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Busy Will You Wait

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Busy Will You Wait ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Dot Crandall kicked off her shoes after one hour behind the desk and put on her fleece-lined mules. “My dogs are barking already,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll make it to the end of the day.”

“You have to make it,” Zora Costello said. “You ain’t got any choice.”

“One day I’m going to show them who’s got a choice and who hasn’t!”

“Maybe you ought to buy a different kind of shoes if they hurt your feet all the time that way.”

“It’s not my shoes. It’s my feet. They’re not normal”

“Nothing else about you is normal, either.”

Before Dot could take exception to Zora’s remark, there was a chirp-chirp sound, meaning the phone was ringing.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“People are calling here all day long with their problems,” Dot said. “It makes me sick.”

“I know, but that’s the world of business.”

“I don’t think I can stand much more of it.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click. “Okay, I didn’t want to talk to you, anyway!”

“Nobody’s waiting?” Dot asked.

“They just hang up.”

“My, but people are impatient today!”

“I’m glad they hang up,” Zora said. “Then I don’t have to deal with them.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“I’ve got a pain in my side,” Dot said.

“Pregnant, I’ll bet.”

Dot’s laugh was a sudden release of air, as from a gas bag. “Now, that would be a miracle!”

“Call that old man of yours and tell him you’re got a little bundle of joy on the way.”

“Not that one! He’s got alcoholics’ disease and, if that isn’t bad enough, his brain has gone soft from watching too much TV. When he’s asleep he dreams he’s watching Bonanza.”

“Well, that’s what happens to old men, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so, but I’m not ready to take care of an old man yet. I’m still young.”

“You’re not as young as you’d like to think you are.”

“You should talk!”

“I know. We’re both old.”

“And still going to work every day. That’s the sad part.”

“How long do we have to go until we can retire?” Zora asked.

“I don’t think that day will ever come,” Dot said. “We’ll both still be here when we’re ninety-five.”

“You’ll be ninety-five before I will!”

“We’ll die chained to these desks and nobody will even notice.”

“We’re already dead and in hell. That’s the only explanation.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“Fix your face, honey! Here comes that cute postman!”

With the precision of an acrobat, he came through the door, deposited the mail on the desk and went out again, all without looking up.

“I wish I could get him to look at me just once,” Dot said.

“Why?”

“I think he’s cute. Don’t you think he’s cute?”

Zora hooted with laughter. “If he looks at you, he would probably only be noticing the resemblance to his great-grandmother.”

“If I was only twenty years younger, I could go for him in a big way.”

“If you were forty years younger, it would still be a stretch.”

“He looks like a boy I was crazy about when I was fifteen. He was a couple years older than me and he wouldn’t give me a tumble.”

“He probably liked other boys.”

“You never forget your first love.”

“Are you sure he was the first?”

“I wonder what his name is.”

“You were in love with him and you didn’t know his name?”

“No! The postman! I wonder what his name is.”

“You could always ask him,” Zora said.

“I’m too shy. I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.”

“Do you want me to ask him for you? It’s probably Nelson or Kenny or something like that. Or maybe Kenny Nelson.”

“I think he looks like a Freddie.”

“Okay, then, we’ll say his name is Freddie.”

“One day when he comes in here,” Dot said, “I’m going to ask him if it’s raining. You know, engage him in conversation.”

“The janitor is more your type.”

“He’s too much like my husband and, anyway, he’s married.”

“Yeah, all the good ones are taken.”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“They hung up?”

“I think it was Freddie the postman calling to see if you would answer.  It sounded like his breathing.”

“If he calls again, tell him I’m waiting for him to make the first move.”

“Tell him yourself! He’s your love interest.”

“The pain in my side is getting worse,” Dot said. “Now I’ve got the same kind of pain in my head. I think I’ll go home sick for the rest of the day.”

“And leave me here to cope all by myself? I don’t think so!”

ChirpChirp.

“Goodapple and Rood,” Zora said. “I’ll connect you.” Pause. “Busy-will-you-wait?” Click.

“Hung up again?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you’re pushing the wrong button, honey. When you try to put them on hold, you’re disconnecting them.”

“Which button am I supposed to push?”

“This one.”

“I’ve been pushing that one.”

“That’s why they all seem to hang up. You’re cutting them off.”

“Well, isn’t that funny? Hah-hah-hah! The joke’s on me! Hah-hah-hah!”

“You’d better not let Mr. Goodapple know you’ve been hanging up on his clients. He wouldn’t like it.”

“You know what Mr. Goodapple can do! I’ll just say there’s something wrong with the phone.”

“The problem isn’t with the phone but with the person using the phone.”

