"If I'd Known You Were Coming" by Kate Milliken

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In the final story in this stunning collection, Drew is a young male character whose parents ran a family medical practice in rural Maine. He recalls that, in spite of having a very broad circle of friends, his parents only rarely invited anyone over for a get-together: “Only occasionally did they host their own parties, having grown weary of the occasional girl, the uninvited guest who would come back, his mother having to usher them off to her study, away from all the celebrants, her tone one of forced politeness, ‘If I’d known you were coming –.’ Drew was still a boy then, but he’d understood those girls, the look on their faces, how they wanted something already gone.”

Kate Milliken’s If I’d Known You Were Coming is a gallery of uninvited girls and women who have to muster tremendous forces of will to battle demons within and without. The initial entry, A Matter of Time, establishes the chilling topos straight away. In it, Lorrie is married to a Hollywood show business wannabe, and she’s desperate to make a go of things. When a visiting celebrity producer takes an unnatural interest in her five year-old daughter, Caroline, her reaction – the opposite of that of a protective mother, from what we can tell – sets the tone.

The landscape remains bleak when we glimpse Caroline years later, on her sixteenth birthday. In The Whole World Caroline’s behavior confirms the abuse that occurred. In Everything Looks Beautiful a woman cannot bring herself to make love to her husband, who is just recovered from a double amputation. She flirts with the gardening help instead. Through a couple of snippets, and interim stories of Caroline, the theme continues: women struggling to find the tools to cope with disintegrating lives. But then Ms. Milliken concludes with Inheritance, which brings us back finally to Caroline. At the end, the author introduces a surprise, a faint note of hope for our splintered, near-hopeless girl.

Ms. Milliken’s heroines are real, sometimes excruciatingly so. Their stories are just as real, and the events she hints at are horrifyingly common in life. These stories bring the emotional reality of these facts home with full force. They have a bleak emotional palette, but the author has crafted them so artfully, it’s hard to see how they could be done any better.

"The Lieutenant" by Kate Grenville

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Australian author Kate Grenville, in The Lieutenant, has fashioned a loose companion-piece to the powerful and award-winning The Secret River, and in the process has shown an impressive versatility: Not only can she paint convincingly on a large canvas, as in Secret River, can also do great justice with a smaller, more intimate narrative. The Lieutenant is marvelous.

Our laudable author imagines the events which change Lieutenant Daniel Rooke’s life. An officer in His Majesty King George III’s Marines, Rooke sails to New South Wales aboard the flagship of Britain’s first fleet to land and settle permanently. He travels with the reference and recommendation of the royal astronomer, and sees nothing but the grand vistas of new worlds and new opportunity. He chooses, however, to follow his own conscience at a moral crossroads, and it changes his life forever.

The Lieutenant is full of closely-observed thought processes and the internal dialogue of its hero, and we have absolutely no trouble believing it. Based on events in a real officer’s life, Ms. Grenville’s imagining is a triumph – realistic, understanding, compassionate, vivid. The pivotal events in the man’s life don’t need a long exposition, and don’t get any more than is absolutely necessary. This economical treatment accomplishes exactly what it needs to – this tale could very easily be over-told or under-told. This author hits it in the sweet spot.

This holds its place as a companion-piece to The Secret River because of the temporal and geographic proximity, but has not been set up as a prequel. I’m intrigued by its relationship to Secret River and quite looking forward to Sarah Thornhill, the third book in the trilogy. Take up The Lieutenant and travel with its hero, see his place in history, and feel his anguish as he searches his soul during a timeless conflict. Recommended very highly.

"A Town Like Alice" by Nevil Shute

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Nevil Shute proved in The Checquer Board and in A Town Like Alice that he can write unforgettably sympathetic characters in heroic and romantic situations. In Checquer Board a British veteran of World War II returns to Southeast Asia to the woman he loves. In A Town Like Alice a compelling female protagonist, treated mercilessly by the Japanese occupiers in Malaya, discovers after six years that a heroic Australian soldier, whose kindness proves the difference between life and death, is still alive, contrary to what she believed. The heart soars to read these plainly-told narratives.

Jean Paget is a young English girl who spent significant time in her childhood in Malaya, where her father worked for a British company. After passing her teen years repatriated in Southampton, she heads again to the Malay Peninsula to take a clerk-typist job with the same company. War breaks out at this time and the area very quickly falls to Japanese occupation. The book contains a very full depiction of the horrid hardship that follows: a group of more than 30 women and children must march hundreds of miles in the next two years as a series of Japanese commanders shuns them, wanting no responsibility for such a headache. During this time Jean meets Joe Harman, who provides the sorry troupe with meat, medicine, and fresh fruit, clearly saving their lives. Their occupiers found out about the pilferage, torture Joe by beating and crucifixion, and Jean and her group are forced to move on.

