MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS a suspenseful study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship

Mothers and Other Strangers

By Gina Sorell

Prospect Park Books: May 2, 2017

$16, 314 pages

It’s not unusual for adult children to become estranged from their parents. Sometimes it’s a psychological and emotional necessity, other times it’s simply the result of unfortunate events or misunderstandings. As the old saying goes, we don’t get to choose our family, and there’s no guarantee we will like each other, particularly as time goes on and we build separate lives.

Gina Sorell’s debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, explores this fraught territory with compelling results. It is a complex family drama, a dual (and dueling) character study, and a suspenseful mystery all in 300 pages.

Elsie is 39 and an ex-dancer living in Los Angeles when she learns that her mother, Rachel, has passed away at home in Toronto. More than just physical distance separates them; they have not spoken in two decades. Rachel, it turns out, is what we used to call “a real piece of work.” She is a mean-spirited narcissist concerned with how she appears to others and following her own spiritual muse around the world. She is not interested in being a mother, even though her husband passed away when Elsie was an infant. So, Elsie grows up seeking her mother’s attention and approval, but receiving little of either, and ultimately doing her best to raise herself.

When Elsie returns to Toronto to sort through her mother’s belongings and tie up the loose ends of her life, she finds that little has changed in her apartment in a luxury highrise building, and that her mother did not appear to be the wealthy woman her lifestyle had always suggested she was. What happened in the last 20 years? Did it involve her devoted membership in The Seekers, a “new-agey” spiritual group based in Paris, and her obsession with their charismatic founder, Philippe? When someone breaks into the apartment and turns it upside down looking for something – although it’s clear to Elsie there is nothing of value in the apartment of this elderly woman – she begins to suspect that her mother had led a different life than she’d thought.

Elsie’s return to Toronto forces her to examine a past she’d long quarantined, and the structure of Mothers and Other Strangers moves back and forth in time to reveal Elsie’s life, increasing the mystery and tension as the plot progresses. How did a child born in South Africa end up being raised in Canada? What really happened to her father? Why does she have nightmares involving a house fire and a black caretaker? Why did her mother view the Seekers as her family instead of Elsie? Why couldn’t her mother love her?

As Elsie peels back the layers of her mother’s life, she confronts her own traumas and the resulting demons that continue to follow her. Little is as it seemed to either the younger Elsie or the divorced adult Elsie. Mothers and Other Strangers could have been written as a straight suspense novel or as a close study of an exceptionally difficult mother-daughter relationship. Instead, Sorrel has combined the two to generally good effect, although it occasionally makes for odd pacing. For example, just as the enigma of Rachel’s life becomes particularly intriguing, we are taken back to Elsie’s teenage years as a gifted dancer who steadily establishes her independence from a mother who is absent physically and emotionally. Both aspects of the story are compelling, but one makes you turn the pages faster, and readers can become greedy about a complex, thought-provoking plot. Wait! What happens next?! Why? How? No!

Suffice to say (no spoilers here!), Elsie moves back through her mother’s life, to Paris and on to South Africa, to discover her many secrets, including the one that had proven the most impervious of all: Why was Rachel the person — and mother — she was? By the end, she has changed from a mystifying and heartbreaking stranger into a flawed young woman fleeing her own tragedies and attempting to build a life for her daughter and herself. Elsie learns, as do we all, that who we are is a direct result of our parents’ character and choices, and that they are, like us, deeply imperfect people.


THE GIRLS mostly lives up to its hype, but in unexpected ways

The Girls

The Girls

By Emma Cline

Random House, June 2016

355 pages

The Girls was one of 2016’s most anticipated novels, and it fulfilled those expectations by becoming a big-time buzz book and a bestseller. Despite hearing that Cline was an outstanding young writer, I avoided her book because I had absolutely no interest in its premise of a 14-year-old girl getting enmeshed in a group of older girls who belonged to a commune that was clearly based on the Manson family.

