Monday, June 30, 2008

"Midlisters" by Kealan Patrick Burke

Cover Art and 5 Interior Illustrations by Keith Minnion.

Fear is the stock in trade of the horror writer. But what horror does the horror writer (or any writer for that matter) fear most?

The blank page?

The neglected lonely spouse who keens for the company others? How about the over zealous fan, the one with the psychotic glint in their eye? Or worse, the indifferent fan who shows up at a conference much preferring to meet a certain writer, not you? Have you ever lugged boxfuls of books to a signing and then faced the grim prospect of hauling that unchanged burdensome weight back home? What about the loathed rival, the lauded man with the glamorous author photo, the guy who turns out to be an unrecognizable sad sack of an ordinary man (a disappointing image much like the one that looks back from the mirror)? Ever cross paths with a femme fatale at a conference, the man-eater determined to lure you into a dangerous hook-up?More frightening is the stark fact that however good a writer you are, there’s always some other writer who’s better, whose prowess with the prose makes you want throw your computer out the window and get a job at McDonald’s.

But there’s another, far greater fear that haunts writers.... All these and more are the subject of Irish-born horror writer, Kealan Patrick Burke’s illustrated novella, Midlisters. Main character Jason Tennant has a small but loyal fan base for his violent horror novels, stories full of “the graphic, the grue, the gore,” but his career is permanently stuck in close-but-no-cigar purgatory; he’s a writer with just enough success that justifies hitting his head again and again against the glass ceiling of being not quite good enough; in other words: a midlister.

If only Jason had the critical and commercial success of erotic science fiction author Kent Gray, a writer whose cache is all the more enhanced by the rarity of public outings, along with his literary high-brow disdain of Hollywood film options, whereas Jason “would gladly have donated one of (his) balls if it meant some fresh-faced cocaine-snuffing fuckwad at Paramount would even glance at something with (his) name on it.” The catalyst that brings Jason and Kent, midlister and best seller, face to face is an invitation to the upcoming Aurora Science Fiction & Horror Convention in Baltimore. Hard up for funds, Jason decides to pocket the allotted plane ticket allowance and drive to the conference instead. On the road, in spite of the blustery cold weather, Jason ignores his guilt pangs and decides not to pick up a conference bound hitchhiker, remembering too well a scene from his own novel where a hapless salesman picks up a hitchhiker.

Eager to press on and distance himself from imagined dangers, Jason hits the gas only to have a tire not just blow out but shred. He’s too busy cursing the fact that his left behind wife with the Triple A card in her wallet is not answering her cell phone – again - and why not, he wonders, is she with another man? – to notice that hitchhiker has crept up behind him. Realizing he’ll not get the car on the road without the young man’s help, Jason offers Walt a ride in thanks. After identifying himself as a conference panelist and expecting the usual awestruck reaction upon meeting a genuine author – any author - the midlister’s ego is deflated when Walt tells him he’s just dying to meet Kent Gray. Not wanting to seem an ingrate, Walt displays interest in the boxed books crowding the back seat. Jason gives his newest fan several freebies. When asked to sign them, a pathetic Jason makes Walt wait until he sees the midlister seated beside Kent at the conference to come up and ask for his autograph.

Upon arrival at the conference hotel, the two men part company. Here Mr. Burke gives the reader a spot on portrayal of a science fiction/ horror conference and its denizens; the faded film stars hawking their wares, photo-crazed Asian teens, the geeks in goof ball antennae head gear, and the Goth girls with their pale skin and black lacquered lips. But the action mostly takes place at every desperate writer’s favorite conference spot – the hotel bar. Jason’s flirtation with conference coordinator, Audrey Vassar, is disrupted when an unkempt conference attendee meekly complains about the toilet in his hotel room. Taking in the man’s bulbous nose, weak chin, and thinning, badly died combed-over hair Jason doesn’t realize that it’s this great man himself standing before him, Kent Gray. Relief and envy subside as Jason gets to know the famed science fiction author over a drink; he sees that just like h
im – and every other writer – that Kent Gray puts his pants on one leg at a time.