“Yeah, who cares? I’m hungry.”

“Me too. I didn’t eat any breakfast this morning.”

“Maybe we could slip out and get a real sit-down lunch today.”

“We can’t both be gone at the same time. We’ll have to go one at a time or one of us will have to bring back.”

“I’ll go.”

“And leave me alone to answer the phone? I don’t think so!”

“You go, then. Bring me back a bacon and tomato on whole wheat toast, a large Coke and a pack of Luckies.”

Their thoughts were just then interrupted by the smell of Mr. Goodapple’s cologne and the sound of his footsteps in the hallway coming toward them. Dot opened a ledger and began studiously copying figures from it onto a pad. Zora opened her desk drawer and began rearranging the things inside.

“Well, well, well!” the great man boomed. “How are we all doing today?”

“Just fine, Mr. Goodapple!” Zora said.

“Very good, sir!” Dot said.

“Keeping busy, are we?”

“Oh, yes, sir!

“I like to check up on the girls in the front office and make sure things are running smoothly.”

“We’re getting along swimmingly,” Dot said.

“We’ve been so busy this morning!” Zora said. “Hardly time to catch our breath.”

Haw-haw-haw!” he laughed, showing his mule-like teeth. “That’s the way we like it, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes, sir!”

“The busier we are, the more we feel we’re earning our pay.”

“I was saying that very thing a little while ago,” Zora said. “We do love our jobs so.”

“You’ve both been here a long time, haven’t you?”

“Oh, yes, sir! Many, many years in fact.”

“More years than we can count,” Dot said.

“Some people just can’t stand to ever think of retiring, can they?” he said.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my job to go to every day,” Zora said.

“I feel the same way,” Dot said.

Mr. Goodapple smiled in his self-satisfied way. “I like to see dedication in my people,” he said. “And loyalty. Nothing is more important.”

Somebody came up behind Mr. Goodapple and tapped him on the shoulder and he left. Zora and Dot let out their breath with relief.

“That bastard!” Zora said. “Spying on us!”

“He’s got his nerve!”

“He thinks he’s so important and he’s just the white on top of old chicken doodle.”

“The smell of his cologne makes me sick.”

“For two cents I’d tell him what I think of him!”

“The pain in my side just got worse!” Dot said. “I have to get out of here!”

She stood up and shuffled in her mules down the hallway to the ladies’ room. When she came back, she was pale and her intricate hairdo had come undone.

“I was just sick in the bathroom,” she said. “The stress is too much for me.”

“You’d better go home and lie down, then, honey,” Zora said. “I can cover for you.”

“You’re right,” Dot said. “I guess maybe that’s the thing I ought to do.”

After Dot was gone, Zora combed her hair and fixed her face. Then she left the office to get herself a good lunch. She would take as long as she wanted, if not the entire afternoon, and if Mr. Goodapple didn’t like it, well, she’d be glad to tell him what he could do about it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Paris on a Rainy Day ~ A Painting by Gustave Caillebotte

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Paris on a Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Paris on a Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte 

Gustave Caillebotte was a French Impressionist painter who lived from 1848 to 1894.

Paris on a Rainy Day, one of Caillebotte’s best-known works, depicts the Place de Dublin, known in 1877 as the Carrefour de Moscou, a road intersection to the east of the Gare Saint-Lazare in north Paris. It debuted at the Third Impressionist Exhibition of 1877 and is currently owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. Paris on a Rainy Day has been called “the great picture of urban life in the late nineteenth century.”

The School on Heart’s Content Road ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The School on Heart Content's Road cover

The School on Heart’s Content Road ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

I first became a fan of Carolyn Chute when I read her novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine many years ago. Then Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts, Merry Men and Snow Man. Her most recent book (not that she’s published but that that I’ve read) is The School on Heart’s Content Road. She has another book out, Treat Us Like Dogs and We Become Wolves (just out in 2014) that I haven’t yet read but that I intend to read as soon as I’m ready to tackle another 700-page novel. (The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, is 769 pages.)

The thing about Carolyn Chute is that she’s not like other writers. Nothing bores me any faster than stories of yuppie angst and heartbreak (multiple marriages, affairs, fears about growing old, screwed-up kids because their parents are screwed up, blah, blah, blah). Carolyn Chute writes about the other end of the spectrum: people on the fringe, the dispossessed, the poor, illiterate (what’s called in the South white trash but is called something else in Maine where her books are set). These people are fascinating, and in The School on Heart’s Content Road we have a whole assemblage of fascinating characters. Characters who are much more concerned about survival than about their stock portfolios or what wines to have for dinner or what college two-year-old Muffy will apply to when the time comes.