My interest was eventually piqued by the raves for Cline’s prose-poetry, a style of writing about which I am always curious. And, to my surprise, I liked The Girls a great deal, despite finishing it with reservations about several aspects of the book.

The Girls is in some ways not what it was represented as: it’s a coming-of-age character study set against the socio-cultural turmoil of 1969, rather than a plot-driven, page-turning tale of evil (although it makes an appearance, as expected, late in the story). The first hundred pages are among the most piercingly accurate depictions of yearning, confused adolescence I have ever read, thanks to Cline’s insight and her memorable prose.

Set in Petaluma, a nondescript town an hour north of San Francisco, The Girls introduces us to Evie Boyd through that uniquely intimate relationship one shares with one’s best friend in the fraught years of early adolescence. Evie is disoriented by her parents’ divorce and struggling to find her place in relation to her parents and her few friends in the emotionally overheated transition from junior high to high school. Summer has already become boring, and she and Connie are at odds with each other, in part because Evie has a fierce crush on Connie’s older brother, Peter. Cline perfectly captures the inchoate desire of young girls:

“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.”

And a few pages later: “That was our mistake, I think. One of our many mistakes. To believe that boys were acting with a logic that we could someday understand. To believe that their actions had any meaning beyond thoughtless impulse. We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly and young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.”

Set adrift after things become too complicated with both Connie and her New Age-y mother, a lonely Evie encounters a trio of feral young women at the local park and becomes smitten with the leader, Suzanne. Before long, she catches a ride with them back to the isolated, run-down ranch where they are living with the darkly charismatic musician-prophet Russell.

The bulk of The Girls concerns Evie’s slow introduction to the life of these wayward girls and their wastrel cult leader, and her dawning awareness that she was both fascinated and frightened by the thought of joining their commune. Events in Evie’s life and that of the girls slowly begin to spin out of control when the family’s wealthy rock star benefactor fails to deliver the long-promised lucrative record deal.

The last third of the book brought to mind the seemingly prescient words of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Evie’s lack of conviction saves her from drowning in “the blood-dimmed tide” about to be unleashed. Yet she doesn’t seem significantly altered by her experiences, as one would expect in a coming-of-age novel. Only through the framing device of a middle-aged Evie still unmoored from her own life do we get a partial glimpse of the impact that summer had on her.

The evocative quality of Cline’s writing consistently impressed me, as did her insight into the lost girls so drawn to Russell despite his constant manipulation and evident madness, which they viewed as a form of hypnotic and sensual charisma. When Evie first talks with Russell, she is entranced. But her attraction to him seems little different than her earlier interest in 17-year-old Peter.

“It all started making sense, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patchworked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.”

And, despite the slow-moving plot, the sense of foreboding one brings to the reading of The Girls is managed to powerful effect by Cline. While not quite a page-turner, the brooding intensity of Cline’s writing turns the screw steadily until it snaps off at the expected climax. The Girls is a haunting depiction of a young girl’s initiation into the incomprehensible contradictions of the adult world.

THE RED CAR takes us on a wild ride through a young woman’s life


The Red Car

By Marcy Dermansky

Liveright/W.W. Norton: Oct. 11, 2016

206 pages, $24.95

The Red Car reads like the title vehicle drives: fast, unpredictable, possibly possessed,  occasionally thrilling, and not quite comfortable.

With her third novel, Marcy Dermansky takes us on a wild ride with thirty-something Leah as she tries to make sense of her life. Like the narrator in Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” she is not quite sure how she got to where she is and if it’s even really her life.

Leah’s close first-person narration takes us, in short order, from a tryst with an adoring nerd at Haverford College to clerical job in Facilities Management at UC Berkeley in her mid-20’s and on to her unsatisfying marriage to an Austrian immigrant in Queens ten years later. In short, sharp sentences, Dermansky propels the reader through Leah’s idiosyncratic attitudes and actions. She seems to be living her own life yet strangely removed from its import. Everything is slightly off.