So caught up am I with all these writerly insights, and with such subtle deftness does Mr. Burke lay out the clues and cunningly introduce the killer, that I've forgotten that murder's afoot here.

And after the shocker, lurid slaying, the biggest demon Jason must wrestle is his perceived responsibility in this tragic event.

Written with muscular, lean prose by a consummate storyteller, and with its delightful illustrations, Midlisters will be appreciated by all who write, and by those many readers who enjoy a terrific yarn, one that ends with a wicked and thought provoking plot twist.

Born and raised in Dungarvan, Ireland, Kealan Patrick Burke is an award-winning author described as "a newcomer worth watching" by Publishers Weekly. Some of his works include the novels Currency of Souls and The Hides, the novellas The Turtle Boy (Bram Stoker Award Winner, 2004), Vessels, Midlisters, and the collections Ravenous Ghosts and The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others. Aside from his accomplishments as an author, Kealan also edited the anthologies: Taverns of the Dead (recipient of a starred review in Publishers Weekly), Brimstone Turnpike, Quietly Now: A Tribute to Charles L. Grant (International Horror Guild Award Nominee, 2004), the charity anthology Tales from the Gorezone and Night Visions 12 (also recipient of a starred review in PW). You can learn more about Kealan and his books by visiting

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls was written by Benjamin Black, pen name of Man Booker Prize winner, John Banville. It begins a tad awkward with Mr. Banville not exactly sure-footed in his use of third person omniscient point-of-view. Early on, the author switches between characters’ POV’s - sometimes mid-paragraph. The effect is jarring and off-putting. Eventually the author settles down and, for the most part, effectively uses a version of the more limited third person POV.

Quirke, the wonderfully complex and conflicted main character, is a coroner in 1950’s Ireland. As a child, he was rescued from a Catholic orphanage by a corrupt judge, and raised alongside Judge Griffin’s own biological son, Mal. That the judge favors the foster child over his own flesh and blood is just one cause for resentment among many between the two men. Mal is a prominent OB-GYN. His involvement in the cover-up of the death of pregnant Christine Falls, and his “brother” Quirke’s suspicion of him as the girl’s killer are the crux of the matter.

What will Quirke do with what he believes to be the truth about what happened? And what of the newly appointed Papal Lord, Judge Griffin’s role in the church- sanctioned baby smuggling scheme that the coroner unearths? Will Quirke rat on the man who provided him with a home, love and every opportunity that money can buy?

The best scenes in this book are the one’s that take place in the morgue. Mr. Banville expertly captures this dark and nether word, and accurately portrays sort of the characters whose sensibility allows them to easily commune with the dead.The action switches to Irish Catholic Boston where the author ventures deep into Lehane territory, a place where deeply flawed characters at cross purposes are bound to each other by debts and favors owed.

Like any master of suspense, Mr. Banville lets the tension build by letting exquisite details play out, knowing that the anticipation of violence is far more frightening than the thing itself; in one scene, the action cuts away just as the thugs move in for the kill, and the author let’s the reader do the work – to use his or her own imagination to enact violence that is far more personally horrifying than any Mr. Banville could portray. Any character deemed sympathetic is killed or hurt “off camera” - so to speak; an interesting choice for a new crime writer to make. The only extreme violent assault that is actively shown is that of the villain - Andy Stafford -when he has the crap beat out of him. In this bar room brawl scene, Banville perfectly captures the “zero state” of the sociopath – the moment just before the Andy lashes out at the man in the bar who dared insult him:

“A heave of suppressed merriment passed along the table. Andy looked at the floor, his lips pursed, then sauntered forward, carrying his beer glass. He stopped in front of McCoy, who was wearing a checked lumberjack shirt and denim overalls. Andy had gone chill all over, as if he was breaking out in a cold sweat, although his skin was dry. It was a familiar feeling; there was almost a kind of joy in it, and a kind of happy dread that he could not have explained. 'Better
watch your mouth, pal.'"

