Foster by Claire Keegan

In emotionally evocative, simplistic language, author Claire Keegan tells the story of a young girl sent to live with rural Irish relatives, while her over-burdened mother is due to have yet another baby. First-time experiences and awkward adjustments give the tentative girl her first taste of self-worth and belonging to a childless couple now aching to share their heart. A story profound in tacit nuance and cultural identity, the poignant ending resonates with an appropriateness both heart-rending and satisfying.

      Claire Keegan is an Irish writer known for her award-winning short stories. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Granta, and The Paris Review; and translated into 20 languages.

An international bestseller and one of The Times’ “Top 50 Novels Published in the 21st Century,” Claire Keegan’s piercing contemporary classic Foster is a heartbreaking story of childhood, loss, and love; now released as a standalone book for the first time ever in the US

Book Review: The Presence of Absence by Simon Van Booy

The Presence of Absence

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Author: Simon Van Booy

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

Max Little is dying and wants to leave behind something of his life. A young writer of novels, novellas, and short stories, Max grew up in Wales, is of Pakistani descent, and now reclines in a New York hospital bed, in full acceptance of his terminal illness.

Not wanting to beg the reader’s pity, Max does what he does best by writing, and begins his straightforward narrative by marveling at the magic between reader and writer: “You do realize that by turning the page you’ve decided to follow a complete stranger down a possibly meaningless path?” he says. “Stories lead us behind the curtain of somebody else’s life into the deepest chambers of our own.” Max considers that by the time the reader puts eyes to his words, he, himself, might be absent. “None of that matters,” he assures, “because our lives are braided here and now by this sentence.” Seemingly delighted to embellish his point, Max continues, “For instance, I’m writing this in the present, and you’re reading it in the present. Except there is a gulf of time between us. I might even be dead. Yet here I am.”

In Simon Van Booy’s extraordinary novel, The Presence of Absence, each well-wrought sentence builds upon the next, taking us deeper into Max Little’s life with staggering lucidity. The first part of the story is constructed in descending numerical chapters that decline with a sense of fatalism as the narrator reconstructs his life’s highpoints interspersed with uncanny, existential observations on the business of life, death, and dying. Max confesses his mind’s innerworkings with adroit ease. “Do people ever walk around their homes, wondering which room they will die in? Whether it will be a Wednesday night or Saturday morning at the table with toast and coffee?”  And “What would happen to things like knives and forks once I was gone. Would my wife keep them?”

At the center of Max Little’s concern is his wife, Hadley, and the reader is taken to their first meeting even as Max shares his ruminations on how to best tell Hadley he is dying. Pondering his plight alone on a beach, he arrives at a profound spiritual truth, when he comes to consider himself in the third person. Max posits, “When you nurture the ability to witness your life in the third person, in extremis, or through prayer or meditation, there is an unavoidable shift in consciousness as you realize that who you are is not simply how you feel—but a presence beyond desire of any sort.”

Jeremy Abrams’s mother is dying. He comes into Max’s life through the coincidence of their shared New York therapist. The men bond over the similarities in their life circumstances, and as their friendship grows, it is Jeremy who suggests that Max begin keeping the journal the reader now holds in their hands. Max writes, “You might wonder what dying people look forward to. Being visited, yes, but also being left alone—though that takes a lot of practice, managing thoughts . . . I also look forward to reassuring people it’s okay this is happening.”

In The Presence of Absence, Part Two is theatrically introduced as a quick, black scene change. The section brilliantly holds the subheading, Sotto Voce. The third person story moves forward eight years in time, and fittingly alternates between breathtaking poetry, poignant one-liners, and what miraculously transpires from the connections formed in Max Little’s absence. An insight comes at the hands of one such connection, who stands at a sink washing cups in a basin and thinks, “Like the cups draining on a tea towel, absence has a practical value in how it shapes presence.”

A mind-bending, affecting story that breaks the heart open with startling clarity, this book makes the reader want to take pen in hand to underline The Presence of Absences’ passages. That author Simon Van Booy has taken a universal subject most prefer to shy away from and creatively crafted an accessible work of high art is an unparalleled literary feat. The deft use of language in this tour de force fulfills its own mission when Van Booy summarizes, “Language is a map leading to a place not on the map.”   

Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy is the award-winning and best-selling author of nine books of fiction, and three anthologies of philosophy.

He has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the New York Post, NPR, Poets & Writers, and the BBC. His books have been translated into many languages and optioned for film. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. In 2013, he founded Writers for Children, a project which helps young people build confidence in their storytelling abilities through annual awards.

Beasts Of The Earth by James Wade

Beasts of the Earth

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

We know from the start LeBlanc is wounded, that his limping spirit is tantamount to the spare, prison-like furnishings of the low-ceilinged duplex he’s rented on the shanty side of town for the past 20 years, that his economic speech has little to do with still waters running deep, that it’s born of a wariness from what he’s hiding.

It is the economic downturn of 1987 in Coral County, Texas, where thirty-something Harlan LeBlanc works alongside the small crew of Carter Hills High School’s Grounds and Maintenance Department, and partakes of a cursory friendship with a troubled, young co-worker named Gene Thomas. A man of habit gripping to a rote, daily schedule, LeBlanc tends the high school’s football field with each step carefully taken, in a manner telling of his mind frame. “LeBlanc reveled in such undertakings—the opportunity to create boundaries, to ensure the proper area for the rules to be applied. There was an element of control, an upholding of justice, that brought peace

to his mind.”  

It is 1965 in the bayou of Assumption Parrish, Louisiana, and 13-year-old Michael Fischer’s hardscrabble world grows harder when his regionally shunned, depraved criminal father is released from prison. “A boy should be happy when his father returns, but Michael was not happy. He had memories of Munday—memories distorted by time and hearsay—and though there existed still a longing for the comfort and protection of a father, dread guided the boy.” Used to being the man of the house for his morbidly obese mother and younger sister, Michael is in fear when his hard-drinking father is home, and only breathes easy when he habitually disappears.

After home circumstances take an unspeakable, dark turn at the hands of his father, Michael flees to the woods, where he’s met with more danger still, until he’s found by a dying recluse of a poet named Remus, who takes the injured Michael to his cabin, and begins the long road to repairing the traumatized, now displaced, youth.

Over time, the strangers warm to an alliance, and Michael “played at having a father, and Remus played at being one. But the past is not a thing to sit still, and there are no new beginnings. The world itself was begun only once. And since that beginning its every rotation has depended on the one before—each circumstance born from the last.”

Cassie Harper has broken Gene Thomas’s heart. A student at Carter Hills High, there is

more to her than meets the eye. When Cassie is found murdered on school grounds, it rocks the entire community. When circumstantial evidence comes to include Gene Thomas, it strikes LeBlanc too close to home, casting aspersions on his character, and giving rise to his secret, haunted past.  

Author James Wade treads a tight wire between Beasts of the Earth’s dual storylines. He deftly keeps the reader guessing about common ground throughout the tumult of the three-part storyThe tone is shadowy and off-kilter, with elements of gothic-tinged realism vested upon an innocent heart, and a mind in peril of becoming unhinged.

There is much to keep the reader invested. Wade’s pitch-perfect, personality-driven dialogue sings in the voice of life, and his ability to meld existential thought, situational metaphor, and cinematic setting is a full-bodied experience: As Harlan LeBlanc sets out to right a wrong from the past, “He walked along the river in the morning light and watched it widen and grow as it approached Port Neches and then on to the Gulf of Mexico, and he wondered if the river might hold itself or some piece of itself out there in all that ocean—might cling at some molecular level to whatever made it a river in the first place, salt or no salt. But he knew the answer and knew the difficulty in fighting back against an ever-growing tide.”

Beasts of the Earth satisfies the discerning reader. Its balanced, oscillating chapters are played out in riveting complete scenes that take you deeper into the gritty backstory of Harlan LeBlanc, a man you care about, and somehow understand from what he’s not saying, while the town around him holds him in suspicion and his moral compass covertly guides him to truth and justice sought at a personal cost.

A soul-deep exploration of a wounded man in crisis, James Wade’s Beasts of the Earth follows his two widely acclaimed novels, All Things Left Wild, and River, Sing Out, and secures his position as an author of extraordinary merit.  

Author James Wade

James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild, a winner of the prestigious MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction, and a recipient of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel from the Western Writers of America. His third novel, Beasts of the Earth, is now available from Blackstone Publishing.