The plot kicks into high gear when she learns that her boss at Berkeley, a single older woman named Judy who had befriended and mentored Leah, has died in a car accident while driving her beloved red sports car – and that she has left the car and some money for Leah. Called back to the Bay Area for Judy’s funeral and to deal with the car, and needing a break from her emotionally manipulative husband, Leah flees her stultifying life in New York City for a “two-week vacation.”

In an episodic narrative that finds Leah trying to sort out her past – and a totally unexpected and disorienting present — in order to determine a possible future, Dermansky leads her protagonist through encounters with a lesbian living in her old San Francisco apartment, a former co-worker she has always found desirable, her old college friend who is now teaching at Stanford, and a mysteriously charming young Japanese hotel clerk in Big Sur, as well as an encounter with the worshipful guy from the prologue.

The Red Car takes us on a memorable drive as Leah attempts to figure out where she went wrong and how she ended up living the life she leads. Is it too late to change direction and change herself? If not, then how does she do that? Who or what is holding her back? Who’s driving this car anyway?

The Red Car is never less than interesting – you want to know what on earth will happen next – and Leah’s voice, with its unvarnished, stream of consciousness self-analysis, is quirky and intriguing . Her experiences and reflections present a host of thought-provoking issues. And the dialogue is razor-sharp, always smart, and often funny.

But The Red Car is also somewhat cool and aloof and not quite emotionally unfulfilling — a bit like Leah. As with many of the characters, I enjoyed spending some time with Leah, but I couldn’t see having a relationship with her; she is too consumed with trying maintain a functioning relationship with herself and the world.

Like the red car she fears, Leah is a fast, unpredictable, and possibly possessed character. In spite of my minor quibbles, this road trip is still worth taking. Just buckle up and hold on.

ANOTHER BROOKLYN captures adolescent friendship and coming of age in pristine prose-poetry

Another Brooklyn cover   Jacqueline Woodson AP tlc-tour-host

Another Brooklyn

By Jacqueline Woodson

Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers: Aug. 9, 2016

$22.99, 175 pages

Jacqueline Woodson is a legend in the YA literature world, with a long list of novels that have won every major YA and children’s literature award. Her last novel, Brown Girl Dreaming, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014. She has distinguished herself by respecting her readers’ intelligence and maturity, addressing issues like race and class, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, gender issues, and adolescent sexuality.

After 20 years, Woodson has written a novel for adults. And while Another Brooklyn retains her trademark concerns and powerful prose style, it digs deeper, pulls fewer punches, and features an adult protagonist looking back at her formative years.

When 35-year-old August returns to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral and to sort through his apartment, she has a brief encounter with an old friend on the subway. This launches her into an exploration of her early years in Brooklyn and the power of memory. It’s a useful framing device that carries readers into August’s life story and allows her both to describe her experiences and comment on them with the benefit of 20 years.

When August’s mother descends from depression into despair and serious mental illness her brother Clyde is killed in the Vietnam War, her father decides to flee their home in rural Tennessee and take August and her younger brother back to his hometown of Brooklyn. It is 1973 and August is 8; her brother is four. She doesn’t understand the nature of her mother’s condition and tells herself and her brother that their mother will be coming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” It is an ominous allusion.

Having landed in a dangerous new urban world, August and her brother are kept in the apartment by her father. They are on the inside looking out at the neighborhood and its denizens. August’s eye is caught by three seemingly inseparable girls. In her dreamy mind, they are like the Three Musketeers without D’Artagnan.

“Before they were mine,” August tells us, “I stared at their necks, watched their perfect hands close around jump ropes and handballs, saw their brightly polished nails. . . I watched them, wanting to have what they had. . . But as I watched Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi walk past our window, I was struck with something deeply unfamiliar–a longing to be part of who they were, to link my own arm with theirs and remain that way. Forever.”

In time she meets and is adopted by the trio, who decide August needs to be rescued because, among other things, she has no mother. Sylvia came to Brooklyn the previous year from Martinique, speaking French; she has lost the language but retained an accent. Her parents are intellectuals who want her to become a lawyer. Gigi, from South Carolina, is dark-skinned, with Chinese and mulatto ancestry, and wants to be not just an actress but a movie star. The light-skinned, melancholy Angela dreams of being a dancer.

