MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Editor's Choice

The Lightness of HandsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jeff Garvin

Summary

Sixteen-year-old Ellie Dante is desperate for something in her life to finally go right. Her father was a famous stage magician until he attempted an epic illusion on live TV―and failed. Now Ellie lives with her dad in a beat-up RV, attending high school online and performing with him at birthday parties and bars across the Midwest to make ends meet.

But when the gigs dry up, their insurance lapses, leaving Dad's heart condition unchecked and forcing Ellie to battle her bipolar II disorder without medication.

Then Ellie receives a call from a famous magic duo, who offer fifteen thousand dollars and a shot at redemption: they want her father to perform the illusion that wrecked his career―on their live TV special, which shoots in Los Angeles in ten days.

Ellie knows her dad will refuse―but she takes the deal anyway, then lies to persuade him to head west. With the help of her online-only best friend and an unusual guy she teams up with along the way, Ellie makes a plan to stage his comeback. But when her lie is exposed, she'll have to confront her illness and her choices head-on to save her father―and herself.

BookBrowse Review

The stillness that comes right after reading a book that has wrapped itself firmly around your heart is so distinct from the stillness just before you fall asleep or when you go out for an early morning jog before the rest of the world is stirring. You don't want to leave it; the real world can wait. That's what it felt like to finish The Lightness of Hands by the word magician Jeff Garvin. It's a YA novel I wish I could've read when I was 16.

Within that stillness I found a connection to protagonist 16-year-old Elias Dante, Jr., a.k.a Ellie, daughter of the Uncanny Dante, a once well-respected Las Vegas magician who became notorious for a spectacularly failed magic trick on Late Night with Craig Rogan (think Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show when he had those "Magic Weeks"). Ellie has lived the RV life since she was six, when her mother committed suicide and she and her father left Las Vegas. As the story begins, they're in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and her father is about to start a gig at a wedding party. In my life, I've moved 17 times, not in an RV like Ellie, but I often had the small thought in the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn't get too comfortable, because who knows when we're going to pull up stakes and move on. Ellie's desire for a stable life felt deeply relatable.

Besides trying to help her father make some money so they can survive, even providing a distraction in a gas station convenience store so he can reset the gas pump behind the counter for more diesel than their Visa prepaid card can provide, Ellie is also dealing with bipolar disorder, genetically inherited from her mother. Jeff Garvin also has it (as he explains in the book's author's note), and his descriptions of Ellie's experience are vivid. Dark clouds gather over her as she struggles to hold on long enough to get her and her father to Los Angeles for him to perform on Flynn & Kellar's (presumably a play on Penn & Teller) Live Magic Retrospective broadcast. The only problem is, Ellie's dad doesn't know about the show, because if she told him, he would staunchly, angrily refuse. His segment of the retrospective is to be a second attempt at that failed trick, which has a somber, personally tragic history behind it. On top of that, since their insurance has lapsed, Ellie doesn't have any more medication for herself, and her father's heart problems are also going untreated.

There are glimmers of hope in Ellie's struggle. She has Ripley, an asexual longtime online friend her age who has family problems of his own, but has developed an outstanding sense of humor as a coping mechanism. There's also Liam, who she knew when they worked in a production of Damn Yankees together at a high school she briefly attended. He's attending Cal State Fullerton, an hour from Los Angeles, so a reunion is possible. And even though Ellie has sworn off performing alongside her father as she once did (she's focused on becoming a nurse one day), she recalls and re-experiences the joy of doing so when she participates in one of his gigs in Indiana.

And then there's Las Vegas, which has a significant presence throughout, from Ellie's memories of it when she was a toddler, to a complicated stop there in which she tries to convince a Howard Hughes-like casino owner to let her rent the truck and water tank needed for her father's failed trick. There's plenty of amusement to be found in the fictionalized names Garvin has for some casinos and magicians (Mac Regent is definitely Mac King, the afternoon comedy magician), a pitch-perfect description of the town of Summerlin ("basically a giant golf course dotted with Costcos and McMansions"), and general descriptions of Las Vegas at night that ring so true. I lived there for five years, so I spent an inordinate amount of time with each reference, combing through the memories that they unearthed. Other readers familiar with the city will likely do the same.

