Monday, February 16, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth (2015)
Written by Christopher Scotton
Narrated by Robert Petkoff
Run Time: 13 hours, 32 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Grand Central

While The Girl on the Train has burned up the bestseller lists since it debuted last month, there was another January novel I liked even better. When initial reviews mentioned this book and classic writers such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain in the same sentence, I quickly added it to my TBR list.

But does it match the hype?

Scotton, who runs a technology firm, wrote a powerful debut novel on a subject that seems well-worn: a boy growing up. But sometimes, the stories that seem familiar are the best ones. Like the paintbrush strokes on its cover, the novel has a fairly simple plot, but told in a beautiful way (especially on audiobook).

Kevin is a teenager who has moved with his mom to his grandfather's house in Kentucky after a terrible accident has left them both in a state of grief. Summer has started and as Kevin connects with his grandfather Arthur, the owners of a nearby mine plan to increase mountaintop removal efforts, decimating the Appalachian hill country as a result. One of the local townspeople leads efforts to resist further demolition, but is badly beaten afterward. In part to get away from the increased tensions in town, Arthur takes Kevin and his friend Buzzy deep into the mountains to Glaston Lake. But an unfortunate incident sets off a race against time to get back to town in time.

The first half of the novel reads like a snapshot of the fictional town of Medgar, Kentucky. The atmosphere of the town, its residents, and daily life there seeped off the pages. The first half almost reminded me of a blend of Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows and Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in how it deals with a child coming to terms with tragedy in the South and facing issues of the day like environmentalism and prejudice. The book absolutely sparkles in this portion.

The second half, the trip to Glaston Lake and the race back, reads more like a thriller. However, there's also some magical realism involving a white stag that seemed out of the blue to me. I understood what the author was going for, the stag being a protector in the forest, but it seemed out of place compared to the style of the rest of the novel. The race back had me questioning whether or not it would unfold the way it did as one character seemed to have nine lives.

Also, the main villain in the book at first seems plausible and almost sympathetic. He wants to provide jobs to a town reeling from a down economy and lack of new business, even if it means destroying the beauty of the town's surroundings. But as the novel goes on, particularly in the climax, it felt like he devolved into a villain I used to see on the old Captain Planet animated TV show.

Despite the wobbly finish, I'd still heartily recommend this book to just about anybody. The first half's observations of small-town life and how a community can rally to support a grassroots effort (or turn against it) drew me right in. The novel has a great sense of setting, some very likable characters (and some truly roguish ones too), and a heartfelt story of compassion, healing and making memories. Scotton is working on a second novel and I'll be interested to read his future writings.

Grade: 4/5 stars. This novel is a fantastic debut and while it is still very early in the year, it has established itself as the early pacesetter for 2015.

A note on the audiobook version: The last book I listened to narrated by Petkoff was Michael Koryta's similarly-set though otherwise very different Those Who Wish Me Dead, so it was a little difficult at first to separate them. Otherwise, the audiobook is a treat and its 13+ hours flew right by. Petkoff once again does a terrific job giving each character a distinct voice and/or dialect.

For more on Scotton, visit his website.

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