The School on Heart’s Content Road is set, for some reason, in the year 2000. It is not about a school but instead centers around four characters: Michael (known as “Mickey”) Gammon, Jane Miranda Meserve, Richard York (likes to be called “Rex;” his mother calls him “Ricky”) and Guillaume (known as “Gordon”) St. Onge.

Fifteen-year-old Mickey Gammon smells bad (he doesn’t bathe) and he can’t read, even though he goes to school (or seems to). He lives with his half-brother Donnie Locke and Donnie’s family. Donnie works in an unidentified “chain” (like Wal-Mart) store and is understandably unhappy. He and his wife Erika have a sick child, Jesse, who is bound to die with cancer, whether he has treatments or not. They hardly have enough money for pain medicine for the sick child. Also living with them are Mickey and Donnie’s mother, Britta (she has three kids by three different men, none of whom she was ever married to), their younger sister, Elizabeth, and several of Donnie’s kids from a previous marriage (referred to throughout the novel as the “girl gang”). Donnie throws Mickey out of the house. (“You can’t live here anymore,” he says.) Mickey lives for a while in a tree house with Maine winter setting in. He begins spending time with Rex York, a fifty-year-old Vietnam veteran who has a military bearing and a soldierly attitude toward life (he doesn’t eat desserts and maintains his trim body with exercise). Rex is head of the True Maine Militia. This is a “separatist” group that doesn’t trust the government (with good reason) and will use force if necessary to “take back” (with plenty of guns and ammo) the country that they believe was stolen from them by greedy politicians and an even greedier corporate structure that “steals from them and tries to sell back what they have stolen.” They are a fringe group and have been much maligned by the mainstream media, whose job it is to stir up fear in the public imagination against them.

Gordon St. Onge is about ten years younger than Rex York, but they have known each other since they were young. (They consider themselves almost brothers.) Gordon is called (among other things) the “Prophet,” because he is a head of the “Settlement,” a sort of commune/co-op where a bunch of people live and work. Gordon is charismatic and is loved by most of the people who know him and feared by many because he has a lot of (not legal) wives and many children by those wives. It seems that nothing disturbs the public as much as the thought of “polygamy” and a “cult” in which young girls are made to have “relations” with much older men (it isn’t like that in the Settlement). Life seems to be pretty harmonious in the Settlement and the people living there are happy. Still, though, there is the idea that they will overthrow the government in an ugly way if (and when) they have the chance, or possibly even try to secede from the Union. For this reason they are disliked and feared.

Jane Meserve is a six-and-a-half-year-old, half-black girl (her father was a black musician with whom Jane’s mother, Lisa Meserve, had one encounter) who is suddenly left without a mother when Lisa is hauled off to jail on a drug charge. When Jane is wearing her heart-shaped, white-framed glasses that allow her to observe things that others can’t see, she is secret agent Jane, adding a lighter touch to the proceedings. She is a wry observer of everything going on around her, smart and clever beyond her years. She and her mother serve to illustrate how unfair and brutal police are (can be) to poor, powerless people. When her mother goes to jail, apparently forever, Jane is taken in by a Settlement family.

The School on Heart’s Content Road is always engaging reading. The “set piece” of the novel, toward the end, is a long, long (too long) sequence about an open house kind of event at the Settlement where everybody is invited. Hundreds of people show up; there are music, food and drinking. When Gordon speaks, he works the crowd up into a frenzy with his rhetoric about taking back the country and not standing for the government’s lies and double-dealing anymore. There are federal agents everywhere, and word has been circulated that somebody is going to try to kill Gordon. We know something is going to happen but we don’t know what until it happens. It’s not what we expected.

If you are a reader of “serious” fiction (as opposed to a reader of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann), you will like The School on Heart’s Content Road. If it was a movie, it would play at art houses instead of at your neighborhood multiplex where they have Ant Man and Jurassic World and all the latest rom-coms. Some of us just want more out of life and we’ll do whatever we have to do to get it.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Find Out Where the Train is Going

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Find Out Where the Train is Going ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

We’re in a long room that was once used for something else. There are thirty beds in two rows. These are accommodations for guests of the state: check bouncers, bigamists, shoplifters, pickpockets, prostitutes. You could go on and on calling out their misdeeds, but why bother? They are the morally bankrupt repeat offenders who are not beyond being redeemed or reformed. Give them two years, or four or five, and they’ll be out if they’re lucky. Redeemed? Not very likely. The really bad ones, the hardened criminals, the murderers, the ones that would throw acid in your face and enjoy doing it, are in another part.