About a third of the way through the novel, we’re introduced Andy, an edgy American truck driver. Both he and his tragically besotted wife, Claire, are pivotal characters; introducing them so late in the game slows down the forward momentum of the book. But the conflict surrounding Andy builds quickly. Childless Claire opts to take in a foster child – Christine Fall’s smuggled baby. Andy’s resentment and malevolence toward the infant is palpable, and I held my breath every time Andy went anywhere the doomed child.

Later, when the baby dies, Andy has the sociopath’s rationalization of his actions – the baby was crying – and denial of guilt – the child must have a flaw in its brain that made it die when violently shaken. As a student of forensic psychology, I can attest that Mr. Banville has a pitch-perfect ear when it comes to psychopathy.

However, like a lot of male writer’s, his portrayal of woman leans toward the clichéd and one dimensional, most of the women in this book are weak, tearful, victimized and put-upon. There were a couple of sex scenes when some randy gals gleefully jumped into bed with men they barely knew. I rolled my eyes and moved on.

At best, the plot is convoluted. With it built around the corruption and skullduggery of the Catholic Church, I half expected Silas from The Da Vinci Code to pop out of the woodwork. I never quite bought the premise of babies born to un-wed Irish Catholic girls being smuggled into the US, farmed out into temporary foster care with the expectation that when the children were grown, they’d become priests and nuns; thus fulfilling their obligation to the church-run orphanage. Was there are shortage of priests and nuns in the 1960’s? I doubt it. That this would be the set up of a Byzantine murder plot challenged this reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In spite of these flaws it is pathologist Quirke’s inner conflict over betraying the very people he owes and loves that makes Christine Falls a decent read. According to the jacket flap, we’re to see more of Quirke for this book is the start of what promises to be a psychological and character driven crime series.

Am I the only one who noticed that the Christine Falls book cover is nearly identical to A Woman in Berlin? – a book I highly recommend.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"A Welcome Grave" by Michael Koryta

I’ve seen it before – books that feature an ex-cop-now-a-private-investigator-with-a-dame-troubled past – you know – the stuff that noir thrillers are made of - but I haven’t seen it this well done in quite a long time.

With a deftly handled complex plot, nail-biting suspense and thoughtful characterization, Michael Koryta’s A Welcome Grave is a stand out – but some might argue that it’s not exactly a stand alone.

Every writer of series fiction has decisions to make. Near the top of this list are the choices to create a mostly self-contained work, or to craft an individual novel part that’s of a greater – and still continuing - whole. Mr. Koryta seems to have decided upon the latter.

Make no mistake, A Welcome Grave wraps up all this episode’s main plot lines in a neat and entirely satisfying package, but there’s unfinished business from past books that comes into play here, as well as changes to new and old relationships that will no doubt be relevant in the next books to follow. Bottom line: having read this book, I now plan on reading the earlier books in Mr. Koryta’s Lincoln Perry series, starting with the winner of the annual SMP/PWA Prize for Best First PI Novel, and Edgar award nominee: Tonight I Said Goodbye.

A Welcome Grave starts out simply enough: the husband of Lincoln’s ex-fiancé, Karen, turns up not just dead, but viciously tortured prior to death, leading the cops to think that this homicide is personal – and who would be so inclined to do such a heinous deed, none other than the man whose fiancé dumped him so she could marry the lawyer-turned-homicide-victim, Lincoln Perry himself. Complications ensue.

Convinced that he’s gotten over Karen’s rejection, Lincoln reluctantly agrees to help investigate the murder of her much older husband, Alex Jefferson – a lawyer who got rich by being the go-to guy for the seriously rich when they get themselves into a big, stinking heap-load o’ trouble.

But the not-so-rich, like Lincoln Perry, have a fixer of their own – a soft-spoken, knife wielding Russian mobster named Thor, a character who appears to have been a big player from a previous Lincoln Perry novel, and a villain/anti-hero who’s so charismatic and complex you can understand full well why Mr. Koryta would bring him back on stage for an encore. As the true murderer of Alex Jefferson sets up Lincoln Perry to take the fall, it’s Thor whom Lincoln turns to when both the cops and the killers close in on him.