The Lightness of Hands may also be a lifeline to teenage readers like Ellie who struggle with bipolar disorder and the loneliness that may go along with it. Garvin has given them an articulate voice to describe their feelings. This is a novel that I'm so glad they have, a deep-seated connection that speaks to them directly. I'm merely a delighted enthusiast.

Book reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

Beyond the Book:
The Tradition of Las Vegas Magicians

Welcome to Las Vegas SignEven though I lived in Las Vegas for five years (2012-2017), I never gave it much thought. Magicians were always there, on and off the Las Vegas Strip. David Copperfield's face was on that massive advertisement across the top of the MGM Grand. Mac King, the afternoon comedy magician at Harrah's, was always in any number of small Vegas magazines advertising every show and every kind of deal you could find there. The greatest touristy thrill for a non-native resident like me just trying to survive the Hell's-waiting-room summer heat was seeing the Amazing Johnathan's show at the Sahara. But reading The Lightness of Hands caused me to wonder: How and when did magicians become a thing in Las Vegas?

According to Vegas.com, Jack Kodell was the first magician to perform in Las Vegas, in the summer of 1947 at the age of 20. He was offered $1,500 a week (about $17,000 today) to do his act in a cabaret show at the El Rancho Hotel & Casino. He was also historically significant for being one of the first magicians to use birds, making parakeets appear out of nowhere in an act called A Fantasy of Birds.

Las Vegas' influx of magicians seems to have been facilitated by the appearance of Hollywood stars and musicians on the scene. There was, of course, the Rat Pack, made up of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, who performed at the Sands. They personified Las Vegas then — the kingdom of cool, the show everyone had to see. But there was also Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, the Marx Brothers and countless others. Every resort also had its own set of showgirls who opened and closed for the celebrities, and sometimes had revues of their own as well. In the 1960s, casino owners likely believed that visitors would rather spend their time being in awe of the glitz and glamour of these performers (including Elvis Presley, who began his residency at the International Hotel in 1969) than watch a magician. In fact, the late Johnny Thompson (who performed magic as the Great Tompsoni and was also a fiercely trusted advisor to Penn & Teller) said in an interview in Las Vegas' David Magazine in July 2011, there were only two resident magicians in the city in the '60s, one working at the Showboat, and the other working the bar area of the Desert Inn.

One could argue that the influx of magicians into Las Vegas began with Siegfried & Roy. Siegfried Fischbacher and the late Roy Horn were performing (with tigers) in a casino in Paris in 1967 when a producer in the audience encouraged them to try out their act in Las Vegas. The duo steadily gained popularity and headlined their first Vegas show, "Beyond Belief" at the Frontier in 1981. In 1990, they opened at the Mirage, and performed there until October 2003, when Roy was attacked by Montecore the tiger.

After the magician Lance Burton appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early '80s, he performed for eight weeks in a trial run at the Folies Bergere in Las Vegas, and was so popular that his contract was extended for nine years. In 1994, he signed a 13-year contract with the Monte Carlo Resort & Casino to create and star in a new version of his magic show, which opened in June of 1996. David Copperfield started at Caesars Palace in the early '80s, filling the gaps in the Circus Maximus Showroom's schedule, then moved to the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand. So by the 1990s, it seems, magicians were an integral part of Las Vegas nightlife.

The list goes on and on from there, much like the colorful handkerchiefs that a magician continually pulls out of his mouth. There's Penn & Teller, and Criss Angel (who started at the Luxor in 2008 and moved to Planet Hollywood in 2019), and Mat Franco with his own theater at the LINQ Hotel & Casino. You don't even have to say "abracadabra" to conjure up any number of magicians on and off the Strip. You can even hire them for private events. What better distraction from the Vegas heat?

