Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
"Eat it, Nosey," he said again. "Only this time make sure you chew."
Allen Kurzweil is 10 years old, and his roommate at an elite Swiss boarding school is forcing him to eat bread soaked in hot sauce until tears are streaming down his face and then some. This incident, along with several others at the hand of Cesar Augustus Viana, causes Allen to leave the boarding school that summer after his first year. While the view of the Alps may be far behind him, the memory of Cesar, his tormentor, never dies.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully documents the adult Kurzweil’s journey to track down Cesar and confront him at last. His quest takes him back to Switzerland to look for the ghost of his past in old dormitories, to an ill-fated beauty school in Manila, through New York City law firms and to a Californian federal prison. As he unearths more of Cesar’s movements and where he might be now, Kurzweil finds himself under the weight of tons of documents convicting Cesar in a bizarre international, multi-million dollar bank fraud case.
Will Allen follow through on his promise to punch Cesar right in the nose if and when at last they meet? Will all of his meticulous research and a lifetime of reliving the horrors at the hands of Cesar be in vain? More importantly, has Allen’s obsession with bringing Cesar to justice and righting past wrongs turned him into what he has feared: Has he become the bully?
Kurzweil’s obsession for all things related to Cesar’s life make this a fascinating read. Biography and memoir fans looking for something a little unconventional will be happy with the level of detail and the thoroughness of the research.
February has been an excellent month for the short story. Highly anticipated collections from three renowned authors have found their way to library shelves. British writer Neil Gaiman is known for blending reality and fantasy in a way that can be both comforting and unsettling. His often dark, well-crafted prose enticingly draws the reader in, providing just enough familiarity and knowing humor before changing the game entirely. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances represents the writer’s work at its best. Standout pieces include “The Thing about Cassandra,” in which a thirtysomething young man comes face to face with the young woman whose name he wrote over and over again on the covers of his high school notebooks — his first love. The twist? He made her up in order to deflect questions from his friends and his mother over his lack of a girlfriend. In “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” Gaiman offers a mashup retake on “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” imagining the two stories taking place at the same time. He turns these traditionally passive women into active participants in their own fairy tale lives, with their own agendas. A lengthy preface to the collection provides “trigger warnings” for each piece, explaining a bit about their genesis. Readers who want a spoiler-free experience would do well to treat the preface as an afterward.
Consider Kelly Link, the Massachusetts cousin-once-removed of Neil Gaiman, who Gaiman once referred to as “a national treasure.” Get in Trouble is her first collection for adult readers in a decade. To enter the world of Kelly Link is to suspend all disbelief and any preconceived ideas of what a story might be and where you might end up. Get in the passenger seat, buckle up and let Link drive you into the dark corners of her imagination, where reality and fantasy live intertwined. These are bedtime stories for readers who are still intrigued by the possibilities raised by myths, magic and fairy tales. In the opening story, “The Summer People,” teenager Fran is home sick from school, yet she still has the responsibility of gathering provisions for the incoming vacationers who stay in the houses her father maintains. He’s an alcoholic, and their hardscrabble life isn’t a pleasant one. Fran can’t even dream of getting away; she’s bound by magic to the powerful and creative unseen guests who dwell in one of these abodes. Don’t expect to be done with a Kelly Link story just because you’ve reached the end. Tales like “Light” — replete with a world filled with Chinese-owned “pocket universes” and a Florida overrun with iguanas and invasive mermaids and a protagonist born with two shadows, one that grows into her twin brother — will leave you wondering what hit you.
If you prefer realistic fiction, pick up Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do, a collection of 10 interrelated tales set in his native Minnesota. Baxter is considered a modern master of the contemporary short story, and in these wryly intimate, nuanced pieces he comments on human nature and the complexity of relationships. The protagonist of “Loyalty” finds that the ex-wife who left him and their infant son well over a decade ago has returned. What will he do with this woman, clearly in poor mental health, who looks like “she has gone through a car wash?” It says a lot about Wes that he opens his house to her, and his family helps to set her right. But after all, it was his new wife, one of her best friends, who encouraged her to run off in the first place. In “Gluttony,” an overweight pediatrician is forced to endure a lecture about his morally faulty parenting from the overtly religious parents of his son’s girlfriend. His stress-induced eating leads to a near tragedy. Fans of the work of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro will enjoy the storytelling of Charles Baxter.