In A Welcome Grave there are enough red herrings to keep the most careful reader and savvy thriller fan guessing, with plenty of raised stakes, riveting twists, and sudden shockers to keep the pages turning till the very end. What makes this slim novel even more impressive is the way Mr. Koryta weaves into the plot the up and downs in Lincoln’s key relationships, in particular, the evolution of his partnership with Joe Pritchard, as well as his tenuous romance with reporter, Amy Ambrose; character developments play out in tandem with the action, and only serve to enhance the plot. At the heart of this novel is the theme of just how and why we perceive someone as guilty, and the life-and-death consequences of getting it wrong.

With its rich characterization and intricate plot, it’s no surprise that A Welcome Grave was nominated for a Quill Award in the mystery/suspense category.

To learn more about the author and his books, please visit:

And be sure to watch for his next book, Envy the Night, coming August 5th, 2008.

Here's what Publishers Weekly has to say about this upcoming release: "Revenge drives this superb stand-alone... Koryta's dialogue is as sharp as the knives his characters wield, and his plot twists at the most unexpected moments. This thriller places Koryta solidly in the company of the genre's most powerful voices." - (starred review)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan

Every so often a novelist’s first book blazes across the literary firmament, inspiring “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from all who read it. Cold Mountain comes to mind, along with Snow Falling on Cedars – two books that received glowing reviews and wide-spread acclaim.

Sometimes a writer takes several books to hit their literary stride, and after slowly building a masterful command of literary writing, they take a sudden quantum leap forward with a book that out-shines anything they’d previously written. In my opinion, Ian McEwan fell into this category when he published Atonement. One reviewer said, “If God could write a novel…” while another stated that in 100 years it will still be read and considered a classic. They were right.

After reading all these stellar books, I ask myself the following questions: What the hell are they gonna do next? How in the world do they top this?

Harper Lee certainly knows the answer: They can’t.

Still, I was eager to read McEwan’s follow-up to Atonement, but was only able to muddle through the first few pages of Saturday. After that bitter disappointment, I had no intention of reading On Chesil Beach - not until literary agent, Nathan Bransford, convinced me.

Chesil’s a pint-sized novella, a worthy read that at first seemed more like a character study than a fully-realized story....until I came to the end. The plot: two virgins have a disastrous wedding night. But this is so much more than just a Masters and Johnson case file on sexual dysfunction.

Some reviewers pooh-pooh’d the idea that anyone would be a virgin, let alone a dysfunctional one, at the start of the 1960’s. These reviewers cited the Stones, the Beatles and The Pill as proof positive that everybody experienced the sexual revolution. Cleary, Mr. McEwan addresses all these naysayers (did they even read the book? in particular this part?):

“The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tales about America. The blues he heard at the Hundred Club suggested to Edward that all around him, just out of sight, men of his age were leading explosive, untiring sex lives, rich with gratifications of every kind. Pop music was bland, still coy on the matter, films were a little more explicit, but in Edward’s circle the men had to be content with telling dirty jokes, uneasy sexual boasting and boisterous camaraderie driven by furious drinking, which reduced further their chances of meeting a girl. Social change never proceeds at an even pace.”

The author paints a complex and detailed portrait of two people whose lifestyle and background preclude jumping into the drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll fray; 1962’s rural Turville Heath and cloistered Oxford are not the same place as 1968 London. The relationship between the two main characters: up-market violinist, Florence Ponting, and down-trodden grounds-keeper-turned-historian, Edward Mayhew, reminded me of the English characters, Chris Nolan and Chloe Hewett from Woody Allen’s film, Match Point – the motivation and backgrounds of the husbands-to-be are quite similar, all the way down to the calculating tennis games with their much more well-off and sophisticated in-laws (am I the only one to notice the resemblance in plots?). The bride’s appeal seems to lie more in what she represents than what she is – not exactly the main ingredient for a loving marriage for Florence and Edward:

“In fact, he was entranced, he lived in a dream. During that warm summer, his desire for Florence was inseparable from the setting – the huge white rooms and their dustless wooden floors warmed by sunlight, the cool green air of the tangled garden breathed into the house through open windows, the scented blossoms of North Oxford, the fresh hardback books piled on tables in the library – the new Iris Murdoch (she was Violet’s friend), the new Nabokov, the new Angus Wilson – and his first encounter with a stereophonic record player.”