Woodson  places us inside August’s mind as their circle of friendship and love develops in their pre-teen and teen years. Naive, sheltered August soon learns that Brooklyn is an often desperate place, with varying levels of poverty, wandering hallucinatory junkies, and verbally and physically abusive boys and men seemingly around every corner and in every dark stairwell.

“We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long. We were learning to walk the Brooklyn streets as though we had always belonged to them–our voices loud, our laughter even louder. But Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung out soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.”

The girls share everything: their dreams, their frustrations, their fears, their family difficulties, their crushes on boys. They encourage each other with their words and physical affection ranging from hugs to braiding each other’s hair. The challenges of “adults promising us their own failed futures.” Temptation is everywhere, from junk food and cigarettes to drugs and boys with a lupine look in their eyes.

As they begin the transition to adolescence, August explains, “We tried to hold on. We played double Dutch and jacks. We chased the ice cream truck down the block, waving our change-filled fists. We frog-jumped over tree stumps, pulled each other into gushing fire hydrants, learned to dance the Loose Booty to Sly and the Family Stone, hustled to Van McCoy. We bought t-shirts with our names and zodiac signs in iron-on letters. But still, as we slipped deeper into twelve our breasts and butts grew. Our legs got long. Something about the curve of our lips and the sway of our heads suggested more to strangers than we understood. And then we were heading toward thirteen, walking our neighborhood as if we owned it. Don’t even look at us, we said to the boys, our palms up in front of our faces. Look away look away look away!

Woodson captures the 1970s and sense of place with exactitude. I was 14 in 1973 and I grew up 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, but I know these girls; Woodson’s detailed descriptions of the adolescent life at that time ring true.

More importantly, Woodson captures the deep adolescent yearning to become. . . something, someone, and the sense of being lost at sea in the act of trying to create oneself. August never quite grasps that her mother’s absence is permanent, and her ghost haunts her youth and this novel. And there is a sense of foreboding about the girls’ relationship, set off by the adult August’s uncomfortable and purposely brief encounter with Sylvia at the start of the book. There are a thousand things that can cause teenage relationships to go awry and only a handful that hold them together into adulthood with its manifold changes.

August finds a way to navigate through high school and into college and a career, both of which were beyond the younger August’s capability to dream. She becomes someone she never envisioned but seems in many senses to have been destined for. Returning to “another Brooklyn” twenty years later, at age 35, doesn’t quite bring her or the story full circle, for life is not quite that neat and Woodson not that superficial a storyteller.

Like Brown Girl Dreaming, which is written in verse form, Another Brooklyn is as impressionistic as memory; the narrative moves back and forth in time and place through August’s stream of consciousness. Ann Patchett correctly describes Another Brooklyn as “a sort of fever dream.” Woodson’s writing is prose-poetry of the highest order; it begs to be read repeatedly, and aloud. Woodson told NPR’s Lynn Neary in a recent interview that her words have to look and sound a certain way. “I love playing with form, I love playing with sounds,” Woodson said. “I love music and I love writing that has musicality to it. The book does have this kind of jazzy feel to me.”

With Another Brooklyn, Woodson has given us a much-needed look into the lives of four young black girls in 1970s Brooklyn that is universal in its message and appeal. This white, 50-something man who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles found it a deeply affecting read. I suspect that, like its YA predecessors, it will soon be considered a contemporary classic among coming-of-age novels.