Book Review: A Place to Land by Lauren Denton

A Place to Land

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Author: Lauren K. Denton

Release Date: October 4, 2022

Publisher/Imprint: Harper Muse

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton

“Lauren Denton unfurls a mystery by reconciling a buried past with a modern-day story set in a town with vibrant characters brimming with Southern charm.”

A delightful Southern story extolling the deep bond of sisters, Lauren Denton’s A Place to Land has a heartwarming tone as it unravels a 40-year-old mystery coming back to haunt a cast of small-town characters whose lives are entwined in Sugar Bend, Alabama, which sits on Little River, with a population of under 2,000 just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Violet and Trudy Figg have an extremely close relationship. Now both in their sixties, their bond comes from “more than just being sisters, more than sharing a home and parents and a fondness for chocolate pudding.” From elder sister Violet’s point of view, “It was a single request from their fragile, damaged mother that linked them with something thicker than blood.” “With a father who was often out on the road in his eighteen-wheeler, and a mother who spent most of her energy dodging blows . . . Violet had accepted her role of Trudy’s caretaker long ago.”  

In their youth, the sisters were complimentary opposites. Trudy enjoyed a wide reputation as a popular beauty pageant queen, while Violet was the quiet, introspective sort who spent most of her time outdoors.

The sisters now keep a steady schedule. “Trudy and Violet both navigated life the best way they knew how—for Trudy, it was working with her materials and setting the pieces just right, while for Violet it was through the birds . . . helping them on their way.”

Trudy creates eclectic visual art with the likes of shells, feathers, and driftwood, while Violet works as a surveyor for the Coastal Alabama Audubon Society. Together, the sisters own and operate Two Sisters Art and Hardware Goods in downtown Sugar Bend, where Trudy’s art is sold alongside souvenirs for tourists.

Eighteen-year-old Maya is seeking her place in the world. She’d “been put in the foster care system after the death of her grandmother, and she’d lived in ten different homes since then.” After turning 18, Maya signed the appropriate papers permitting herself to strike out on her own, and following her instincts, she stumbles upon the quaint town of Sugar Bend, which leads her to Violet and Trudy. After a dubious beginning, the sisters come to embrace her.

Frank Roby has an unhealed past with Violet. A retired law enforcement officer, his long ago romance with Violet came to an inexplicable end, which caused him to jump at the first opportunity to accept a job in another town. After 40 years, Frank moves back to Sugar Bend from Pensacola as a widower. In rekindling his interest in birds, he goes to a class at the local Audubon Society, where he is unwittingly paired as a trainee with 63-year-old Violet. Cautious and still harboring feelings for Violet, he keeps his sentiments for her under wraps.  

Liza Bullock is an outsider who’s worked for a year as the editor of The Sugar Bend Observer. Frustrated by living in a backwater, uneventful town, “If she could find a story with enough meat on its bones, she could write a sizzling expose and land herself at a copy desk in Birmingham or Atlanta.” When a decrepit johnboat “awash with age and river detritus” mysteriously rises from Little River, Liza’s reporter instincts are ignited.

Frank Roby’s nephew works as a Sugar Bend policeman and is in the habit of asking his retired uncle for assistance. When he asks Frank to investigate the suspicious boat awash on the banks of Little River, memories of the year 1981 flash to Frank’s mind, when he was a rookie cop in the throes of a promising future with Violet and was sent to the exact location to investigate a domestic disturbance.  

Unbeknownst to the young Frank of 1981, Violet’s sister had recently married local celebrity, Jay Malone, a successful businessman the whole town revered, and who owned the house Frank was sent to look into. At the time, Frank was unaware Violet had fears for her sister, that she suspected there was more to Jay Malone than met the eye, and that the bruises Trudy tried to hide were inflicted by his hand.

Author Lauren Denton unfurls a mystery by reconciling a buried past with a modern-day story set in a town with vibrant characters brimming with Southern charm. Secrets, coincidence, family loyalty, life choices, and questions of right versus wrong as viewed through the lens of the law are woven neatly in two timeframes, seamlessly linking all characters until they each achieve, seemingly by kismet, the perfect place to land.  

Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.

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