But unlike Allen’s film, there’s no third-party sultry siren to muck up the bride and groom’s future; McEwan’s characters do that just fine on their own.

The author beautifully lays the groundwork for the final scene by revealing both characters’ damaged and loveless relationships with their mothers. Flo’s mom is a prickly, Oxford don, and a brainy, brittle woman devoid of affection for anyone. Edward’s mother barely functions due to a horrific brain injury suffered while pregnant with twin girls; their house is pig-sty due to her inability to focus on, or complete the most basic housekeeping task. Clearly this isolates Edward from his school friends and later, girls – although Florence, to her credit, never once disdains or looks on askance at the squalor of her future-in-laws.

Flo’s mother, Mrs. Ponting, made the choice to grin-and-bear the demands of marriage and motherhood while pursuing her true love – her career as a lecturer and college professor, whereas her equally ambitious musician daughter, coming of age on the cusp of the sexual revolution, wrestles with the still limited choices of her generation. As a character written in the tradition of Henry James himself, a man who enjoyed the comforts and joys of friends and family while at the same time preferring the solitude he believed was required to pursue the artist’s life, Flo’s plan as woman and an artist is to perpetuate the charade of a marriage, and therefore garner the social position expected of her while at the same time putting all her energy and passion into her music career.

Edward’s lack of sexual experience stems from the time and place he lives in, as well as the dysfunctions and deprivations of his own family. It comes as no surprise that he’s a rather over-eager groom on his wedding night, or that the chaste Florence is anxious about losing her virginity. The surprise comes from Flo’s proposal to Edward
when they come together on Chesil Beach: that of an unconsummated marriage-in-name-only, with Edward given the freedom that most men dream of – carte blanche to sleep with whomever he pleases while Florence chases after the fame and glory of the concert stage.What did Edward chose? What were the consequences of his reaction to Flo’s flight from the marriage bed? Reader, I’ll leave it up to you to find out. While Chesil – (nor any other book for that matter) lives up to the perfection and glory of Atonement, I’m grateful to Nathan Bransford’s recommendation to give this novella a second chance.

Of course, if you want to read a truly great novel about a woman forced to chose between a career in the arts and the conventions of marriage, read Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffett

I’ve read a great many thrillers where the bad guy is almost always portrayed as a sociopath. Sure, these writers do some research, most likely online, and create an over-the-top portrait of extreme villainy without ever fully understanding the subtle complexities, the common ordinary fact of evil among us, and hardly ever do these authors even attempt to understand just what makes their bad guy tick. What’s also missing in these modern thrillers is that for the diagnosis of psychopathy to be accurate, the person must also have been diagnosed in their teenaged year as what psychologists call a “conduct disordered” youth.

So, rarely do I see sociopaths accurately depicted; and even more uncommon is to encounter a novel that explores psychopathy as a trait inherited across generations, but when I started reading Kelly Braffet’s debut novel Josie and Jack, I knew I was in the hands of a bold and mature author with insight into the dark recesses of the human psyche that few writers possess. After I was done, I put the book down and thought: This book should be required reading in every forensic psychology class. Ms. Braffet nails it.

While some have compared Josie and Jack to V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (a book, I confess, to have never read) I can attest that it is much more on a par with Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and John Fowles’ The Collector in that the reader is in a constant state of unease as they turn the page; they know that unlike more conventional and less realistic thrillers, that good will not prevail in the end and that true evil is not some liver-and-fava-bean-eating caricature of a monster but is as ordinary seeming as the paper delivery boy. Or your brother, sister or father. What the readers of these books far more sophisticated books can never guess is: How will it end?

