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BOOK REVIEW: Lydia by Tim Sandlin


Lydia Cover Image
Sam Callahan had an unusual life growing up in GroVont, Wyoming. The only child of feminist, single mother Lydia; to call Sam’s upbringing eccentric would be kind. These days his daughter from his first relationship (Shannon) is grown, his relationship with her mother Maurey is fairly stable, his marriage with Gilia is a blessing and his work at the Virgin Birth Home for Unwed Mothers fills his life with meaning. All of that is about to change however; for Lydia is coming home from jail, and she won’t settle for anything less than a triumphal return. However, when her parole officer assigns her the task of recording 99 year-old Oly Pedersen’s life story, the winds of change sweep in for many residents of GroVont.

Fifteen years after publishing Social Blunders, the final volume in the GroVont Trilogy (begun in Skipped Parts and Sorrow Floats), Tim Sandlin rewards “Sandlinistas” (die-hard fans) everywhere with Lydia. As anyone who has read the first three novels knows, Lydia is everything loud, obnoxious and self-indulgent. Sandlin reminds readers of this early in the novel: “She’d gone into prison as a force to be reckoned with and come out as a tiny shred of aged mass…Hatred, she could fight; being dismissed was intolerable.”

Lydia is so blatant with her anger and hostility that readers will soon want to swat her away like an annoying fly buzzing around their ear. Her son Sam has spent much of his life wondering why his mother treats those she loves so horribly: “Lydia would starve before not tipping a waitress. She’d go back home if the alternative was parking in a handicapped slot, yet she lied to and browbeat the family she loved.” Even if you’ve read all of the previous novels, the amount of rage within Lydia can be difficult to understand, often rendering her motivations positively incomprehensible.

Yet her family continues to try for some sort of a relationship with this woman who could have written the manual on emotional abuse. And thus we reach the crux of the problem – readers simply must trust Sandlin’s plans for the novel and hop on for the ride. For “Sandlinistas” this is no problem; we’ve been committed to the ride since Skipped Parts but anyone beginning the journey with Lydia may find it impossible.

Truly unlikable characters are easy for readers to dismiss and therefore can be an effective distraction from the subtler messages writers wish to share. I believe that Sandlin uses Lydia as the pivot point for his novel the same way a magician uses a pretty assistant and wand twirling – look over here so you don’t see what I’m doing around back. Lydia distracts from the message Sandlin’s secreted within Oly’s story, providing time it to unfurl (even though its importance is announced from the beginning by both the quieter narrative and the use of a distinct font for his sections).

If you haven’t read anything by Tim Sandlin, don’t start with Lydia. Do yourself a favour; grab a copy of Skipped Parts and start the journey to GroVont, Wyoming at the beginning. It’s worth the trip!

ISBN: 140224181X
ISBN13: 9781402241819

464 Pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: April 12, 2011
Author Website:

(Disclosure: A review copy of this novel was provided by the publisher.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Sounds Like Crazy by Shana Mahaffey


n314823Holly Miller is stuck in a dead-end job and lives in a run-down apartment in New York City. While she seems to live alone in reality Holly lives with “The Committee,” the five different personalities that make up her Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Residing in the Holly’s head are the faceless Boy in the red Converse; the ancient meditating Silent One; Sarge, who keeps her safe; whale-size Ruffles, the chip eater, and Betty Jane, the Southern belle. When flirtatious Betty Jane lands Holly a job as a cartoon voice-over artist, her life appears to stabilize and she is finally able to support herself. However, when the directors want to make Ruffles the star of the show, all hell breaks loose.

The first half of Sounds Like Crazy, the debut novel from Shana Mahaffey, reads like a farcical play on fast forward. Personalities rapidly appear/disappear, bizarre events happen and Betty Jane’s Southern drawl quickly feels “like a bad hang-over pounding against [one’s] temples.”

The second half of Sounds Like Crazy is the stronger, as Holly focuses on her therapy and layer after layer is pulled away to reveal the events that led to Holly’s development of DID. The pace of the novel slows, Mahaffey’s writing style becomes clear and concise as she delves into a subject that clearly fascinates her, how the human mind works. While her narration is evocative (“…the familiar rattle of a Volkswagen Beetle…that sounded like a bag of rocks and sand shaking…”), the character of Holly remains quite undefined for a novel of this length (400 pages).

The comedic tone in the first section of Sounds Like Crazy stands in complete opposite to the rest of the book, so much so that one is led to suggest the book has multiple personalities. This attempt at levity and slapstick detracts from the strong voice that resounds from the second section. Like many debut novelist, Mahaffey tries to do too much in one novel and ultimately this detracts from the power of Holly’s story. If Mahaffey focuses her writing on other topics that interest her as much as the human mind, she should enjoy success as a novelist.

ISBN-10: 0451227913
ISBN13: 9780451227911

Trade Paperback
400 Pages
Publisher: NAL Trade
Publication Date: October 6, 2009
Author Website:

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BOOK REVIEW: The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow


The Late, Lamented Molly MarxMolly Marx’s death happened suddenly and police are trying to determine the cause of death. Last seen riding her bike through Riverside Park, her body is found on the bank of the Hudson River and it is uncertain if her death was accidental, suicide or murder. While Detective Hicks tries to uncover the truth about her death, Molly tries to adjust to life in Duration and learn the rules governing the recently deceased.

When Molly learns that she can watch those she’s left behind and that she’s been gifted with a preternatural bullshit detector, she is delighted. Her observations of her four-year-old daughter Annabel, her twin sister Lucy, her husband Barry and her best friend Brie lead Molly down memory lane and, as readers learn more about Molly’s past, the mist begins to clear on her present and her death.

Sally Koslow’s new book The Late, Lamented Molly Marx is an exploration of marriage, family life and friendship. Molly and Barry’s marriage was far from perfect. Despite the fact that he never ceased his infidelities, there was love within their marriage. As Molly reflects on her life and the months prior to her death, readers learn that marriage and fidelity are never black and white issues.

The Late, Lamented Molly Marx could easily have slid off the rails into a morass of self-pity but Koslow imbued Molly with strength of character. Instead of wailing “why me,” Molly reviews her choices, accepts responsibility for them and slowly finds peace in the Duration (Koslow’s concept of the afterlife).

While Molly rightly occupies centre-stage in Koslow’s novel, the secondary characters’ (her friends and family) growth, presented through Molly’s evolving perception and omniscient narration, is fascinating. Detective Hicks is dogged in his pursuit of the truth and what started as a standard template characterization becomes fully-fledged and commanding of reader’s empathy.

The only serious complaint that could be made about The Late, Lamented Molly Marx is Molly’s twin sister Lucy. The incident at Annabel’s day-care felt awkward and Lucy felt flat. Koslow could have explored the twin connection more, instead of keep Lucy as sharp angles that appeared to fight the narrative.

ISBN10: 0345506200
ISBN13: 9780345506207

320 Pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: May 19, 2009
Author Website:

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