Juniper Tarrant has only been in residence for a few days. She didn’t do anything. She is innocent. She was left with some hash or something—she wasn’t even sure what it was called—that belonged to her boyfriend, a man named Ed King. He disappeared and she went to jail, no matter how many times she told them it wasn’t her fault. Her one hope is that he comes back and tells them what really happened. Of course, she’s going to stick a knife in his ribs if she ever gets the chance, but that’s something that is going to have to wait.

On her fifth or sixth day (she has lost count already), her lawyer, an elderly man named Arthur Lux, comes to see her. She meets with him in a tiny room with a table and two chairs. A blank-faced guard stands against the wall, a silent observer. As she tells the lawyer again everything that happened, he writes it all down.

“When I woke up,” she says, “he was gone.”

Who was gone?” the lawyer asks. “You have to be specific in your answers.”

“Ed King.”

“Was that his real name?”

“It’s the name he gave me.”

“Did he use any other names?”

“I don’t know. Why would he do that?”

“How long had you known him?”

“I don’t know. A few months.”

“How many months?”

“About six.”

“You didn’t know he was involved in the selling and distribution of drugs?”

“No! And if he was, I wasn’t!”

“Do you have any reason to believe he deliberately framed you?”

“No! Why would he do that?”

“So, the two of you were living in this hotel together. What was it called?”

“The Excelsior. And I wouldn’t say we were living there. We were staying there for a few days.”

“For what purpose?”

“Why does anybody stay in a hotel?”

“Hotel records show the room was registered in your name alone.”

“Ed always took the room in my name.”

“Why is that?”

“He always had the feeling that somebody was following him. Watching him.”

“And you suspected nothing?”

“No. I stayed out of his business.”

“After the Excelsior Hotel, where were you planning on going?”

“I don’t know. If Ed knew what our next move was, he hadn’t told me.”

“So, you traveled around with him from place to place and you didn’t know what kind of activities he was involved in?”

“He told me he was a salesman.”

“What did he tell you he sold?”

“In his day he sold cars, washing machines, life insurance policies and other things, too. He didn’t like to talk about it.”

“And you didn’t question him?”

“Why should I?”

“And you thought he was a perfectly legitimate salesman?”

“I had no reason to believe otherwise.”

Arthur Lux closes his notebook, puts his pen away and places one hand on top of the other. “Would you be able to identify him if you saw him again?” he asks.

“Of course!” she says.

“Were you in love with him?”

“I thought I was but right now I hate him so much I could kill him.”

“Did you give him money?”

She shrugs and pushes her hair back out of her face. “All I had,” she says.

“How much?”

“Five thousand dollars and some change.”

“It looks like he did you a dirty deed.”

“If he would only come back and square me with the police,” she says. “Tell them the truth about what really happened. That’s all I ask. I would never bother him again.”

“Maybe you should be more prudent in your associations in the future,” Arthur Lux says with a sad smile.

“Thanks for the advice. It’s a little late.”

“We’re doing all we can but, in spite of our best efforts, we haven’t been able to locate him.”

“You’ve got to find him!”

“There’s no indication that he even exists.”

“What are you saying? Do you think I made him up?”

“I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that he probably gave you a false name and that he planned on running out on you from the very beginning.”

“I fell for his line. I was such a fool.”

“We’re all fools.”

“Can’t you pull some strings to get me out of here? Some writ of habeas corpus or something? I don’t belong in prison.”

Arthur Lux reaches across the table and pats her arm. “Don’t despair, my dear. Something is bound to turn up.”

Now, every night at nine-ten, just before lights out, a passenger train goes by the prison. For fifteen or twenty seconds the long room with the thirty beds is filled with the clatter and excitement of a train on its way to some undisclosed location. Some of the prisoners cover their heads with their pillows to try to drown it out, while others wait to catch a glimpse of it and, if the light is just right, to catch a glimpse of some of the people riding on it. The train goes by so fast that it is just a blur, but some of the prisoners claim to have seen passengers on the train that they recognized. One woman said she saw her husband who was supposed to be in a mental institution but was obviously out having a good time. Another claimed to see the daughter and son, twins, that she gave up for adoption at the time of their birth twenty-seven years earlier.

Juniper Tarrant falls into the habit of watching the train every night. She is one of those, who, for a few seconds at least, feels a curious sense of release and possibility as the train goes by in the night. As long as trains carry happy people from city to city, the world cannot be all terrible and bad. Some day I’ll be free and I’ll be the one on the train.

