of theirs until I could not tell the difference between their truth and mine.” In blending Mahler’s experiences with those of Pitt County, she digs into the very nature of truth and memory. The author of these formally inventive essays is forever circling both the specific place and the experience of feeling disconnected and othered. “I have returned a hundred times; I have never come home.” She remains preoccupied, even obsessed, decades after leaving, still trying to belong or gain a greater understanding of what didn’t work.

The title Curing Season: Artifacts refers to the tobacco-curing season in Pitt County and to both literal and figurative acts of excavation. Mahler’s investigative ponderings on belonging, displacement and a sense of home are both specific to place and universally familiar.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 stolen pins.

Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

Mothers and motherhood haunt this alarming, dark, weirdly funny novel of family ties and the power of just the right recipe to heal all wounds.

Ainslie Hogarth’s Motherthing is a grim, disturbing novel of family drama and mental illness, yet a bizarrely funny glimpse into one woman’s mind. In its opening pages, Abby, who narrates, and Ralph have recently moved in with Ralph’s mother, Laura, hoping to nurse her through her depression. But instead, Laura takes her life, Abby purloins Laura’s coveted opal ring and Ralph falls into despair. “Because even though he’d been strong when we’d moved in, strong enough to move in–equipped with resources he’d downloaded from a website called the Borderline Parent, and a swear-on-your-life promise from me that I could handle this temporary uprooting–being near her stirred rotten dangerous things inside him.”

Abby, very much in the throes of dealing with her own mother’s shortcomings and abuse, has identified Ralph as part mother, part god, the “Perfect Good” in her life and “the most genuinely good person in the entire world.” “Ralph would make eggs too, not specially because I was there, but because a person has eggs for breakfast. And soon, I remember thinking, clutching fistfuls of duvet to steady my overwhelming joy, I would be a person too.” In flashbacks to her childhood, she recalls a beloved couch she calls Couchy Motherthing, and constantly circles and ponders the ideal mother figure; she relies on a cookbook “for the mothers of good, happy, wholesome families, with lots of mouths to feed. And that’s the kind of mother I am too, even if I’m not yet”–because Abby desperately wants to have a child of her own, to embody the kind of mother that neither she nor Ralph got to have. She works at a nursing home where she considers her favorite resident her “baby” and, simultaneously, the perfect mother she never had. This fantasy is disrupted by the appearance of the woman’s real daughter, which might just push Abby over the edge. Because paired with her nurturing impulse, Abby secretly harbors intense rage, “murder so much more manageable right now than creating a whole entire family.” Her love verges on violence.

Hogarth (The Boy Meets Girl Massacre (Annotated)) rocks readers via Abby’s turmoil, her swings from devotion to fury, self-loathing to self-aggrandizement. Motherthing keeps readers as unstable as its narrator, struggling to manage the traumas and the waves of emotion. Abby copes with a focus on a few objects that she imbues with special significance: Laura’s ring (symbol of rejection, as Laura judged her daughter-in-law “more of a Kay Jewelers type than a vintage-family-heirloom type”), Abby’s cookbook and the recipes she hopes will save Ralph (an obsessed-over jellied salmon and an unusual iteration of Chicken à la King). The result of these roiling thoughts and images is a darkly comic, kaleidoscopic novel of unhealthy fixations, love, murder, the gifts and wounds that family can inflict and one woman’s fight to save herself.


This review originally ran in the August 4, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 little dogs next door.

The Old Place by Bobby Finger

An irritable retiree in a small Texas town stars in this sweet, poignant story about community, secrets and all the ways to love.

Bobby Finger’s unforgettable debut novel, The Old Place, hits the rare and satisfying double note of harrowing and delightful. Roughly 90 minutes outside of San Antonio, Tex., a recently retired schoolteacher navigates various relationships and juggles old secrets in the kind of small community where everyone thinks they know everything about everybody else. Mary Alice Roth is a compelling, although decidedly prickly, protagonist; secondary characters only sweeten this heart-wrenching, warm-and-fuzzy small-town drama.

In the opening pages, Mary Alice is furious at being forced out of her job, and at the young woman–new to town and newly wed into an old family–hired to replace her. She tentatively renews her friendship with neighbor Ellie, hinting at one of the novel’s first slow reveals: the two women (one widowed, one divorced) had sons the same age who were also best friends, until a double tragedy. As readers puzzle over the deaths of Mary Alice’s husband and son, her (also long-estranged) sister, Katherine, shows up unannounced and unwelcome, all the way from Atlanta. Mary Alice continues her practice of bullying and haranguing the local ladies in preparation for the annual church picnic (“All the money spent there, whether on raffles or games or rides or food, went to Him whether you believed or not”). Katherine prods her to take responsibility for an old wrong, and together they reopen old wounds. Ellie privately nurses a new romance, only adding to the ever-twisting mysteries and secrets. Mary Alice’s replacement, the newcomer, offers a refreshing outside perspective as a native New Yorker who is as surprised as anyone at how much she loves her new home.