The Vanishing HalfClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Brit Bennett

Summary

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it's not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it's everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters' storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

BookBrowse Review

Brit Bennett's second novel, The Vanishing Half (after The Mothers, her 2016 bestselling debut), follows Desiree and Stella Vignes, identical twins born in 1938 in Mallard, Louisiana, a town so small it can't even be found on a map. Settled by the girls' ancestors, the town prides itself on its residents being primarily African Americans with very light skin tones (the lighter, the more prized). The girls run away to New Orleans when they turn 16. Desiree returns home 14 years later with her eight-year-old daughter, Jude, whose skin is so dark it's blue-black, touching off a firestorm of gossip and invective that impacts both mother and child. Stella, on the other hand, disappears without a trace, reinventing herself as a white woman with no family and no past. Marrying outside her race she gives birth to Kennedy, a blond, blue-eyed daughter. As Jude and Kennedy reach adulthood, each seeks to establish her place in the world and to uncover the secrets of her mother's past.

The narrative explores many important topics through the lives of these four women. Covering the time period from the World War II era through 1986, the author portrays the changing face of racism in the United States as exhibited not only by whites, but within Black communities as well, with light-skinned Blacks discriminating against those who are darker. Bennett also addresses the themes of family, identity and privilege, and illustrates the evolution of women's rights during this time period. That seems like a lot to tackle within one short novel, and in less-skilled hands the story might have become a slow plod, weighed down by its heavy themes. The author interweaves these subjects and others so skillfully, though, that the narrative soars, and it's only on reflection that one realizes its remarkable depth.

The Vanishing Half is captivating in large part because of the fully-realized characters Bennett has created. The women grow and change over the course of the story as they deal with loves and losses, joys and disappointments; they feel like real-life people we've met, and we grow to care deeply about them. Not only are the four central characters drawn with a fine pen, even minor characters are imbued with complexity, adding to the novel's richness.

The other highlight is the author's vivid writing style. While seldom using colloquialism in her text, she nevertheless captures the lyricism of Southern dialog throughout her prose:

[The residents of Mallard] weren't used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them. Each time that girl passed by, no hat or nothing, they were as galled as when Thomas Richard returned from the war, half a leg lighter, and walked around the town with one pant leg pinned back so that everyone could see his loss. If nothing could be done about ugliness, you ought to at least look like you were trying to hide it.

Truisms abound, adding further flavor to the narration; for example, Desiree despises the local boys because "nothing made a boy less exciting than the fact that you were supposed to like him," and "the Mallard boys seemed as familiar and safe as cousins." Later, she doesn't tell her mother about her marriage because, she thinks, "What was the point of sharing good news with someone who couldn't be happy for you?"

My only complaint is that I found the plot overly dependent on coincidence. One accidental meeting over the course of a novel, OK, perhaps; maybe even two such encounters would be acceptable. But there were at least four major turning points that relied on unlikely circumstances, which seemed a bit much. I did enjoy the direction the author took her story, but the repeated reliance on this plot device cast a shadow on an otherwise exceptional work.

Regardless, The Vanishing Half is one of my favorite novels of the year; it's entertaining, fast-moving, has great characters, and Bennett's writing style is absolutely stellar from start to finish. Fans of novels such as Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, or The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd will almost certainly enjoy this one as well, as will those interested in reading about mother-daughter relationships. The book would also be an ideal choice for book groups.

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
Twins

Side by side diagrams of identical and fraternal twins Brit Bennett's novel, The Vanishing Half, follows the lives of Stella and Desiree Vignes, identical twin girls born in Louisiana in 1938.

As you likely know, there are broadly two types of twins: fraternal and identical. Fraternal, or dizygotic, twins are formed when two separate eggs are fertilized by two separate spermatozoa, creating two distinct embryos with their own genetic profiles. They're basically just like any siblings, looking, sounding and acting differently from each other, and they can also be different genders; they just happen to have been conceived at the same time in the same uterus.

