I seem to get my best reading done when at home on the couch fighting off a virus. I enjoyed both of these:
The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst
This novel (by the author of The Dogs of Babel) has a lot going on in it. The narrator , Octavia Frost, is a successful novelist with an estranged rock star son, Milo. Decades ago, her husband and daughter both died while the family was on vacation.
While in New York City turning in her latest manuscript, she reads a news crawl in Times Square: her son has been accused of murdering his girlfriend. She drops everything to begin investigating, online and in person, the murder, the girlfriend, and the last five years of her son’s life.
This sounds formulaic, but the characters are anything but stock. Adding another element to the story, the murder story alternates with chapters from Olivia’s manuscript. Each of these chapters is a revision of the last chapter of one of her earlier books. In lesser hands, this could be distracting and disjointed, but each of the chapters, while worlds and centuries apart in subject matter, deals with the loss of a child. Octavia is trying to re-write her place in her books, while also hoping for a revision of the rift between Milo and herself. The mystery of the murder keeps the story moving; the question of how to re-write your own life makes it resonate long after the last page.
Take One Candle Light a Room, by Susan Straight
Straight writes about an insular group of black families who migrated from Louisiana to Riverside. They left to escape prejudice in general, and specifically to get their daughters away from a white serial rapist who had begun to work his way, unchecked, through the families’ daughters.
The narrator is a descendent of this family, Fantine Antoine. She’s probably the least connected of any of her siblings; she’s a travel writer, single, with no kids. Her contemporaries have stayed close and raised their families in the original settlement. One of her friends became an addict, and died on the streets under unknown circumstances.
Fantine, or FX, as she’s known in her writing, is home for a brief visit. She’s visited by her godson Victor, a gifted writer whom she coached for his SATs. He takes off in an Escalade with a pair of friends with criminal records, and a few hours later, she hears on the news that someone in a car matching that description has shot and killed a local boy in an argument. FX joins her father on a cross-country trip to try to find and rescue Victor before it’s too late. And did I mention that Hurricane Katrina is approaching landfall as they arrive in Louisiana?
But this novel is much more than a suspenseful road trip story, though it has suspense to burn. Along the way, FX unlocks family secrets going back decades, centuries. The characters are unique, the plot is compelling, and along the way the reader learns about everything from sugar cane to a valid reason for putting bacon on a gunshot wound. It’s a multi-layered, satisfying read.
author photos, from top: Marion Ettlinger, Don Chavkin