In the layered thriller Paradise, WV, a rural town suffers from the “municipal leprosy” of the stigmatized opioid epidemic. A string of grisly murders links the misery of the town’s present to its gory past—and to a convicted serial killer, the Blind Spot Slasher. Paradise’s younger generation, including Henry and Jane, the killer’s children, unwind the mystery that links the Slasher to a decrepit cult.
This is a small town thriller with a little of everything, including spunky neighborhood kids, sinister faith healers, and condemned movie theaters. Its heady combination of chilling noir details includes the angle of a stab wound and the tattoos that creep over a pimp’s track-marked arm. Paradise is a grim place, and the devastation wreaked by opioids is just as present and threatening as the killer who lurks in the shadows.
This skillful tale is bleak, but with occasional glimmers of hope in the form of shots at redemption. These opportunities to undo the damage of the past are a welcome reprieve from the town’s overwhelming darkness. Still, each character is drawn with care and respect; in spite of straitened circumstances, they are dignified. Jane, a budding soccer champion, withstands merciless teasing, while her brother takes refuge in his heavy metal cassette collection. Henry’s friend Otis is a brainiac who recognizes the parallels between his father’s addiction-related fall from grace and his friends’ losses. The children’s ally, police officer Elena Garcia, takes an outsider’s view on the town as she burrows into its history. The cast’s genuine exchanges are realistic in conveying how the small, forgotten community clings to the edge of survival.
Unsettling and unforgettable, Paradise, WV walks a line between pulp fiction and compassionate storytelling.
CLAIRE FOSTER (June 27, 2021)
A Year in the Valley
In his joyous book The Secret History of Here, Alistair Moffat uncovers the rich history, and natural wonders, surrounding his Scottish border farm.
Moffat’s observations and discoveries come through descriptive diary entries that cover his walks with his Westie. He shares the rhythms of days and seasons that transcend schedules, and he imagines the humans who preceded him here. He and friends theorize about the land beneath their feet and draw upon maps, historical documents, census data, and found objects to confirm their suspicions and uncover the histories they reveal.
When he notices signs of an abandoned road, Moffat surmises by the sizable trees blocking it, and its absence from maps of the 1790s, that it fell out of use in the 1770s. Discovering a Henry VIII sovereign penny and an Elizabeth I sixpence confirms his suspicions that it was a medieval trade route to a village. Other artifacts, like a flint chiseled of stone from far away, a relic of the Ninth Crusade, and ancient carvings, reveal the impact and activity of humans through the ages.
Drawing on known history, Moffat reveals the land through its various eras. He also provides an intimate glimpse of others who lived or traveled there. He is artful in connecting meteorological, astrological, and seasonal phenomena to people of the past; he imagines what early hunters, farmers, night raiders, soldiers, and mothers may have experienced. Interwoven with these explorations are family stories and memories that magnify the connection between humans and the natural world.
Fine pencil drawings of flora, fauna, and other discoveries complement the text’s deep respect for nature; Moffat expresses a fervent wish that it survive the threats of climate change. The Secret History of Here is a delightful meditation on a place, and on the role that humans played in its evolution.
WENDY HINMAN (June 27, 2021)
In Norman Lock’s splendid historical novel Tooth of the Covenant, Nathaniel Hawthorne is troubled by his ancestor’s dark legacy as a harsh, heartless judge.
In 1851, Hawthorne enjoys the positive reception of his most recent work, The Scarlet Letter. But he still feels guilt because of his great-great-grandfather’s involvement in the Salem Witch Trials; that pains him like a “needle in my heart.” Hoping for a literary catharsis, he creates a character, Isaac Page, to represent himself in a phantasmagorical story.
Isaac, along with a pair of antique spectacles (which belonged to the judge) and a coin from the present year (as a talisman that can return him home), journeys to Salem circa 1692. There, he finds work as a carpenter and confirms that “a pack of ‘afflicted’ girls” is making accusations of witchcraft. Though Isaac’s purpose is to stop the local reign of terror, he often finds himself overwhelmed by his alternative environment. He suffers from headaches, nausea, and homesickness, none of which is helped by the era’s greasy “suet puddings” and fried eels.
As the weeks pass and the trials continue, the spectacles begin to warp Isaac’s perspective. Like the judge, Isaac becomes judgmental and intolerant, until the discovery of the “future” coin from 1851 brings him under suspicion of being the devil himself.
Lock masters the interplay between nineteenth-century Hawthorne and his fictional surrogate, Isaac, as he travels through Puritan New England. The historical details are immersive and meticulous, and Hawthorne’s eloquent narration is both repentant and wry. Following this harrowing mission, Isaac and Hawthorne promise to never be “melancholy” again, and to write only “tales of sunny piazzas in Rome.”
A flourish of literary time travel, Tooth of the Covenant creates parallel universes that challenge history’s fixed scope.
MEG NOLA (June 27, 2021)
When Moose hears of a meeting of the Secret Fairy Club, he’s ecstatic to join in the fun. He arrives to find all the other members are smaller creatures, though, and some are none too welcoming. But when the clubhouse comes under attack, Moose rushes to help despite their rejection, and proves that he not only fits in: he belongs. A whimsical color palette and visible brushstrokes give this insightful story the feel of having been magically painted just before you turned the page.
DANIELLE BALLANTYNE (June 27, 2021)
In Alison Kimble’s fantasy novel Strange Gods, an apathetic teenager travels to worlds beyond Earth, finding allies and enemies among gods, even as she struggles to make friends her own age.
Spooky tries to keep her head down to survive her time at a summer camp for delinquent teenagers. But then a vine behind the camp’s dumpster kidnaps her to another reality, where Spooky comes face to face with the god of that world—a large, grotesque orange figure whose name translates best as Carcass. Hungry for the type of creative storytelling that only humans seem to have mastered, Carcass captures Spooky. In time, she helps him set up a computer so that he can consume stories on the internet.
But Spooky’s plan to resume life on Earth and maintain a low profile is disrupted when Carcass reveals that, with the god of Earth absent, gods from other dimensions are planning to conquer the planet. Accompanied by two other reluctant teens, Elliott and Bree, Spooky goes to yet more fantastic worlds in a desperate bid to save her home.
Spooky only wants to save herself at first, but her contact with other worlds, and her burgeoning friendships with her peers, help her grow into a caring person who’s willing to make enormous sacrifices to save her planet. Reflections on belonging and bullying coexist with complaints about cafeteria food; Spooky’s wry, sardonic voice infuses the story with humor, while the bizarre creatures she encounters make her appreciate her imperfect home more than ever. Though Spooky worries that she is selfish, she ultimately finds redemption in her choices.
Toggling between the real world and mythical landscapes, Strange Gods is a supernatural coming-of-age story in which deities and teenagers cooperate to save humanity.
JEANA JORGENSEN (June 27, 2021)