After a week or so of watching the train, she sees Ed King, looking out at her from one of the sleek passenger cars that glides through the night like a bullet. She sees his face so clearly she cannot be mistaken: the dark hair with a little gray mixed in, the brown-green eyes, the little scar above the right eyebrow, the commanding chin. He is wearing a gray suit with a light-blue shirt and a red tie. She remembers the tie. It was the one tie of his that he liked the best.

She turns away from the window, lets out a little cry and is sick. Lying on the floor, she has a kind of seizure. The prisoner in the bed next to her calls for help and she is taken to the infirmary. When the doctor examines her, he tells her she is going to be a mother in about seven months time.

She is given a sedative and kept in the infirmary overnight for observation. In the morning she is desperate to talk to Arthur Lux, her lawyer. When she asks to call him, she is denied. (“What do you think this is? A sorority?”) One of the matrons will try to get a message to him if she can. The message is simple: I saw Ed King on the train. Find out where the train is going and there you will find Ed King.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Metropolis (1927)

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The Machine-Man, the most famous image from Metropolis.

The Machine-Man, the most famous image in Metropolis.

Metropolis poster

I am Baby Jane Hudson

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"Maybe you've heard of me!"

“Maybe you’ve heard of me!”

"I was a big noise on the vaudeville circuit around the First World War."

“I was a big noise on the vaudeville circuit around the First World War.”

"I'm afraid my looks have faded some since then."

“I’m afraid my looks have faded some since then.”

"I'm still a fun girl, though!"

“I’m still a fun girl, though!”

"Inflicting emotional pain on my crippled sister Blanche is still the most fun I ever have!"

“Inflicting emotional pain on my crippled sister Blanche is still the most fun I ever have!”

Baby Jane doll 1

Baby Jane doll 2

Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Go Set a Watchman cover

Go Set a Watchman ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Harper Lee is famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird but also for something else: she was friend and confidante to Truman Capote and has been portrayed by not one but two Hollywood actresses in movies about Capote and his writing of In Cold Blood. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were childhood companions in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama and remained friends until his death in 1984. While Capote became as famous for his eccentricities (his appearances on The Tonight Show) and his partying lifestyle as he was for the books he wrote, Harper Lee eschewed the limelight and has been, like other writers of her generation, notoriously reclusive. At age 89, she still lives in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. You get the impression that fame hasn’t changed her very much.

With the phenomenal success of To Kill A Mockingbird and the equally famous movie that followed the publication of the novel, Harper Lee might have “cashed in” on her fame; she might have written other books or a sequel, but she didn’t. In the foreword to the thirtieth anniversary printing of her famous novel, she said simply that she didn’t have anything else she wanted to say. It doesn’t happen very often, especially when there’s money to be made.

Now, oddly enough, all these years later, in the futuristic year of 2015 (it would have seemed so in 1960), a new Harper Lee book has emerged, Go Set a Watchman. The title is from a passage in the Book of Isaiah: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Every man’s island, the book tells us, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.

At first glance, Go Set a Watchman seems to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s set twenty years after the earlier novel, but Harper Lee didn’t intend it as a sequel. It is, we are told, a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was apparently shelved for a different version and hasn’t seen the light of day until now. The publisher, HarperCollins, must have recognized the enormous amount of interest (and the cash potential) in a new book by Harper Lee, even if it is a book written sixty years ago.

The girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is an adult in Go Set a Watchman. When she is twenty-six, on her yearly summer visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, she witnesses many changes. Her father, seventy-two-year-old Atticus Finch (the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird) suffers from debilitating arthritis and is not as vigorous as he once was. Calpurnia, the black maid who kept house for him for many years, is too old to work anymore and has been replaced by Alexandra, Atticus’s bossy sister. Calpurnia’s grandson is in trouble for running down in his car (and killing) a drunken white man. Jeremy (known as “Jem”), Jean Louise’s older brother, has succumbed at an early age to the hereditary heart condition that claimed his and Jean Louise’s mother’s life. Henry Clinton, a young attorney and protégé of Atticus Finch (four years older than Jean Louise and a lifelong friend of her brother’s) wants to marry her, but she isn’t sure if he’s the right sort or not. The most significant change, however, is in the social and political landscape of the South. Black people, spurred on by “outside interests,” are demanding their civil rights. The white people who have taken for granted the “status quo” in the South for generations are going to have to adjust to a new order of things. It’s a transitional period in the South, not unlike the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It’s in this atmosphere of change that Go Set a Watchman is set.

Most people will probably agree that Go Set a Watchman is not as compelling or as nearly perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of a five-star novel, it’s a four- or a three-star novel at best. That’s not to say, however, that it’s not worth the time and effort it takes to read it, especially for those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and/or seen the movie version and would like to know what becomes of the characters twenty years later.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

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