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Posted: Monday, July 23, 2012 8:10 am

A stranger named Charlie Beale arrives in a small town in Virginia in 1948. He carries two suitcases with him — one filled with money, the other full of butcher knives.

“Heading Out to Wonderful,” by Robert Goolrick, is a captivating novel about an ill-fated love affair set against the backdrop of a bucolic community of 500-plus citizens. The townspeople gather at church picnics and trade secrets over white board fences, shop at the general store and mind the Golden Rule.

Sam, an older man from Brownsburg, narrates “Wonderful,” relating the story of his growing up years and his relationship with Charlie and Sylvan, a young woman the stranger comes to love — a couple who impact the boy in ways he never fully understands.

The child sees things he shouldn’t see. Years later Sam muses about what is truth and what is fiction, while others inquire if he was “damaged by it . . . wounded in some way.”

Soon after he comes to town, Charlie is taken under the wing of the couple who own the butcher shop. They offer Charlie a job, and he befriends Sam, their son. Charlie is a master meat cutter, calms a steer before he slaughters it, believing this humane approach guarantees sweeter meat.

Charlie’s polar opposite is Boaty Glass. Mean spirited and rolling with fat, quirky and rich, Boaty means to take a wife, and take one he does, paying a dirt-poor hillbilly a pretty price for his teenage daughter.

Sylvan is rough diamond with Hollywood fantasies. She accepts her fate and becomes Boaty’s prized possession. He parades Sylvan around town in sophisticated clothes she has her black seamstress copy from movie star magazines.

Of course, Sylvan turns Charlie’s head. No good can come of it, but the beauty of “Wonderful” is the way Goolrick languidly builds tension, pulling the rug out from under our feet, surprising us with the quiet clout of a dull instrument.

“Wonderful” is a literary novel with complicated characters that invite discussion, making it an ideal choice for book clubs — one certain to lead to late night talks about Goolrick’s characters, and their motives.

***

It’s doubtful you’ll take the lilt of a songbird, the gentle wave of a tree branch, or the brush of a child’s cheek against your own for granted once you read “The Age of Miracles.” Oh, that our wonder and gratefulness for all the little things that matter could be forever altered.

Coming out of the gate with a resounding roar, Karen Thomson Walker is sure to have a bestseller on her hands with this, her first book, a shining star of mighty magnitude.

Breathless and teary-eyed, I raced through this apocalyptic gem, so simply written, so profound in its message, an original coming of age story that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. In the early pages, I imagined it on the big screen and was happy to see movie rights are in the works.

The ordinary becomes extraordinary with “the slowing.” Out of the blue, the earth’s rotation slows, extending the day by 56 minutes. The phenomenon is revealed by Julia, a middle school student who lives with her parents in California. 

“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it . .  . we were distracted back then by weather and war . . . Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began.”

The world can’t help but notice as minutes are added daily; shocked citizens rush to stores to stock up on food, and religious zealots proclaim the second coming. Clocks and calendars are rendered useless and people panic, frightened and divided on how to deal with this new reality.

Julia’s family and others live by the clock, a measure the government mandates, but some consider this unnatural, preferring to sync their internal clocks to the increasing hours of daylight and darkness.

On the stage of this international crisis, Julia struggles with adolescence, “the age of miracles,” with its accompanying bodily changes and peer pressure. Soon there are family problems to come to grips with as well. Julia’s father has a secret Julia finds out about, one that threatens the family unit, all this while birds fall from the sky, and plants and crops fail.

Julia matures, takes chances and falls in love, an admirable, strong character in a book that will shake you to your core. “The Age of Miracles,” now rests on my “favorite of favorites shelf,” along with a select number of other unforgettable books.

***

You pretty much know what to expect when you crack open a “who-dun-it.” But “Don’t Ever Get Old” by Daniel Friedman is far from being a run-of-the-mill mystery. The book features a crusty, chain-smoking detective that will crack you up.

Meet Buck Schatz, an 87-year-old Jewish cop from Memphis, a hardened oddball spewing obscenities and using unorthodox means to bust chops and solve a case that’s pulled him out of retirement.

Buck feels he’s paid his dues, and he keeps paying with a body and mind that are letting him down. His doctor has recently warned him that he’s in the early stages of dementia and Buck now keeps a memory notebook. In this vulnerable state, Buck gets involved in a situation he can’t ignore when his wife forces him to see Jim Wallace, an old friend who is dying. The two men were in a German prisoner of war camp in World War II where Buck became a punching bag for a cruel Nazi officer bound to break his spirit. Wallace confesses on his deathbed that he allowed the war criminal to go free — accepting a gold bar as a bribe.

This infuriates Buck, and when Wallace dies he has little sympathy for the turncoat. Instead he feels justified to track down the war criminal, set things right and find the gold.

Along for the ride is his grandson, Tequila, a young man Buck loves but unmercifully makes fun of; everyone’s fair game in Buck’s book.

The comical duo soon find themselves embroiled in a crime spree strewn with gutted bodies in a cat and mouse escapade of a book that’s fun from the get go. One can only hope Friedman pens more mysteries with Buck at the helm, a hero bamboozled by technology, who thumbs his nose at no-smoking signs and makes the infirmities of old age laughable. 

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