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You can find the other reviews in the Another Brooklyn blog tour at the following blogs:

Tuesday, August 9th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, August 10th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Thursday, August 11th: 5 Minutes For Books
Friday, August 12th: Books Without Any Pictures
Monday, August 15th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, August 16th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, August 17th: Lit and Life
Thursday, August 18th: Staircase Wit
Friday, August 19th: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Monday, August 22nd: As I Turn the Pages
Wednesday, August 24th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, August 25th: Olduvai Reads
Monday, August 29th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, August 30th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Wednesday, August 31st: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Thursday, September 1st: Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, September 2nd: Life By Kristen
Saturday, September 3rd: The Book Diva’s Reads
Monday, September 5th: Starting Fresh

JUVENTUD a thought-provoking coming of age story set against complexities of Colombia

Juventud cover  Vanessa Blakeslee 2014


By Vanessa Blakeslee

Curbside Splendor: Oct. 27, 2015

$15.95, 338 pages

As serendipity would have it, I ended up reading two books set in South America back to back. After a steady diet of fiction set in the U.S. and Europe, spending time in Colombia and Brazil constituted a much-needed change of scenery for my Westernized imagination.

Juventud (Youth) is Vanessa Blakeslee’s first novel after a stellar short collection, Train Shots. The standout story in that book was set in Costa Rica, so it’s not surprising that she would write about the manifold issues of life in Colombia at the turn of the millenium.

The story is narrated by its 30-year-old protagonist, Mercedes Martinez, who guides us through a multi-level coming of age story. The novel begins in 1999, as she looks back 15 years to the period in her life when everything changed. Mercedes is the 15-year-old daughter of a wealthy Cali landowner and an American mother who long ago fled to her home country. She adores her father, dreams of her long-absent mother (about whom she knows little and has had no contact with), and frets about her social life. She is, in other words, a fairly typical adolescent.

Mercedes’ opening observations set the stage for the textured depiction of a young woman navigating a complex set of conflicts in her personal life and her homeland.

“Along with most of the professional- to upper-class, I moved through my daily routine largely unaffected by their troubles: one in five residents out of work and unemployment rising, the streets jammed with listless young men, guerillas and government still at war after four decades, one- to two-million Colombians displaced from their villages by the bloodbaths….Otherwise, the disparity outside my windows didn’t faze me much. I was still mourning the loss of my first crush, whom I’d met at a Valentine’s dance and whose parents had swiftly enrolled him at a military school in the United States a few weeks later, after the FARC [the dominant rebel army] captured and assassinated three indigenous-rights activists, all American. That was my luck, I thought, almost sixteen and still no boyfriend. Like any teenage girl, I yearned to fall in love. Beyond that, I had few desires.”

Soon Mercedes meets Manuel, a handsome 21-year-old activist and devout Catholic, who shows her the brutal reality of the economic and cultural woes of her country. She experiences an awakening of her social conscience and now views the desplazados (displaced ones) who camp on the fringes of her family’s sugarcane plantation with new eyes. But a greater awakening awaits her, as the social justice work of Manuel causes her to examine her assumptions about her father and the past he has left shrouded in silence and misdirection.

As Mercedes becomes increasingly involved with Manuel and his activities, the fog of her youth lifts and she begins to see more clearly the circumstances of her privileged life, especially the precarious nature of her father’s financial success and social status.

An explosive event (no spoilers here) forces her to flee to the United States. The second half of Juventud follows Mercedes as she navigates culture shock, completes her education, and moves into life as a young professional. Her memories of life in Colombia remain a powerful presence and an unshakable part of her character. Her mother may have been American, and she may have lived there from age 16 on, but she is Colombian. After 15 years, events call her home, where she confronts the truth about her father and the life she thought she understood.

Blakeslee has written a multi-faceted novel that combines a coming of age story, a socio-political exploration of modern Colombia, and a sympathetic fish out of water story full of cultural conflict. It seems well-researched and accurate (to the extent I am able to judge that) and never struck a wrong note in its detailed descriptions or crisp dialogue.

What struck me as I read Juventud was that, with some judicious editing, it would make a terrific Young Adult novel about a time, a place, and a set of social and economic issues that the adolescents of 2016 know little or nothing about but would certainly find involving and enlightening.

Juventud is a satisfying and thought-provoking read, intelligent fiction that informs as it entertains.

