Tag Archives: Sweetgirl

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser: In the bleak mid-winter…

Cover imageTravis Mulhauser’s novel first caught my eye on Twitter last year thanks to a quote from Ron Rash who seemed to think it well worth a read. Rash belongs to that stripped-down school of writers whose names always snag my attention. Set in blizzard-swept Michigan, Sweetgirl certainly lived up to his ‘gritty, compelling’ billing but what I hadn’t expected was a hefty dollop of black comedy.

Sixteen-year-old Percy’s mother has been missing for nine days. Percy has an idea where she might be, and heads off through the snow in her pick-up for Shelton Potter’s farmhouse where he cooks up methamphetamine for the locals. There she finds Shelton and a woman passed out on the floor, the place stinking and dishevelled. Creeping around the farmhouse looking for Carletta she stumbles upon a baby, her face lightly covered in snow from an open window. Percy instinctively picks her up, calming the child’s distress and taking her off to the only safe place she knows: Portis Dale’s, the closest to a father she’s ever had. When Shelton comes to, the first thing on his mind is to persuade the unconscious Kayla to get rid of his beloved dog’s corpse and clean up the house. Once upstairs he discovers the baby has gone. What to do? Far from the sharpest tool in the box, Shelton flounders about coming up with ever more ludicrous explanations for Jenna’s disappearance before ringing his Uncle Rick’s henchmen and dangling a reward in front of them then setting off to search for her, taking the time to admire himself in his new snowmobile outfit before he does so. What follows is a suitably nail-biting race against time and the long forecast blizzard as Percy and Portis try to get Jenna to the hospital with Shelton and co. on their trail.

I finished off my last review hoping for an Ang Lee adaptation of Thomas Savage’s cinematic The Power of the Dog. Sweetgirl is equally ripe for a screenplay but this time it feels like Shelton and his motley, clownish crew have walked straight out of a Coen brothers’ movie. Shelton could easily have become a caricature, if ridiculous, villain but Mulhauser keeps him human, allowing him a few shreds of decency as he does with Carletta who loves both Percy and her older sister but is rarely sober enough to have been a mother to them. The hilarity of Shelton and his sidekicks with their casual, backfiring violence may be almost slapstick but the novel’s deadly serious theme is clear as Percy tries to save Jenna from the same trap she’s found herself in.  Not quite what I was expecting, then, but well worth reading and the ending’s everything you could hope for.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Not long back from my Viennese jaunt  – of which more later in the week – but here’s one I made earlier. February’s the perfect time to draw the curtains on the murky grey outdoors and get on with some serious reading. There’s no shortage of choice this year – so many tasty offerings that despite the fact that it’s the shortest month there’ll be two posts devoted to new books.

Cover imageTop of my list has to be Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. I’m a long-term Strout fan. You may know her work already or perhaps saw HBO’s excellent adaptation of Olive Kitteridge. Sadly, several of her novels have been packaged in the UK in the kind of wishy-washy pastel covers that fail to do her fiction justice.  Much more suitably jacketed, this new novel examines the relationship between mothers and daughters – always fertile terrain – as Lucy’s mother unexpectedly visits her after many years of estrangement. Strout’s a mistress of the understatement, writing in that elegant pared back style that pushes my literary buttons.

New York settings are catnip for me and Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life sounds particularly attractive with its story of female friendship. Katherine struggles with motherhood and an unreliable partner while Mahsa flees her strict guardians in Karachi, only to be faced with an arranged marriage in Montreal. She escapes to New York where she and Katherine become friends, brought together by a shared passion for music. ‘Vividly rendered and sweeping in scope, Under the Visible Life is a stunning meditation on how hope can remain alive in the darkest of times, if we have someone with whom to share our burdens.’ according to the publishers. Very much like the look of this one.

Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing is another New York-set novel, although this one’sCover image themes sound sadly universal. An Irish oncologist becomes increasingly disillusioned with city life as he searches for a breakthrough in his research while his marriage disappears down the tubes. Work is a comfort but life begins to look up when he meets a beautiful Russian translator. Perhaps not a particularly interesting synopsis but what caught my eye was the publisher’s descriptions of the writing: ‘Shot through with Duffy’s haunting, beautiful descriptions of the science underlying cancer, which starkly illustrate the paradox of an illness at whose heart is a persistent and deadly life force, This Living and Immortal Thing shows how the cruelty of the disease is a price we pay for the joy and complexity of being in the world.’

New York, again, for Heinz Helle’s debut Superabundance whose nameless narrator is separated from his girlfriend by the Atlantic. Although he loves and misses her he finds himself attracted to every woman he passes on the street. With his own brain in overdrive, constantly buzzing, he wonders at everyone else’s ability to cope with life so easily. I like the idea of this but it could very easily back fire. Well worth a look, though.

Cover imageI try not to succumb to those puffs you see from authors adorning book jackets but when it’s a writer whose work I love it’s difficult to resist. Certainly worked with Sara Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait which Nikolas Butler, author of the wonderful Shotgun Lovesongs. rated highly. That ended up being one of my books of 2015. The writer in question this time is Ron Rash who’s sung the praises of Travis Mulhauser’s debut, Sweetgirl. The eponymous girl is sixteen-year-old Percy. In search of her junkie mother, Percy finds herself struggling through blizzard conditions, caught up in an attempt to save a baby girl with the local crook and his henchmen in pursuit.  Given Rash’s endorsement I’m hoping for similarly taut, spare prose from Mulhauser.

That’s my last choice for this first selection of February titles, all American as you may have noticed. The next bunch will be much closer to home. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s offerings the hardbacks are here and here, and the paperbacks are here and here.