Bored and boozing teenage siblings Josie and Jack pass the time during their abusive college professor dad’s long absences by driving into the small Pennsylvania town where they live; Jack’s purpose is to use his sultry sister as bait to entice a young
pharmacy clerk to steal drugs for them. When Kevin falls for Josie, Jack’s incest-fueled jealousy turns violent. Withdrawn and repelled by Jack’s rage, he lures her back to unquestioned loyalty by reminding Josie: “There’s a gap between us and them and you can’t bridge it.” With their mentally ill mother “Crazy Mary” long dead from suicide, and their supercilious father gone away all week, caught up in academic politics and scandal at a college that’s too far away for him to drive home every night, Josie has no choice but to acquiesce to a brother who is both tormentor and protector. And lover.

Joe Raeburn, their father, returns to the role of full time father during the Christmas break. Tensions between father and son come to a head when Jack betrays Joe by providing an academic rival with the ammunition to destroy his career. Jack storms off, leaving Josie in such a state of such lonely destitution that when he returns briefly to raid the house for valuables to pawn, Josie begs her take him with her, even if it’s to his new girlfriend’s house.

As the transient siblings end up in New York City, they drift from hustle to con, sponging off a series of women easily fooled by Jack’s seductive wiles. But as each
woman in turn suspects there’s more between the siblings than just filial loyalty, things can only turn ugly, especially since the sort of people who don’t mind housing a couple of petty thieves tend to be criminals themselves. Jack’s last mark is Lilly, a woman with movie star glamour who’s as corrupt and amoral as he is. Josie learns the hard way there’s no honor among thieves. After being drugged, she’s raped by two men, friends of Lily. In what seems like homage to the Paula Fox classic Desperate Characters, Josie is bitten by a ferret as she stumbles her way through her rapist’s apartment. She’s later treated for rabies. The subsequent events represent a turning point for Josie, and the reader is stunned by the unexpected violent culmination of this dark and twisted tale.

Kelly Braffet's first novel, Josie and Jack, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. She was born in Long Beach, California, in 1976, and has lived in Arizona, rural Pennsylvania and Oxford, England. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, and has taught novel writing at the Sackett Street Writing Workshop. You can read more about Kelly at her way cool website

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell

Did you know that Ernest Hemingway called Dawn Powell his “favorite living writer?”

In “Turn, Magic Wheel,” written in 1936, Dawn Powell began a series of books satirizing literary life in New York City. Powell’s biographer, Tim Page, has stated “if there is another novel that manages simultaneously to be so funny and so sad, so riotous and so realistic, so acute and yet so accepting in the portrayal of flawed humankind, I have not yet found it.” All this high praise is much deserved for I haven’t read a book this good in years!

Ambitious novelist Dennis Orphen decides make a name for himself by writing a book based on the life of his close friend Effie Calingham – ex-wife to a Hemingway-like literary legend. Fifteen years have passed since Effie graciously let Andrew Callingham run off with another woman. At the time the scorned wife made a conscious choice not to put up a fight or indulge in any melodramatic scenes in the belief that he’d love her all the more for making it easy for the literary legend to pursue what she thought would be a temporary dalliance. But was it the right choice?

Long after her divorce has gone through and after Andrew’s marriage to Marian, her rival, Effie valiantly upholds her ex-husband’s legend and her connection to him. She wears his name like a banner; she admits to no one that she has been thrown over and rejected; she feeds on her memories, exalting Andy as a hero, she nurses a secret, romantic hope that some day he will return to her.

During Andrew Callingham’s self-imposed exile abroad, he has become a writer of extraordinary repute, inciting the up-and-coming novelist and notorious womanizer Dennis Orphen to seek out a platonic friendship with a much older woman, the author’s ex-wife, as a means of access to the great man. Although they are the closest of friends, Dennis and Effie see each other daily; though he has an angry pity for her, though his attitude is one of half-worshiping affection, Dennis wants to make a name for himself as a writer, so he cannot resist the temptation of putting Effie into print.

Dennis has a ravenous curiosity about other people’s lives, and Effie’s romantic story offers him tantalizing material. “Turn, Magic Wheel” opens on the eve of his tell-all’s publication and the revelation of his blatant betrayal of Effie. Under the thinnest of disguises he’s written a book about the Callinghams, exposing Andy as an egotistical rake, proof that Effie’s life is founded on pathetic lies.