The balance of the book involves Jean’s and Joe’s discoveries about each other: Jean discovers that Joe is still alive, and Joe discovers that Jean, whom he first met when she carried a small child on her hip, was never married. Jean’s London solicitor
does what he can to bring them together; the whole is a highly gratifying read, tear-inducing at times. I found the financial dealings in the final chapters captivating, as Jean turns into a tycoon of the Australian Outback.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the plot here, because it’s set up so well, and allowed to unfold at its own pace, with its own roadblocks and problems. Shute deals with racism, a continuing theme in his work, and war crimes, but the energy generated by our heroic couple and their devotion to each other drives this novel. Shute’s knowing portrayal of the inhospitable Outback, and of the investment required to make it more livable, ring spot-on true.

This novel has achieved the status of a classic, and it’s a designation I fully concur with. It has dramatic action, extreme physical stress, beautiful descriptions of Southeast Asian and Australian landscapes, true love, and a highly honorable moral code. Pick this up and let it accompany you forever.

"A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson

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Bill Bryson brings his familiar wit and humor to A Walk in the Woods that we’re all familiar with fro such wonderful titles as Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way (1990), In a Sunburned Country (2000), and A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), among many others. In it, Bryson shows a rapt preoccupation for the overwhelming landscape in which he has placed himself and his friend Katz. He also skewers other hikers, the American preoccupation with driving cars everywhere, certain historical aspects of the founding of the Appalachian Trail, the U.S. Forest Service, and of course, himself.

I would be pleased to say that he does all this with the typical humor we’ve come to expect from him, but Bryson’s funny moments are separated here by long stretches in which he recounts the physical trials of hiking the Appalachian Trail (“AT”), what he considers the misguided policies in place which govern the trail, people’s abuse of it, and his own disillusion with some of it. The result is a highly personal and believable account with flashes of charm and I’m going to say it,
with some longuers as well.

Bryson almost never deals with issues in any deep or serious way, principally as a matter of choice, I assume. He does recite certain kernels of environmental orthodoxy, an area where advocates needlessly play fast and loose with fact in the service of laudable goals. In my reaction to the book, this rises above the level of quibble, but not by much.

Overall, this is an enjoyable bit of Brysonia, full of honesty, and full of Bryson’s own affable persona.

"Lungs Full of Noise" by Tessa Mellas

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Tessa Mellas takes us, the uninitiated readers, by the hand and adroitly through the looking glass in her award-winning collection Lungs Full of Noise. And while each story has an underlying potential for a normal plot and characters, it turns out they deal in a madness that resides immediately below the thin veneer of our lives as though it can’t be helped.

Some of these exceptional and engrossing stories portray widespread, cultural neuroses, like Mariposa Girls, which deals with the tortures young girls willingly undergo to look and perform to standards they have no say in setting. And which high school grad cannot say she has encountered a new college roommate so foreign that she must come from one of Jupiter’s moons? Or been pushed into sexual activity by intense peer pressure, like the smart girl in Dye Job? These three stories, respectively shocking, amusing, and disturbing, at least show emotions we can recognize, and social trends all too prevalent.

Then there are the stories of highly personal madness, like The White Wings of Moths and So Many Wings. The women in these stories pursue astonishing courses – projects so bizarre that they barely make sense even to their own addled selves. These two pieces, told in plain and highly effective language, serve to establish the outer boundary of mental instability in these outré stories. And as such, serve to expand readers’ consciousness and establish new perceptive territory, and I can think of no higher calling in quality fiction.

 I want to end on a piece still further from our narrative norms. Landscapes in White consists of five prose poems with apocalyptic tone and content – they deal with birds dying in flutterings of feathers (with the horrific image of dead chickadees with their “claws branching up without leaves”); windblown pages of phone directories, and receipts, and newsprint – “Fall’s foliage stamped with Garamond font.”; acid rain: “Raindrops gorged on nitric acid streak the sable skin of night.”; in stanza 4 the apocalypse seems like it might be over: “When the rain stops, the world is missing its flesh. We walk on its bones …” We finish with an arresting note of festivity-amid-the-apocalypse, where a woman’s sparkler, which she waves around “like you’re conducting the disaster,” ignites without a match. This piece contains the clearest statement of Ms. Mellas’s dark worldview that runs like a bass theme through this collection. It’s a stark, plain-as-day recounting of the logical end of so much reckless will and power.
distant from our narrative norms.

 Lungs Full of Noise contains a few distinct species of short story, and you never know which you’re getting from one to the next. However, each displays Tessa Mellas’s amazing inventiveness, her dark view, and her exceptional flair for the English language. This is truly a brave – and extremely deserving - pick for the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and I congratulate the board on its pick.