Dreams of the Red Phoenix follows lives of Americans in rural China on the verge of war with Japan

Dreams of the Red Phoenix

Dreams of the Red Phoenix

By Virginia Pye

Unbridled Books, Oct. 2015

$16.00, 270 pages

Virginia Pye’s grandparents and parents gave her a wonderful gift that she perhaps didn’t fully appreciate until the last decade. They served as missionaries in northern China from 1909-1941, when Pearl Harbor forced her grandmother to return to the U.S. (her father had returned for college in 1939). Their experiences, documented in letters and photos and a book by her father on rural Chinese warlords, eventually inspired her first novel, River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2013).

Pye returns to this rich lode of material for Dreams of the Red Phoenix, a compelling study of a newly widowed American, Shirley Carson, and her teenage son, Charles, caught up in the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937. Shirley’s husband, Reverend Caleb Carson, is believed to have died in a landslide on a horseback ride into the mountains to visit isolated villages. Shirley finds herself forced into a role she does not relish, continuing her husband’s work at the mission enclave. Her task is significantly complicated by the recent Japanese invasion; after taking control of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese steadily made their way west over the next few years, leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

Shirley has maintained her distance from the Chinese, including the local warlords and, eventually, the Communists of the Red Army. Instead, she has focused on her roles as mother, wife, and mission manager of sorts. But as events in her personal life and China begin to spin out of control, she finds herself transformed, reluctantly at first and then passionately, into the nurse she had trained to be, and as the American contact for the local Red Army leader, Captain Hsu. She is challenged by the need to negotiate complex political and personal relationships with Captain Hsu and Major Hattori, the charming but ruthless Princeton-educated Japanese commander.

In a separate plot, the somewhat sheltered and naive Charles is similarly caught up in military and social machinations he barely comprehends. At first, he is primarily disturbed by the disappearance of his Chinese friend, Han, who may have joined the Red Army regiment hiding in the nearby mountains. Charles cares for Han’s pigeons, attempts to learn his whereabouts, and quickly becomes more independent and self-sufficient as his mother becomes preoccupied, and then obsessed, with caring for wounded civilians, many of whom she knows are army soldiers dressed in civilian clothes so she will agree to treat them in the mission compound.

Shirley and Charles lose their bearings as the war reaches them and it becomes nearly impossible to determine who is friend or foe. Difficulties in language and culture create constant confusion and misunderstandings, and Shirley soon becomes ensnared in the military strategies and gamesmanship of Captain Hsu and Major Hattori.

Pye has woven together an unfamiliar setting, a coming of age story, a moment in history that is unfamiliar to most Americans, and what could be termed a tale of early feminist self-discovery into a multi-faceted novel. It is both a fish-out-of-water cultural exploration and an involving, occasionally thrilling historical novel.

Dreams of the Red Phoenix is one of the few novels I’ve read that could have benefited from being somewhat longer. I found myself wanting to know more about the big picture behind the war as experienced by Shirley and Charles, the non-missionary work of Reverend Carson, and the history of China. Perhaps Pye’s third novel will dig even more deeply into the litte-known history of Americans in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Undoubtedly there are many more stories of this intriguing time and place waiting to be told.

EVEL KNIEVEL offers touching coming of age story set in 1970s Idaho, five contemporary stories

Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon  Kelly Jones

Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon… and Other Stories Close to Home

By Kelly Jones

Ninth Avenue Press: June 4, 2014

$12.00, 184 pages

As someone who devours a steady diet of literary fiction, I occasionally need a change of pace, a palate-cleanser between dark or heart-rending books. Recently, while reading David Abrams’ blog, The Quivering Pen, I came across the work of Kelly Jones. While she is better known for historical mysteries set in European capitals, such as The Woman Who Heard Color, The Lost Madonna, and The Seventh Unicorn, she too wanted a change of pace before he next novel, Lost and Found in Prague, was published. Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon and Other Stories Close to Home is the result.

Jones grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho and currently lives in Boise. In this novella and five stories, she revisits the haunts of her youth and captures lightning in a bottle. The title story expertly mixes nostalgia for a lost time and place with a clear-eyed view of what it’s like to be a 10-year-old boy going through a difficult time.