Identical twins, also known as monozygotic twins, occur when a single fertilized egg splits, forming two identical copies of itself. It was once thought that the resulting twins had identical genetic profiles, but recent research has shown that while they're very similar, they're not truly identical. As each embryo's genes reproduce to create a viable fetus, subtle changes can be introduced in the genetic code that result in minor differences. Geneticists are just beginning to understand these "copy number variations," but believe they could be responsible for differences in twins' personalities, as well as the presence or absence of genetic diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's in just one twin. In addition, fingerprints and dental patterns are unique and not shared between identical twins.

The number of twins per birth has varied throughout history, although records were incomplete in even the most developed countries until the last hundred years or so, so it's hard to know for sure. The rate is thought to have been about 15 sets of twins per 1,000 pregnancies until the middle of the 20th century, but more recently that number has climbed to over 30 per 1,000. Scientists point to several reasons for this "twin boom" including the use of in vitro fertilization (IVF), during which multiple embryos are often implanted (although a number of countries now advise against embedding more than one embryo at a time, reducing the rate of multiple births due to IVF). Women choosing to have children later in life is another factor, as a woman's body is increasingly likely to release more than one egg each month as she ages. Scientists also note that the use of hormones in the production of cow's milk is a possible factor. Consequently, the increase in twin births is almost entirely due to an increase in the number of fraternal twins. The rate of identical twins has stayed constant at four per 1,000 — a statistic that is the same for all mammals (except, weirdly, armadillos, whose offspring are all identical quadruplets or octuplets).

Women in Massachusetts birth more twins than any other state in the U.S., at 45 per 1,000 pregnancies, with Connecticut and New Jersey following close behind at 42 per 1,000. Researchers think this is because women in more affluent areas are more likely to pursue careers and have children later, and are also more likely to have the resources to pursue IVF. The odds of having twins also increases for women who were twins themselves (the predisposition toward having fraternal twins is genetic). Tall women, too, are more likely to have twins — this is thought to be because the same hormone responsible for bone growth also stimulates the release of multiple eggs.

Twins have long been thought to have a special bond, and science is proving this to be true. A 2011 study in Italy using 3D videos of twins in their mothers' wombs discovered that at 14 weeks' gestation, twins routinely reach out to each other in the womb, and by 18 weeks each touches the other twin more than they touch themselves. The bond can continue after birth; 40 percent of twins develop their own special language. There is anecdotal evidence that identical twins have a sort of telepathy and know when their twin is in crisis, but there's no scientific proof that this type of connection truly exists.

Diagrams of identical and twins, courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

Tropic of ViolenceClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Nathacha Appanah

Summary

Marie, a nurse in Mayotte, a far-flung, tropical department of France in the Indian Ocean, adopts a baby abandoned at birth by his mother, a refugee from Comoros. She names him Moïse and raises him as her own―and she avoids his increasing questions about his origins as he grows up. When Marie suddenly dies, thirteen-year-old Moïse is left completely alone, plunged into uncertainty and turmoil. In a state of panic, he runs away from home, and sets himself on a collision course with the gangs of Gaza, the largest and most infamous slum on the island.

Nathacha Appanah has deftly assembled a small chorus of voices who narrate the heartbreak, violence, and injustice of life in Mayotte. To Marie's and Moïse's perspectives she adds those of Bruce, a terrifying gang leader; Olivier, a police officer fighting a losing battle; and Stéphane, the naïve aid worker whose efforts to help Moïse only make him more vulnerable.

Tropic of Violence shines a powerful light on the particular deprivation and isolation in this forgotten and neglected part of France. At the same time, it is a moving portrayal of the desperation and inequality that are driving refugee crises across the world, and of the innocent children whose lives are being torn apart in their wake. This is a remarkable, unsettling new novel from one of the most exciting voices in world literature.