The Old Place muses over the stereotypes of a town like Billington, Tex., where privacy is scarce and prejudices persist, but where forgiveness and even redemption may just be possible. Mary Alice is a difficult woman to like, but the people who surround her–and the life she’s lived–keep her from being pure villain. By the novel’s second half, everyone is more nuanced than they originally seemed, and the fictional Billington feels as multifaceted and significant as any real hometown. Finger is expert at the careful disclosure of one secret after another, and his characters capture hearts and imaginations. His novel beautifully profiles the iconic small town, both holding it accountable and celebrating its quiet humanity. “Even a town in decline never really stops growing. People may leave, but their stories remain, reverberating in the bones of all those left behind.” At its heart, The Old Place is about the way people relate to one another: family, neighbors, new and old friends. The messiness, pain and grace of these relationships are candidly portrayed in a story that will inspire laughter and tears, making this debut a memorable achievement indeed.


This review originally ran in the July 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 tubs of potato salad.

Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss

A woman wrestles practical and existential questions of family and survival on an abandoned Maine island in this contemplative debut novel.

“Agnes–the first Agnes, who was my father’s mother, not long dead, on whose island I find myself now, and whom I named my daughter after (if only to try to solve a mystery)–had always protected her love for her only child.” Meghan Gilliss’s contemplative first novel Lungfish examines such mysteries of family in an austere setting.

Her protagonist takes refuge from unnamed problems on an island off the coast of Maine, in her late grandmother’s cabin, scraping a meager living from the rocks and the sea. In her fractured first-person narration, Tuck slowly releases information. She has brought along her young daughter, Agnes, named for the beloved grandmother. She is also accompanied by her husband, Paul, who is unwell. She has the field guides and religious texts her grandmother left behind, and little else. Paul’s trouble and the issues they have fled on the mainland only gradually become clear, to Tuck as well as to readers.

Some chapters offer consecutive pages of narrative storytelling; some are very brief and take a more gestural or lyric approach, revealing Tuck’s fragile grasp on her own story and history. The chronology shifts from present to past. Tuck’s father, who is legally heir to the cabin where she squats with her family, is missing, and has always lived an unconventional life. “He looks off the rails because we cannot see his rails.” Paul offers a new and different challenge. Tuck fearfully watches the calendar, knowing that when Maine’s fall turns to winter, her family will no longer be safe on this island; just as fearfully, she watches for the executor of her grandmother’s will. She scrambles the rocky beaches foraging for bladderwrack, rosehips, mussels and crabs, her toddler daughter in tow and knowing only this life. Tuck hides the key to the dory from her troubled husband between trips to the mainland for the most basic of provisions. It is a precarious system; mother and daughter flirt with starvation. A lone boat at sea allows Tuck to dream and hope.

Lungfish is a novel steeped in the harshness and beauty of the natural world, in which islands may be both real and metaphorical, where a woman may be accompanied by child and husband but also alone in navigating grief and responsibility. Tuck considers her relationships to her own father, mother, brother, her troubled husband and the growing Agnes, who “comes from different stock.” Although this novel’s setting is particular, its themes are universal. Atmospheric, haunted, but struck through with beauty and love, Lungfish is one to remember.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 packets.

The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman

Mystery, romance, conspiracy, family drama, natural history and art combine in this excursion into a decades-old suspicious death in the swamplands of northern Florida.

Loni was 12 years old when her beloved father headed into the northern Florida marsh in his johnboat and did not return. At 36, she is working her dream job as a natural history artist at the Smithsonian, ignoring her past and her remaining family as hard as she can, until her younger brother calls to insist she come home to help care for their mother. The Marsh Queen, Virginia Hartman’s fast-paced, compelling first novel, sees the prodigal daughter return to the swamps, the family she left behind, the mystery of her father’s death and the possibility of a fresh start.

“Daddy wasn’t just a visitor to the swamp, he was a part of the place.” Loni’s father, Boyd, was a Fish & Game officer, a fisherman, a devoted husband and father and a most unlikely suicide, although that was the rumored–and covered up–cause of his death. Loni was his usual companion in the swamps, uninterested in fishing but a passionate and talented illustrator of the birds they watched together. As an adult, she’s kept that passion, but grown distant from her brother and especially from her always-prickly mother, Ruth, now suffering from dementia. A serious gardener and herbalist, Ruth struggles with painful secrets long kept from her daughter. Loni’s leave of absence from the Smithsonian comes at an especially stressful time at work, and returning home is always painful; nothing about this trip feels right. But Loni canoes the swamps, discovers family secrets, investigates her father’s death, finds herself involved in fresh intrigues and dangers–and meets a handsome stranger. The Smithsonian, and leaving Florida behind, have always been central to Loni’s life plan, but as she sinks back into the quirks of family and home, she may just find a new way.

Hartman’s descriptive writing and clear passion for her subject are on best display when Loni immerses herself in the natural environment, in her art and in her memories of Boyd. In her contemporary relationships, Loni can be frustratingly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. As the enigma around Boyd’s suspicious death gets more complex, the plotting can feel a little unwieldy. But the subversion of Loni’s expectations is frequently refreshing; a few secondary characters offer intriguing perspectives, and the novel’s framing details of Florida marshland, ornithology, museum work and fine art are expertly and beautifully drawn. The Marsh Queen is unwavering in its lush, finely detailed, appreciative portrayal of a distinctive natural setting, and ends on a redemptive, even inspirational note.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 herons.