Hannah Pittard, Grand Central, 288 pages
A massive storm grounds Kate’s flight home to Chicago. Sitting on the tarmac, the man sitting next to her, Frank from Wisconsin, has been telling her his life story for two hours. Kate has a phone message from her brother. When she returns his call, he tells her their father is dead, having shot himself in the head. Kate has enabled the phone speaker function, and Frank – like the other strangers on the plane – has heard the message loud and clear. That opening scene sets the tone for Hannah Pittard’s wry, emotionally insightful second novel, “Reunion.”
A failed screenwriter, Kate is mired in debt, sustained only by the generosity of her husband, who is leaving her. Now her father dies, leaving behind Kate, her brother and sister, and five ex-wives and a bunch of half-siblings who all converge in Atlanta to put him to rest. Kate wishes she could pull back and watch from a safe distance, but the whole weekend promises to be a series of still lifes, starring her and her siblings. The book is narrated in short chapters – with titles like “Things come to a head in the kitchen,” “The ex-wives explained” or “A partial list of the secrets I keep track of while I lie awake in bed most nights. Kate’s voice resonates and elevates the book beyond a family drama.
Minerva Koenig, Minotaur, 304 pages
“Nine Days” starts with Julia landing in fictional Azula, Texas, population 5,141. She’s there under the federal Witness Protection Program, after she and her husband were attacked by white supremacists in California. Her husband dies, and Julia’s set up in an apartment in the same house as the police chief, and with a job as a bartender.
For a small town, Azula’s got a lot going on. A downtown development scheme seems fishy. Acurandera (Hispanic healer) knows way too much about Julia. A handful of gang members who call themselves the Texas Kings are lurking about. Then a murder happens that might endanger Julia’s Witness Protection status, and severed hands start turning up in odd places. To complicate things, everyone seems to be either related or in bed together – literally or professionally or both.
Koenig, who was raised in Galveston, Texas, is a master at dialogue and prose, showing regional accent, character and the oh-so-South Texas need for moisturizer in the smallest snippet. The best thing about Julia is that she’s far from perfect. Her inherent close-your-eyes-and-steam-ahead bravery, for example, flees when she’s confronted with a Confederate flag at a possible gang lair. She’s not above snooping, or stealing, to get what she wants. She’s mouthy and politically incorrect to the point of rudeness. I want her to be my new best friend.