Posts Tagged ‘Larry Baker’

nancyadamsMost of us consider ourselves experts on high school — we’ve been there, after all. But how would that experience help or hurt us if we went back 20 years later, not as a student but as a teacher?

In Larry Baker’s smart and entertaining new novel The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, paperback ARC), Nancy, valedictorian of the class of ’77, returns to Kennedy High School as a first-year teacher 20 years after graduation. A widow with no children, she’s as surprised as anyone to be living in her late parents’ home on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, but her favorite high school teacher, Russell Parsons, has lured her back. He’s the popular principal at Kennedy now, married with two daughters, but Nancy is still emotionally drawn to him. Once school starts, however, she has more on her mind than rekindling her schoolgirl crush.

Baker, author of Flamingo Rising, a terrific coming-of-age novel, creates a colorful microcosm populated with familiar yet credible characters. Nancy, who narrates, has students who are high-flyers, misfits, bullies, rebels, nerds. The perplexing Dana may be the smartest of them all, but she’s struggling to make up classes after having a baby. Nancy can’t figure her out. But she’s also contending with her fellow teachers: the veteran who helped integrate the faculty, the prissy by-the-book newcomer, the charismatic basketball coach, the guidance counselor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Over the course of a schoolyear, replete with surprises, Nancy learns from them all about what being a teacher really means.

Baker’s book is in tune with the times — the mid 1990s — and thoughtfully explores issues of racial prejudice, sexual harassment, school violence and school-board politics. But mostly it’s a good story about mostly good people making their way in a changing world. I’m giving it an “A.”

flyingshoesIf you are the kind of person who alphabetizes your books, color-codes your closets and likes stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, bookstore owner Lisa Howorth’s first novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury, digital galley) is likely to drive you plum crazy. How appropriate it kicks off with Mary Byrd Thornton throwing a cheap plate on the heart-pine kitchen floor of her Oxford, Miss., home. The shards of faux-china explode all over the place, just like the pieces of Mary Byrd’s story. It’s a credit to Howorth’s often-glorious writing that you’re willing to pick through the mess.

Really, plot is the least of it, although Mary Byrd throws the plate after getting the news that the 1966 unsolved case of her murdered little brother in Richmond, Va., is being reopened after 30 years and Mary Byrd needs to come home. This will eventually result in her hitching a ride with a trucker and outrunning the ice storm that paralyzes Oxford, but not before her housekeeper Eva’s daughter is accused of murdering her abusive husband. And then there’s Mary Byrd’s husband Charles and their children, her gay best friend Hubbard, the homeless but resourceful vet Teever, and gallivanting flirt Jack Ernest. They all have their stories, which intertwine with Mary Byrd’s like the ragged vines in her overgrown garden. The past tale of the murdered brother is overwhelmed by the casual chaos of  Mary Byrd’s present, the very randomness of the everyday. Best go with the flow, or you can always fling a plate.



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Before the waves of summer books come crashing on successive Tuesdays this month, here are some titles that already have landed for your TBR pile.

Brandon W. Jones’ All Woman and Springtime (Algonquin, review copy) follows two North Korean girls from an orphanage and factory where they work for “Dear Leader,” as they escape across the DMZ only to become sex workers in Seoul and then are shipped in a locked container to a Seattle brothel. Pretty Il-sun and math prodigy Gi are stunned to find themselves in the United States, “the world’s most evil empire and its citizens the most bloodthirsty, oafish, inhumane people on the planet. . . . How could they live through it?” How indeed? Jones’ absorbing story is revelatory at every turn with its unexpected and heartfelt perspectives on the idea of “freedom.” He writes with a simple eloquence of homelessness and humiliation in both countries, as well as of love and hope.

In Larry Baker’s slim novel, Love and Other Delusions (Ice Cube Press, paperback galley), Alice, who is married to Pete, relates her long affair with much-younger Danny to her therapist Kathy. Was it love or sex or both? How much of it is memory, how much invention? Alice is an accomplished fictionalist, a downright liar.  She loves movies, as does Danny, who is working as a projectionist at an old movie house when they meet. Alice thinks of  their romance as a movie. She, of course, is the star. Baker, who wrote one of my favorite novels, Flamingo Rising, set at a Florida drive-in, artfully uses film imagery to ponder illusion and delusion. R-rated.

Who Will Hear Your Secrets? (Johns Hopkins, paperback) is the seductive title of my friend Robley Wilson’s sixth collection of short stories, which encompass moments large, small and often mysterious. In “Dark,” the evocative lead-off tale, an American couple in Ireland encounter a deer and a former priest, all the while speculating about Irish politics and history. But they remain visiting outsiders: “Then they switched off the lights and dreamed the dreams of tourists, which frequently involved the appearance of persons who had been long dead, and who spoke to them as if there was no boundary between death and life.” Other favorites include “Petra,” “Charm,” and “The Climate in Florida,” which deftly explores the state’s now-infamous “stand your ground” gun culture when a woman decides to get a gun. Wilson is right on target.

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