Monday, June 5, 2023

Books: New Novels From Polly Stewart & Charles Soule


The Good Ones

By Polly Stewart

Harper; hardcover, $30.00; available this Tuesday, June 6th

Polly Stewart's short fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices and Best American Mystery Stories. She writes a new monthly interview column for Crime Reads and The Backlist, and her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and Poets & Writers.

The Good Ones is Stewart's debut thriller, and it centers on the heroine, Nicola Bennett, who hasn't been home in almost twenty years, since her friend Lauren Ballard didsappeared leaving only tire tracks, broken glass, and a police investigation that led nowhere.

Nicola is back in the small southern town in the Blue Ridge Mountains where these two friends were born. Nicola's mother has died, and it's time to pack up the house and sell, but there is something about home that reignites both the sorrow and the obsession to know what happened that night when Lauren vanished two decades ago.

In order to find out what happened, Nicola enmeshes herself in the community, in Lauren's husband's and daughter's lives, and in the stories of other missing girls. What Nicola also has to reckon with is the Lauren she knew, which was in contrast to the photos in the newspaper alongside the reporting of Lauren's disappearance. 

By all appearances, Lauren lived a perfect life, but Nicola knows Lauren wasn't who everyone thought she was. Their friendship was complicated in ways that still haunt Nicola. This deeply thoughtful novel taps into the complexity of women's friendships, how obsessions changes what you can see and understand, and the dangerous blurring between love, sex, and violence.

In this excerpt, Stewart writes, with the story told in Nicola's voice, "The last time I saw Lauren Ballard, she was scraping a key along the side of a cherry-red Chevy Silverado.

The newspapers and media reports never showed this side of her. They liked to use the photo of Lauren leaning against a stone wall in a gown encrusted with a thousand hand-sewn crystals, or the one where she posed in a field in a long white dress with her train rippling  behind her and a butterfly perched on her wrist. The problem was that the pictures were fakes, relics of the summer she spent modeling for the wedding boutique downtown back in high school. Her own wedding had been small and not particularly joyous, the swags of white tulle decorating the pews hanging limply in the August heat.

It was a familiar small-town story: the girl whom everyone expected to move away and make something of herself had been caught instead, locked down by the familiar forces of inertia and an unplanned pregnancy. The guests seemed puzzled by how things had turned out, and I guessed that no one knew what I knew: that Lauren had gotten knocked up on purpose, having flushed her birth control pills down the toilet in her senior year of college. 

What followed was so predictable that I could have written it myself. Lauren and her new husband bought a starter home on Blue Ridge Road, and he went to work for his father's realty company. After their daughter, Mabry, was born, Lauren got her real estate license and worked part-time. From the outside, they looked like a family in an ad for cereal or stackable washer-dryers. After Lauren disappeared, the police and the media saw what they wanted to see: a young, beautiful wife and mother who had married her high school sweetheart and settled in their hometown. She should have been cable news catnip, the pretty white girl from a good family whom viewers could ogle and pity at the same time. 

But this is what I've learned: the dead or missing girl is never the subject of the story. Sometimes she's not even the object. She is the circumstance, the accident, the nexus through which vectors cross. No one really knows her, not even the people who were closest to her in life. She becomes a stranger when you realize that her last moments were incomprehensible, an abyss you can't fathom.

This is not a story about a murder. It's not the story of what happened to Lauren Ballard in the early-morning hours of August 10, 2001. I can't tell that story, because even all these years later, I still don't really understand the events of that night. All I know is what was left behind: broken glass, a trace of blood on a wet washcloth, tire tracks in the grass.

These details are what matters, whether they're in photos on a truw-crime blog or lying neglected in a police evidence locker. I've arranged them every way I can think of, but it's like trying to play a board game with pieces missing. It's like a dream when you're walking down a familiar street and suddenly you're in a different city, staring at your reflection in a plate-glass window, trying to remember what brought you here."

The Good Ones Book Tour - Virtual Events

Monday, June 5 at 9:00 p.m. - 'Twas The Night Before Book Launch IG Live - @vanessalillie on Instagram.

Thursday, June 8 at 3:20 p.m. - Tell Me About Your Book With Robin Kall - IG Live - @robinkallink on Instagram.

Monday, June 12 at 8:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m.  Pacific time) - Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona - Polly Stewart in conversation with Megan Miranda - click here for more information on their calendar of events.