BookBrowse Review

Marie is a nurse working in Mayotte, a cluster of French territory islands in the Indian Ocean. When a young refugee from nearby Comoros abandons her baby, Marie takes him in and raises him as her own. Thirteen years later, Moïse finds himself orphaned for a second time when Marie dies abruptly, forcing him onto the dangerous streets that are ruled by gangs of fellow wayward children who have fallen through the cracks of this fractured society.

Moïse is a clever choice of central character to base this particular story around. His faltering sense of identity means he is uniquely positioned to expose just how pervasive the poverty and violence sweeping across Mayotte have become. Though he was raised by a white local, his black skin serves as a clear indicator of his refugee beginnings, and the residents of Mayotte act with increasing hostility towards perceived outsiders like him who they feel are taking over their land. Despite living in Mayotte his whole life, he is still made to feel like an outcast, and he finds himself pushed to the fringes of society as soon as Marie, the one tangible thing anchoring him to the region, is gone.

If Moïse is presented as our sympathetic hero, Bruce, the much-feared leader of a local gang, is in many ways his opposite. His point-of-view chapters reveal an erratic and desperate need to exert control, but at just 17 years old, with a nickname inspired by the alter ego of Batman, it is impossible for the reader to forget his youth and naivety. Though nothing can excuse the cruelty of his actions, Nathacha Appanah presses home that Bruce too is just a child corrupted by a flawed system, asking us to consider where we draw the line between victim and villain.

Other narrators serve to show us how well-meaning yet misguided efforts to help Mayotte's children can be: Marie loves Moïse, but she is not without her own prejudices; aid worker Stéphane's actions cause more harm than good; and police officer Olivier's team is stretched well beyond its means. It's clear that insufficient attention from mainland France is playing a key role in Mayotte's self-destructive way of life; locals and refugees feel equally betrayed by a distinct lack of support from a country powerful and wealthy enough to do more. Saying much with few words, Appanah reminds us that the refugee crisis often hits closer to home than many countries and governments are willing to admit. She also shines a light on what can happen when communities are left to struggle beneath the weight of this problem unaided. This strikes at the hypocrisy of colonialism, where dominant nations are too often willing to reap the rewards of extended landmass and increased resources without offering equivalent compensation and assistance in return.

In an interesting stylistic twist, a couple of our point-of-view characters are in fact deceased, narrating their stories from what appears to be some kind of purgatory. This could easily have tipped the book into twee territory, but Appanah strikes a careful balance. She uses these sections to capture an air of quiet magic befitting the region's strong cultural belief in spirits and djinns, without lessening the impact of the raw realism established throughout the rest of the novel.

The prose itself is initially unassuming, but closer inspection reveals a subtle skill that underpins the novel's construction. Appanah juxtaposes the depravity of the overflowing slums with the beauty of their natural surroundings, and she is able to reflect the violence and suffering endured by Moïse without indulging in gratuity. With five point-of-view characters in all, it also would have been easy for the multiple perspectives to bleed together, but each narrative voice stands out distinctly. This clear individuality of character is a testament to Geoffrey Strachan's sensitive translation from the original French, and functions as a timely reminder that each person affected by mass global displacement is a human being with their own story to tell.

With such upsetting subject matter and big moral questions at the heart of the story, in some respects, Tropic of Violence is the kind of novel that could be hard to describe as "enjoyable." But with a singular atmosphere and a protagonist that is easy to root for, Appanah has crafted a reading experience that is as captivating as it is thematically provocative.

Book reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

Beyond the Book:
Mayotte: A Community in Crisis

Map showing Mayotte off the east coast of AfricaAn official department of France, Mayotte is a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of southeast Africa. This unique political and geographic setup has led to the development of a complex, fraught national identity for many of its people, with problems related to crime, population density, poverty and poor social care being fueled by increasing pressure from mass immigration.

Once part of the former French colony of Comoros, Mayotte voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining part of France when Comoros declared independence in 1975. A 2009 referendum confirmed Mayotte's desire to be classified as an integral part of France, and this was made official in 2011 when the region was declared the 101st French department (an administrative term that denotes Mayotte's place within France's overall governmental system). This has led to many political and cultural clashes, however. Despite French being the official language, for example, less than half of the 250,000+ population are able to read and write it. Meanwhile, Comoros continues to dispute Mayotte's French status altogether, claiming ownership of the region and demanding its people have the right to travel to and from the islands freely.

