Tag Archives: A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 1

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to look forward to in May, most of which I’ve already read and reviewed including several that made it into my 2015 ‘books of the year’ but the jewel in the crown has to be Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. I’ve long been a champion of Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

Hopping over Wyoming from Colorado to Montana, Malcolm Brooks’ Painted Horses is set in the mid-1950s. More used to sifting her way through the ruins of bombed-out London, archaeologist Catherine Lemay has a summer to excavate a canyon before it’s flooded as part of a new dam project. Meanwhile John H, a U.S. Army cavalry veteran and fugitive, has made his hideout in the canyon. I think we can guess the rest. ‘Painted Horses sends a dauntless young woman on a heroic quest, sings a love song to the horseman’s vanishing way of life, and reminds us that love and ambition, tradition and the future often make strange bedfellows’ is the publisher’s lyrical summing up. I’m hoping for striking descriptions of the gorgeous Montana landscape.

Heading east to West Virginia, Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is a rip-roaring tale of Cover imagesmall town life in the coal rush where powerful men make their own kind of law and corruption is the name of their game. The city of Baltimore comes up once or twice which is perhaps why The Wire popped into my head but a more appropriate comparison would be with Boardwalk Empire. Whichever, in the right hands, it would make a corker of a film. It begins in August 1910 with the town of Keystone all agog as Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman face execution. Stuffed with colourful characters, goodies, baddies, gambling, cheating, a fantastically elaborate con and a monkey, the rest of Taylor’s novel is the story of how Abe and Goldie arrived on that gallows platform.

Scooting across to Seattle, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists is billed as ‘a smart, fresh tale for the millennial generation’ – not me, obviously but I need to keep up. Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy have been hosting outrageous parties throughout the summer. Real life catches up with them when Mickey’s National Guard unit is sent to Baghdad and Hal heads for college in Boston, the only legacy of that summer a Wikipedia entry they’ve written dubbing themselves The Encyclopaedists. ‘Razor-sharp, urgent and authentic, this is the story of a generation at a crossroads, staring down the barrel of adulthood and trying desperately not to blink’ say the publishers, which does sound up my street although it may make me feel very old.

And finally, giving up on the American theme altogether, Haruki Murakami’s first two novels Cover imageHear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 both follow the fortunes of their narrator and his friend, the Rat. The first sees the narrator in college drinking and listening to music in J’s bar with Rat, and pursuing a relationship with a nine-fingered girl while the second moves our narrator on three years leaving Rat behind for life in Tokyo working as a translator, living with twin girls and searching for a replica of the pinball machine at J’s. It sounds as if many of those hallmark themes familiar to Murakami fans were already in place when the novels were written. As with the hardback edition, both will be published in the same volume.

That’s it for May’s first instalment of paperbacks. As ever a click on a title I’ve read will take you to my review and to Waterstones website for those I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with May’s hardbacks they’re here and here. Second batch of May paperback goodies to follow shortly…

A Hanging at Cinder Bottom: A rollicking good yarn

Cover imageWesterns aren’t exactly my style but I’ve been a fan of Glenn Taylor’s novels since his first, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. Set, like the previous two, in his home state of West Virginia, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is a rip-roaring tale of small town life in the coal rush where powerful men make their own kind of law and corruption is the name of their game. The city of Baltimore comes up once or twice which is perhaps why The Wire popped into my head but a more appropriate comparison would be with Boardwalk Empire. Whichever, in the right hands, it would make a corker of a film.

It begins in August 1910 with Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman about to face execution. Keystone is all agog: it’s the first public hanging in years and people have come from all over McDowell County to see the show. A Punch and Judy stall tells their story, handbills are distributed, last photographs of the handsome couple – both dressed in their finery – are taken. Rutherford Rutherford, Keystone’s lawman, stands up to make his speech which is, shall we say, a little windy. His customary morning breakfast of six hardboiled eggs seems to be giving him a little trouble but he still relishes the thought of what is to come: the execution of the two people he loathes most in his small world. Just after the condemned have had their say the noon train pulls into the station, a small army of men jumping from its empty coal hoppers. Stuffed with colourful characters, goodies, baddies, gambling, cheating, a fantastically elaborate con and a monkey, the rest of Taylor’s novel is the story of how Abe and Goldie arrived on that gallows platform.

