ERNIE’S ARK: THE ABBOTT FALLS STORIES by Monica Wood; David R. Godine, Publisher, 2020; 235 pages, $15.95.

Few Maine authors today write as convincingly about the sad complexities of families, marriages, relationships and the choices people make just to get by better than Portland author and playwright Monica Wood.

“Ernie’s Ark” is a collection of 10 connected short stories, each one about folks doing the best they can in situations they cannot control or even understand. This was originally published in 2002 in a slightly different format, now updated and republished with one new story. Wood won literary awards for her 2012 memoir “When We Were the Kennedys” and her 2015 novel “The One-In-A-Million Boy,” but she proudly admits that “Ernie’s Ark” is her favorite book. And one reading reveals why.

The title story features Ernie Whitten, an almost-retired pipefitter at the paper mill in Abbott Falls, Maine. The union is on strike, his pension is in jeopardy, his wife Marie is dying of cancer and Ernie is full of anger. A simple art contest to humor Marie turns into a major construction project as Ernie builds an ark in his yard, much to the annoyance and sympathy of the town code-enforcement officer. And Ernie learns what’s really important.

In “Shuffle, Step,” Ernie learns to tap dance with Francine, his only friend, a chubby teenage girl from an unhappy, dysfunctional family, creating a special bond. Other stories include a snarky argument between the mill’s arrogant CEO owner and his spoiled-rotten, self-absorbed adult daughter; Ernie’s granddaughter adrift in Alaska as a singer in a dive bar band with no future and little talent; and a painful family split when two brothers argue over support for the union or the company.

Wood is a masterful storyteller vividly portraying the pain of grief and loss, heartache and despair, as well as everyone’s ever-elusive illusion of happiness.




THE EXCHANGE by Vaughn C. Hardacker; Encircle Publications, 2020; 266 pages, $16.99.

Stockholm author Vaughn Hardacker’s previous five crime thrillers and mystery novels have been dark, brooding stories penetrating the murky world of ruthless criminal bottom-feeders. And “The Exchange” is right in that mold.

Hardacker’s latest introduces Dylan Thomas, a Maine lawyer, private investigator and former state trooper in a fast-paced crime drama noted mostly for its non-stop vulgar language, extreme brutality and high body count. Hardacker is not squeamish, but readers might be.

The plot is built around a real-life, frightening and all too often ignored social and legal problem: the abduction and sale of small children in a well-organized, nation-wide, illegal child adoption scheme. When Thomas’s 3-year-old niece is kidnapped from her home in Farmington, he vows to his sister that he will find and recover the child safely. But this may be a promise he cannot keep.

The kidnappers are a pair of chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, low-life losers looking to score big with the child, working through a shyster Boston lawyer to find a buyer. Folks like these two are usually pretty stupid, quickly identified and now on a desperate run from the police and Thomas and his two unlikely partners, a Maine police detective and a Boston detective.

Stupid the crooks may be, but they have more luck than brains, surviving numerous car chases, ambushes and shoot-outs with double-crossing rival gangs, leaving well-ventilated dead guys all over the place. Even Boston’s Russian mob won’t help these knuckleheads. Thomas and his cop pals always show up at each scene too late and never fire a shot. Still, determined police work slowly closes the net. The reader knows the who, what, why and how early on, so the only mysteries are how many people will get killed, and when will the cops catch the bad guys. Or will they?

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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