Author Wes Moore, not yet 40, is already quite accomplished. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholar, an army officer with combat tours in Afghanistan, a Wall Street banker, a White House fellow and author of a bestselling memoir, Moore surely exceeds any standard measure of success. Moore’s newest book, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, reflects upon his varied experiences which have impressed upon him the importance of work which one believes to be meaningful.
Baltimore readers may already be familiar with his first book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which Moore was motivated to write after reading a newspaper article about a young Baltimore man who grew up a few blocks from Moore’s childhood home, imprisoned for his part in the shooting death of a security officer. That man’s name, too, is Wes Moore, and author Moore struggled to understand the difference in the life journeys of the two men. In The Work, Moore acknowledges his lifelong fascination with “fate and meaning…success and failure.” He goes on to highlight what he views as lessons learned from his myriad workplaces and shares stories about people who’ve inspired him and are also practitioners of work, paid or otherwise, aimed at serving others.
John Galina and Dale Beatty are the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which aims to provide disabled veterans with affordable and accessible housing. Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore City, where nearly all the students live below the poverty line, is led by Principal Joe Manko who cut the administrative budget in favor of bringing in technology and resources directly benefiting his classrooms. The Aley siblings formed American MoJo, a for-profit manufacturing company meant to employ struggling single moms. Moore also finds role models in every day folks who may not be as visible but exemplify passion and service, such as his grandfather or a NYC office cleaner. The Work includes an appendix of questions which, though introspective, could be used for triggering a book club discussion.
In an English village, a son awaits the undertaker after the death of his beloved mother. In a Serbian town, the murder of an archduke sends turbulence throughout Europe. Little does Inspector Ian Rutledge know how profoundly these deaths will affect his life.
Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day carries us back to 1914, before the war forever damaged a young inspector and an entire European generation. Resented by his superior for his upper class credentials, Rutledge must convince the obtuse, results-driven Chief Superintendent Bowles there is a pattern in seemingly unconnected murders. On the face of it, they all committed suicide. No one would drink that much laudanum unless they intended to end their life. But too many men of property are dying for no reason. Despite instructions, Rutledge resolves to unearth the common denominator before more innocent people lose their lives. While doing so, he must convince his fiancé that his profession is a true calling, not simply a whim easily discarded.
Rutledge, destined for a brilliant career at the Yard, is in love with Jean Gordon. He is determined to marry her despite advice against it. The daughter of a career Army officer who believes there is no greater glory than to serve King and Country, Jean urges Rutledge to claim that glory quickly, before the war ends. After all, it will all be over by Christmas.
This is the 17th entry in the Inspector Rutledge series by mother and son writing team David Todd Watjen and Carolyn L.T. Watjen. If you are new to the series, it’s the perfect introduction to one of the best characters in historical fiction today. For current readers, it’s deeply poignant to see Ian as he was before the war; idealistic, insightful, confident, composed. The Watjen’s have won the Barry Award and were finalists for the Anthony, Edgar, Dilys, Macavity, Agatha and Nero awards. As we honor the memories of those who served 100 years ago, this outstanding historical fiction truly brings a lost generation to life.
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the coolest movies to come out in the past year. It has awesome spaceships, explosions, a short-tempered raccoon with a penchant for heavy weaponry and an incredibly groovy soundtrack. But where did it all come from? There's a whole lot of work that goes into making a completely fantastic world — and a whole lot of people. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy: The Art of the Movie brings credit where credit is due.
The book starts off with an explanation. Director James Gunn was initially going to turn the movie down. And then there was an epiphany, a moment when he realized that there was a whole lot to love about a talking raccoon. Then it's on to a history lesson. All the Marvel movies are based on pre-existing comic book characters, and the Guardians are no exception, with 50 years of continuity. Most of that continuity is now just a footnote. Yondu was a hero. Groot was once a villain who tried to take over the Earth. It's safe to say that the movie was so popular that every character who appeared in it will be rewritten from here on out.
The meat of the book is the concept art, from costumes to settings to characters and a whole lot of time spent on muscle starships. There were over 10 thousand pieces of concept art created for Guardians of the Galaxy, and a large, though not complete selection, can be found here. Little nuggets of information are dribbled on most pages, from methods for making costumes cool, stylish, reflective of historic periods, and simultaneously not interfering whenever a character goes to pull a blaster from their hip.
How do you make a galaxy and its guardians? Give a lot of talented artists free reign through history.
Missing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.
Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.