The Endless Vessel

By Charles Soule

Harper Perennial; hardcover, $30.00; available this Tuesday, June 6th 

Charles Soule is a New York-based, #1 New York Times best-selling novelist, comic book writer, musician, and former attorney. He is the author of some of the most prominent comic stories of the last decade for Marvel, DC, and Lucasfilm, including a groundbreaking run on Daredevil, the mega-bestsellers Death of Wolverine and Darth Vader, and a run on She-Hulk that served as inspiration for the Disney+ show.

Soule's new novel, The Endless Vessel, is a timely and muscular exploration of humankind's relationship to joy, the lengths in which we go to obtain it, and the ways we convince ourselves we have it. With a typically inventive narrative that travels from Hong Kong to England to post-Revolution America and across the seven seas, Soule found a way to extend the boundaries of his storytelling art.

There is a piece of impossible technology, and a search for who created it; a centuries-long quest to defeat death; and a woman whose only goal is to bring joy to humanity at any cost; the greatest treasure ever found; and a ship whose voyage will last forever.

Lily Barnes is a materials engineer living in Hong Kong a few years from now, and she stumbles across a device full of secrets that overturn her assumptions about the world. The machine seems to be addressing Lily directly, as it is calling out to her, asking her to follow a path to whatever lies at its end. 

Lily is on a search for the people who built it, leaving her life behind, traveling the world and across the seven seas. For Lily, and to a larger extent, the reader, the question is the same: how far would you go to be happy?

This story will take you from a heart-stopping scene in the present day at the Louvre in Paris, to a shocking and satisfying conclusion in a truly enchanted forest. Through it all, Soule has channeled history, science, and drama to create a story of hope, love, and possibility. 

"My new novel The Endless Vessel - what it's all about" By Charles Soule:

My new novel The Endless Vessel is basically a huge pile of things I'm interested in, from science to magic to sea voyages to happiness to the meaning of life. It's my first book to prominently feature Hong Kong, a place I lived for years when I was younger and still love and miss very much. But there's a deeper core to it beyond just "stuff Charles likes." Everything I write needs a direct connection to my inner self if it's going to be worth a damn, and The Endless Vessel is no exception. My first novel, The Oracle Year, reckoned with my questions (and terror!) about my future. My second, Anyone, looked at marriage and identity. What I'm kicking around with The Endless Vessel, just below the surface: fatherhood, and daughterhood, and what we owe the people we love, and who love us in return. The Endless Vessel is about my relationship with my daughter Rosemary (she's sixteen and amazing), and hers with me.

I wrote The Endless Vessel primarily from the perspective of a young woman, Lily, whose father dies when she is in her mid-teens - he "goes away," essentially, leaving a wide swath of emotional wreckage behind. Lily finds it difficult to connect with people fully after that, because some part of her is sure they'll eventually leave too. The journey in the novel is about Lily's attempts to understand her internal emotional landscape - the 'why' of the choices she makes - and the journey she takes across the world (and beyond) as she seeks new ways to bring connection and love into her life.

(That said, it's also a fantastic adventure with secret societies and an amazing sailing ship and near-magical technology and really smart characters and interlocking stories that are incredibly sad and happy at the same time. I put a lot of things I love into this one.)

With any good story - and I think The Endless Vessel is a good story - there's always a deeper layer. While the book is about my relationship with my daughter, it's also all related to things that happened with my own parents (my mother died quite young, and my father "went away" in his own way after she passed, until he died too about ten years later.) Those losses affected my siblings and me on deep levels we're still reckoning with decades later. I think about how my own decisions might impact Rosemary, I worry about it...and now I've authored a whole book about it. It's all family, all the way down - for me, for you, for pretty much everyone, I think.

The characters in The Endless Vessel aren't me and my daughter. They're a cautionary tale - they represent a path I do not want to walk. This book was a way to send myself a pretty stark message, reminding myself about what's important to me. Did I need to write an entire novel to answer those questions for myself? I'd like to think I didn't. But now that I have, I'm as sure of the truths laid out in The Endless Vessel as I could ever be.

We need other people. We need connection. We can't do it all by ourselves. That's what The Endless Vessel is about. For me, and I believe for everyone who reads it.

Upcoming Events With Charles Soule:

Wednesday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. - Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217 - Charles will be in conversation with Alex Segura. Click here for more information.

Virtual event - Saturday, July 15 at 2:00 p.m. - Valley Cottage Library in Valley Cottage, NY - Click here to find out how to participate. 


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