In the Mail: fiction edition

The Flawless Skin of Ugly People by Doug Crandell

Publishers Weekly

Hobbie, the narrator of this endearing debut novel, prefers the company of his beloved mutt, Terry, to the companionship of most humans. Hobbie, who has a blistering case of chronic acne, and Kari, his obese girlfriend of 20 years, continually aggravate their situations: Hobbie picks at and further inflames his bad skin while Kari eats in response to a shared tragedy from their youth. When the novel opens, Kari’s ensconced at a weight-loss clinic hundreds of miles from their temporary north Georgia home, and Hobbie lives like a hermit until he’s attacked by a bear. While recovering, he’s sucked into the messy world of Kari’s father, Roth, and slowly, clumsily becomes part of Roth’s family once Kari goes missing from the clinic. Crandell has an exquisite eye for small details–Kari’s letters home are written on lined paper, the same kind we wrote love notes on–that lend a tender feel to what could easily be overwrought. Though the novel turns on some unconvincing plot twists (particularly in the concluding section), the characters and situations are so simultaneously moving and unique that a bit of contrivance doesn’t sink this tale of misfit love

Noogie’s Time to Shine by Jim Knipfel

Publishers Weekly

Memoirist Knipfel (Slackjaw and Ruining It for Everyone) here presents Ned Noogie Krapczak, a friendless, 35-year-old schlub who works as an ATM re-stocker and repairman, lives with his mother and is obsessed with old movies. It’s clear from the beginning that Knipfel is knowingly drawing on affable loser stereotypes, particularly when he has Noogie steal his first $20 from one of the cash machines entirely by accident. The magnitude of Noogie’s theft, however, soon sets him apart: working piecemeal, Noogie steals close to $5 million in $20 bills before being forced on an elaborate road trip with his cat, Dillinger. The book’s first half traces Noogie’s haphazard flight through unremarkable American towns and has an oddball charm: the possibility that Knipfel’s sad creature might have gotten away with such a simple, substantial crime provides real renegade pleasure. In the second half, however, Knipfel shifts focus to the cops and FBI agents trying to track Noogie down: their crews feel thin and underrealized in comparison. Nevertheless, Knipfel’s talent for empathizing with the underdog, evident is his earlier work, makes Noogie’s adventures poignant and funny.

Fire Bell in the Night

Publishers Weekly

One of the two winners of the First Chapters contest, Edwards’s provocative debut begins in the summer of 1850 as the debate over the expansion of slavery into the Mexican Cession territory prompts threats of secession and war. A slave revolt and rumors that the leader of the uprising is roaming the countryside recruiting an army further frays nerves in Charleston, S.C. When a local farmer is caught harboring a runaway, he is charged with a capital crime. The New York Tribune sends young reporter John Sharp to cover the trial; he quickly befriends planter Tyler Breckenridge, the scion of one of the most powerful families in Charleston. But as Sharp and fellow reporter Owen Conway uncover clues of a covert militia buildup, Sharp begins to suspect that Breckenridge is involved. As the emotionally charged fugitive-slave trial unfolds, Sharp and Conway rush to expose the secessionist conspiracy and head off war. Edwards fills the gaps in the record of the Crisis of 1850 to produce a plausible scenario that eloquently captures the fear and rivalries of the antebellum era, though many passages could use a healthy pruning. For fans of historical fiction–and Civil War fiction particularly.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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