In his author’s note Taylor calls his novel ‘an unruly work of fiction’ which describes beautifully the comings, goings, adventures, misadventures and general shenanigans which make up his story but the way each part slots neatly together is far from unruly. The cliff-hanging first chapter sets us up nicely for what comes after but it’s not until the last few pages that you’ll appreciate just how cleverly the foundations have been laid for the denouement. Taylor engages our affections for Abe and Goldie from the start, spinning his yarn over an enjoyable few hundred pages in which a great deal of humour is mixed with tragedy and adventure until we learn their fate. The final, wonderfully theatrical chapter is a triumph which had me chuckling with satisfaction as the many stealthily laid clues resolve themselves. It’s a rollicking good read and I’m sure that Taylor had a great deal of fun writing it. There is a sober side, though – Taylor is careful to point out in his acknowledgements that the real McDowell County suffers from neglect, both public and corporate. In a nice touch, the novel is dedicated to its people, ‘past, present and future’.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 1

MotherlandLong experience has taught me that a ‘lost’ novel is often best kept that way so I won’t be including Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman here. Surely the entire world and its dog must know about it by now, anyway. Instead I thought I’d take a look at a few less trumpeted titles due in July of which there are enough to spread across two posts, beginning with Jo McMillan’s Motherland set in 1978. Jess’s mother is a communist, a fish out of water in Tamworth which resolutely resists her exhortations to see the light. When she gets the chance to spend the summer teaching in East Germany she and Jess decamp. A new life opens up, or so it seems. It’s billed as ‘a tragic-comic portrait of childhood’ and sounds very appealing.

I’m a little unsure about M. O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away which comes garlanded with praise from an extraordinary range of authors including the likes of Kathryn Stockett, Matthew Thomas and Anne Rice, to name but a few. Set in Louisiana in the ‘80s, it’s narrated by a fourteen-year-old who’s in love with Lindy Simpson, raped on her way home from school one summer day. Worryingly, we may be in The Lovely Bones territory, here, but so many writers have extolled the beauty of Walsh’s writing that I’m willing to give it a try.

Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This sounds entirely different. Greg Marnier is an American academic who has somehow landed up in Aberystwyth. At his college reunion, addled with jet lag and drink, he’s persuaded by a wealthy old friend that the derelict neighbourhoods of Detroit may offer him a way out. Robert’s plan is to buy up swathes of the boarded-up city and build a new America but several of the owners fail to share his vision. Clashes follow in what sounds like an interesting novel.A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Glenn Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottomis set during the boom years of the West Virginia coal mining industry. Poker-playing Abe Baach returns to Keystone hoping for a reunion with his lover Goldie Toothman, madam of the local brothel, only to find his brother dead and his father’s saloon a shambles. Trenchmouth was a triumph so I’m looking forward to a rollicking good read.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Scarlett Thomas’ writing in the past – The End of Mr Y left me cold but I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe very much. Her new novel, The Seed Collectors, sees an extended family gathered to remember their Aunt Oleander. Each family member has been bequeathed a seed pod, but with the legacy comes secrets which may divide them irrevocably. It’s described as ‘revealing all that it means to be connected, to be part of a society, to be part of the universe and to be human’. Something of a tall order, then.

The Night StagesSet in the ‘50s, my final choice for this instalment is Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages which follows Tamara, now a civilian after flying as an auxiliary pilot during the war years and settled in the west of Ireland. Her long affair founders when her lover’s brother disappears after a cycle race, leaving Niall convinced he is to blame in some way. Tamara decides to go to New York, reflecting on what has become of her life and her lover’s as she waits out a fogbound layover in Newfoundland. Both A Map of Glass and Sanctuary Line were quietly beautiful novels – I’m hoping for the same from The Night Stages.

That’s it for the first helping of July’s goodies. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website. More to come soon.