While Effie, whom he despises himself for hurting, is attempting put on a game face to the world, Dennis has his own problems. For several years he’s been stringing along his girlfriend, Corinne, an aspiring writer and devoted, desperate housewife who deceives her prosperous husband with breathless innocence. For all her frivolity, her alternating clinginess and flirtations with other men, Dennis and Corinne share a powerful sexual attraction; while he has no illusions about her, she is a necessary evil to him. Corinne, then, has the power to arouse his passion and his jealousy, but--by a strange quirk--it is to Effie that his loyalty is given – for she’s the one woman who will never try to tie him down.

The newspapers’ proclaim the debut of Dennis Orphen’s roman-a-clef of Andrew and Effie marriage and break-up, they also bring news that Andrew has thrown over Marian for a Swedish dancer. In an ironic twist, Effie can only empathize with Marion while secretly hoping for Andrew’s return. When word reaches Effie that Marian is dying of cancer in a nearby hospital, Effie has enough kindred spirit in her to attend to her now pitiful rival in her desperate time of need, she also recognizes the opportunity to connect once more with her ex-husband when Marian enlists Effie’s help in summoning Andrew to her death bed.

The scenes between the two Mrs. Callinghams, their dialogue and inner thoughts as they re-hash their roles in the great man’s life and career, their feelings for each other as rivals who share a past and man only they can understand are alone worth the price of reading this book.

Will literary lion Andrew Callingham tear himself away from his new girlfriend, from his splendid life of wealth and acclaim to re-unite with Marion? Or Effie? Both? Neither? And what of his opinion on Dennis Orphen’s just released libelous book and Effie’s connection to its author? More so than any thriller I’ve read this year, this book kept me up nights, turning the pages to find out the answers.

But “Turn, Magic Wheel” is about so much more than this. With the advent of Dennis Orphen’s book, and its subsequent sensation, Ms. Powell satirizes the NY literary world, skewering publishers, agents, editors, and writers in equal measure. What surprised me was how little the industry has changed since the 1930’s when hype and controversy ruled over talent, and derivative pedestrian writing still finds an audience.In the tradition of the best old Woody Allen films, this book pays homage to Manhattan; the lyrical descriptions of the city will leave you breathless. Every minor character in this book is distinct and exquisitely drawn, and the main characters are complex, each a study in contrasts, inner conflicts and irony. With its fully realized characters and scenes that are both hilarious and heartbreaking in the same moment, this is the ideal teaching novel – a level of perfection to which every writer should aspire. The more than satisfying ending is an inevitable surprise, a moment when you say “of course” and at the same time say, “God, I never would have guessed.”

Dawn Powell was born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, on November 28, 1896, the second of three daughters. Her father was a traveling salesman, and her mother died a few days after Dawn turned seven. After enduring great cruelty at the hands of her stepmother,
Dawn ran away at the age of thirteen and eventually arrived at the home of her maternal aunt, who served hot meals to travelers emerging from the train station across the street. Dawn worked her way through college and made it to New York. There she married a young advertising executive and had one child, a boy who suffered from autism, then an unknown condition.

Powell referred to herself as a “permanent visitor” in her adopted Manhattan and brought to her writing a perspective gained from her upbringing in Middle America. She knew many of the great writers of her time, and Diana Trilling famously said it was Dawn “who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit.”

When Powell died in 1965, virtually all her books had gone out of print. Not a single historical survey of American literature mentioned her, even in passing. And so she rested in peace, seemingly destined to be forgotten – or, to put it more exactly, never to be remembered.

How things have changed! Twelve of Powell’s novels have now been reissued, along with editions of her plays, diaries, letters, and short stories. She has joined the Library of America, admitted to the illustrious company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Edith Wharton. She is taught in college and read with delight on vacation. For the contemporary poet and novelist Lisa Zeidner,

writing in The New York Times Book Review, Powell “is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland, and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh.”For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell’s sudden popularity: “We are catching up to her.”

Her books live, and with these newly designed editions, with their reading group guides inside, more people than ever before will be able to hear Dawn’s distinctive voice.