In the 97-page title piece, set in the summer of 1974, Jones tells the story of Pick, who has returned with his mother to her hometown of Twin Falls from Portland. His father died in the Vietnam War, and they have struggled and moved frequently in the years since. She intends to leave Pick with her mother, whom Pick calls Grandma Grace, and her college-age brother, Uncle Buddy, while she moves to Seattle to attempt yet another new start.

Against a backdrop of social upheaval from the war and the Watergate scandal, Pick reluctantly settles in for what he expects to be a boring and lonely summer. Jones pulls you right into Pick’s little world with her detailed sense of time and place, sympathetic tone, and accurate sense of how it feels to be the new kid, yet again.

Pick tentatively makes friends with some wild kids who are jumping their bikes over trash cans in the alley behind Grandma Grace’s house. He learns his way around town and spends a lot of time at the city pool, where he also experiences his first crush on a beautiful young diver.

He observes the adults in his world, especially Buddy, who has recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend and returned home from the University of Idaho to spend the summer working and riding his motorcycle. Grandma is a non-nonsense fifty-something widow with short salt-and-pepper hair who is determined to turn Pick into a responsible young man with her “work first, play later” approach and long list of daily chores.

The catalyst for Pick’s summer of change is the announcement of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel that he will attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon outside of town in early September. Buddy gets a job doing security at the jump site and promises to sneak Pick in for the big event. While Knievel’s endeavor provides Buddy with work, it provides Pick and his friends with dreams and inspiration, and they spend much of the summer attempting increasingly risky jumps with their bicycles.

Reading this novella brought me back to the simpler times of my youth (I turned 15 in the summer of 1974), when a bike was a ticket to freedom. I left my house in the morning and wasn’t expected to return until it started to get dark. (And I drank water out of a garden hose and lived to tell!)

Jones tells an endearing story about a sensitive and sensible young man growing up and slowly learning some painful truths about the adult world.

The five stories on offer here are a little darker. They concern characters that have reached turning points in their lives as they progress from confusion to constructive action.

“Saving Johanna” follows a down-on-her-luck recovering alcoholic caught in an abusive relationship who finds mercy and a second chance through her community service at the local library.

“The Last Husband” tells of Olive and her five husbands, the last of whom has just died. She is muddling along in her winter loneliness and takes advantage of the arrival of spring to replant the garden. To her surprise, her only living ex-husband, Eddie, shows up. Eddie had once tried to kill Olive and spent some time in prison. But that was a long time ago. They chat and get caught up, and Eddie invites Olive to go fishing with him. When Olive’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Geri, finds out that Eddie has reappeared, she is not happy. But Olive has other ideas in what could be her last spring.

“A Lesson on How to Attract a Man” returns to childhood friendships, in particular that one girl who was ahead of all the others. Meg and Renee haven’t seen each other in years. When they meet for coffee, their conversation turns to their time in eighth grade at St. Martin’s and their classmate, Jaynie Aniston, who always seemed to be surrounded by boys. What was she saying to them that always made them smile and laugh? The other girls were mystified by Jaynie’s secret power over the boys. Through a series of school dances that year, Meg and Renee learn Jaynie’s secret. And it has lasting effects on Meg’s life.

“I Don’t Come Here Often” gives us a close look at the quirky customers of a Boise Laundromat. The closing story, “Wyoming” follows 12-year-old Jen, who has persuaded her 16-year-old neighbor, Jeremy, to help her run away. Jen’s mother died four years earlier, and her father has just remarried. Not surprisingly, Jen resents and despises her new stepmother, Lillian. Jeremy has an old truck, and is tired of being his drunken father’s punching bag, so they decide to head east to Wyoming. But the journey doesn’t go quite as Jen had planned. Perhaps she isn’t as independent as she’d thought. And perhaps Lillian isn’t really an evil stepmother.

Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon and Other Stories Close to Home is a fast and pleasantly bumpy ride through the lives of idiosyncratic characters trying to find their way across one kind of chasm or another.