Jack, the protagonist in Frederick Busch's "North" (a follow-up to his earlier novel "Girls") is a quiet guy dragging around a heavy load of mental...

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by Frederick Busch
Norton, 302 pp., $24.95

Jack, the protagonist in Frederick Busch’s “North” (a follow-up to his earlier novel “Girls”) is a quiet guy dragging around a heavy load of mental baggage.

There is the busted marriage he still broods over. The only child who died in infancy. The terrible police search he was involved in, for a missing teenage girl who ended up dead.

And there is the question of how Jack, a sort of freelance cop and security guard who has been drifting from one desultory job to another for some time, is going to survive in a world without the two real friends he has left: a soulful pet Labrador and a wise former policeman, both of whom are on their last legs.

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In a tale that almost aches on the page with accumulated grief, “North” fits smoothly into the psychologically savvy, tough/sweet, middle-age male sleuth genre that has continued to evolve in American literature

Busch gives Jack a far more slender mystery to solve than a Hammett or a Chandler might. It is tracking the whereabouts of a Tyler Pearl, an aimless guy in his 20s who was last reported seen in Jack’s old stomping grounds of upstate New York, and whose aunt (a lawyer with more than a professional interest in Jack) is worried about him.

There are a few tingles of suspense in the search, which brings Jack back into contact with his dying pal Elway and introduces him to a suspiciously loopy young farmer and a seductively tarty rich girl.

But the main subject is how this journey back north rattles Jack’s memory bank, inducing many ruminating flashbacks, which add up to a portrait of a decent man plagued by many losses. It’s not a new subject, but Busch handles it with economy, empathy and grace.

Reviewed by Misha Berson

“Seamanship: A Voyage Along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles”
by Adam Nicolson
HarperCollins, 180 pp., $22.95

In 2003, award-winning British writer Adam Nicolson set out in a 42-foot boat with friend and qualified Yachtmaster Instructor George Fairhurst on a “six-month journey from the spring to the autumn equinox.” From England’s southern tip, they sailed and motored north along Ireland’s western shores, coasting Scotland’s inner passages, turning east for the Orkneys, and north-northwest to the Faeroes. Nicolson wanted to experience “the place where high winds met hard rock.”

Although this route traces “more miles of coastline than the whole eastern seaboard of the United States,” the trip is as sketchy as my description. For Nicolson’s account of this trip in “Seamanship” is a personal, philosophical journey. If you’re wanting a sense of place, look elsewhere.

Finding, buying, and refitting a boat comprise the opening. A day at Skellig Michael’s medieval monastery, though spiritually profound to Nicolson, only left me impatient. Fairhurst, meanwhile, spent that afternoon keeping the boat from dragging anchor and running aground.

Weeks pass. In port, Nicolson becomes enamored of emigré Frenchman Herve Mahe, whose appeal utterly eluded me. Two weeks later — what happens during all these omissions? — the men finally get going. But no, a stop to see the geology along Ireland’s Pembrokeshire coast ends with Nicolson flipping the dinghy in heavy surf. Fairhurst risks the sailboat to come to the rescue.

Except for Nicolson’s barefoot, soul-searching pilgrimage up 2,500-foot Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, he skips Ireland as well as most of Scotland, other than Golgotha monastery. When Fairhurst begins to resent shouldering so much responsibility, Nicolson learns “that it was all very well sitting on deck looking at the view while someone else worried about the engine … but loving the view had nothing to do with seamanship. Seamanship was keeping other people alive.” In the end, Fairhurst brings the boat home with a hired hand. Nicolson, who flies, confesses guilt, but delegates the task nevertheless.

As a reader, it’s hard not to feel like Fairhurst. What the title promised — a voyage along the wild coasts of the British Isles — was barely on the page. Nicolson’s prose is occasionally marvelous, though, particularly when he leaves off woolgathering long enough to notice his magical surroundings.

Reviewed by Irene Wanner

“The Baker’s Apprentice”
by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Morrow, 372 pp., $24.95

Judith Ryan Hendricks’ “Bread Alone” was a sparkling gem of a first novel. With interesting, involving characters and a witty plot, Hendricks led us through Wyn Morrison’s marital upheaval and subsequent life-affirming revelation with charming humor and a deft hand. I was eager to read “The Baker’s Apprentice” to see where Wyn’s adventure would lead but was disappointed with the result.

Hendricks picks up within weeks of where “Bread Alone” left us. Wyn is still at the Queen Street Bakery, located on top of Queen Anne Hill, where she is plodding her way through a messy divorce. Wyn is still learning the value of fresh starts: She is following her passion for making bread while forming strong bonds with the women she works with.

Wyn even embarks on a new romance, but the moment her life begins to have an aura of perfection, Mac, Wyn’s frustrated lover, takes off for the infamous interlude known as “time to think.” He drives north from Seattle to Alaska until his truck breaks down in a small town in Yukon Territory. By the time he returns, we’re supposed to accept his transformation and his coming to terms with the problems of his childhood. Unfortunately, Wyn’s acceptance and his redemption are unbelievable and fall flat.

“The Baker’s Apprentice” tells the story of how the fairy-tale ending can be transformed by the real world, how life gets in the way of the best plans and how the world is never stable when you accept another to share it with you. Other people in life throw wrenches into the system, but Hendricks reminds us that is the joy in living.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing substantially different from what she showed us in “Bread Alone.” This sequel covers new problems and life-changing events for Wyn, but she learns nothing more than she did the first time around.

Reviewed by Rebecca Taylor