In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.
Imagine that right this second you could be anywhere else in the world: Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you seek out? Where would your dreams take you?
Cent dreams of space. She can jump anywhere in the world. Space is a whole other set of challenges.
The ticking heart of a Steven Gould book is the hard science underlying a fantastic premise. Yes, Cent and her parents can jump anywhere in the world, but it's underpinned by physics. Playing around with the implications of instantaneous travel is only part of the package. Much of the rest of it comes from examinations of present day and near future space travel. The third pillar of a Steven Gould story is relatively normal characters living through the fantasy.
Exo is the fourth book in Gould's Jumper series, which climbed all the way to the box office in an almost completely unrelated movie. Every single book has looked at the implications of instant travel, and every book has shown new revelations. This is the first to take the concept into space and ponder questions with serious real world implications. We're unlikely to ever have the ability to teleport freely, but any method that could allow for cheap or free launches could change the course of human history in large and small ways. A long, positive look is taken at the idea of letting senior citizens spend time in the comfort of zero gravity, for instance.
It's not all science. There are broken hearts, patchy relationships, awkward family bonding and an organization of spies lurking in the background. But Exo is a fun, fast romp that plays with some big ideas.
It’s hard to root against a 7-year-old named Millie Bird, the charming, precociously wise protagonist in Lost & Found, the heart-tugging debut by Australian author Brooke Davis. Millie just wants to find her mum, who has absconded from the large ladies’ underwear section of a local department store. Fortunately, Millie crosses paths with two peculiar octogenarians who become the unlikely minders for the abandoned Millie. It falls to them to reunite the little girl with her wayward mom.
Millie desperately needs a “Dot Four” since her father has died and now her grief-stricken mother has disappeared. Connecting the three dots from mom to dad to herself meant Millie felt safe. But now the red-gumboot-wearing, curly headed youngster is obsessed with dead things and carries a “just in case” glass jar around. She finds herself on a bumpy road trip through Western Australia suburbia with two elderly companions, who are also thinking about death but for different reasons. Karl the Touch Typist nervously types letters in the air as he speaks. He misses his dead wife. Millie’s neighbor, the sad and grumpy Agatha, has not left her house since her husband died seven years ago. “How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?” wonders Agatha. Indeed, it’s but one of many questions asked in Davis’ irresistible story that fuses the psychological reservoirs of grief with humor and the hopefulness of youthful perspective.
A suggested book club selection, Lost & Found may appear as a lighter read from its colorful, whimsical cover, but don’t be fooled. Inspired by events in the author’s own life, the novel was born out of a doctoral thesis on grief. Davis, whose own mother died suddenly in 2006, was “relearning the world” too, like her three distinctly voiced characters. With steady pacing and brief sectioned chapters, Lost & Found will strike a chord with anyone who has ever considered the many forms of missing someone and the different shapes of acceptance. Fans of The Rosie Project by fellow Australian author Graeme Simsion may also want to give this strong first effort a try.
Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives is the perfect book for customers clamoring for their holds on Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment. Like Klay, Pitre is also a former Marine who served in Iraq before returning home to chronicle his thoughts in writing, using fiction to reveal the realest truths.
Fives and Twenty-Fives reads as an assemblage of harrowing experiences Pitre survived while on active duty, told through three characters whose stories are woven into a moving novel. These three Marines comprise a portion of an Iraq Road Repair Platoon that sweeps U.S. military routes through the desert in search of hidden explosives. Donovan, the lieutenant, tries to lead and represent his squad while combatting the weight of self-loathing and the isolation of rank amidst imminent ambush. Lester “Doc” Pleasant is the platoon’s medic responsible for the lives of his teammates, but after witnessing a Marine overlook a live bomb, he resorts to his field kit for solace. Road Repair’s interpreter is an intelligent third-world post-grad named Kateb, known as callsign “Dodge” by his platoon. Dodge harbors an internal war between morality and loyalty that keeps him distanced from the Marines. Whenever his wall of superficiality is breached by violence, Dodge folds into a disheveled copy of Huck Finn and reflects on the university life that was stolen from him.
With a supporting unit of strongly humanized soldiers, Road Repair wages perpetual war with scorching desert conditions and treacherous insurgent traps. Pitre illustrates these losing battles without overwhelming readers with military jargon or trivializing the emotions and dispatches. Even with checks like fives and twenty-fives in place, it’s impossible to return from deployment unscathed.