Mayotte is also struggling to cope with an influx of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who are utilizing the travel routes being opened up by Comorians. Many people fleeing war in Africa and the Middle East see Mayotte and its association with France as a quicker, safer means of accessing European aid, rather than risking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in search of the continental mainland. The number of people seeking safety on Mayotte doubles every year, in fact, to the extent that nearly one in two residents are now foreigners. So vast is the scale of the problem, services set up by the French government to process asylum seekers are completely overwhelmed, with more and more people being condemned to overcrowded slums—the largest area in any part of France without access to water and electricity.

Tensions born from this issue have reached a boiling point on a number of occasions, with people on both sides feeling equally betrayed by a lack of help from officials. Locals feel that health, education and housing services are suffering, overstretched by demand from migrants. This has led to protests and distressing attempts to round up and expel foreigners from the region. On the other hand, those coming to Mayotte expecting the quality of aid associated with France are finding they aren't entitled to the same rights they would have on the mainland, with few being granted the financial support or work permits they hoped for.

The greatest impact of all of this is almost certainly felt by the islands' children. Astonishingly, almost 45 percent of Mayotte's population is under the age of 15. This is due to the booming birth rate and the vast quantity of abandoned, unchaperoned and orphaned young people arriving on the islands' shores in search of help. Aware of how vulnerable these children are, and just how few options are available to them, slum lords are known to draw them into gang violence, or to exploit them through prostitution in exchange for poor accommodation.

In her novel, Tropic of Violence, author Nathacha Appanah looks at the human cost being incurred by Mayotte's people, attempting to give a voice to the children otherwise left to suffer in silence.

Map featuring Mayotte, courtesy of CountryReports

Death in Mud LickClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Eric Eyre

Summary

Death in Mud Lick is the story of a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, that distributed 12 million opioid pain pills in three years to a town with a population of 382 people—and of one woman, desperate for justice, after losing her brother to overdose. Debbie Preece's fight for accountability for her brother's death took her well beyond the Sav-Rite Pharmacy in coal country, ultimately leading to three of the biggest drug wholesalers in the country. She was joined by a crusading lawyer and by local journalist, Eric Eyre, who uncovered a massive opioid pill-dumping scandal that shook the foundation of America's largest drug companies—and won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Part Erin Brockovich, part Spotlight, Death in Mud Lick details the clandestine meetings with whistleblowers; a court fight to unseal filings that the drug distributors tried to keep hidden, a push to secure the DEA pill-shipment data, and the fallout after Eyre's local paper, the Gazette-Mail, the smallest newspaper ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, broke the story.

Eyre follows the opioid shipments into individual counties, pharmacies, and homes in West Virginia and explains how thousands of Appalachians got hooked on prescription drugs—resulting in the highest overdose rates in the country. But despite the tragedy, there is also hope as citizens banded together to create positive change—and won. A work of deep reporting and personal conviction, Eric Eyre's intimate portrayal of a national public health crisis illuminates the shocking pattern of corporate greed and its repercussions for the citizens of West Virginia—and the nation—to this day.

BookBrowse Review

When Eric Eyre, investigative and statehouse reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Daily, began covering the opioid crisis in 2013, it started as a local issue: West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's inauguration party was funded by Cardinal Health, the Fortune 500 company that was facing charges linked to prescription drug abuse. By 2017, Eyre's continued exposure of the opioid epidemic and those responsible for it won him the Pulitzer Prize. Death in Mud Lick is Eyre's look back at what's happened in West Virginia in light of new data on the damage done by drug distributors.

The book starts with a tragedy: Debbie Preece's path to find retribution for the death of her brother, William "Bull" Preece. Bull died in 2005 at the age of 45 from oxycodone intoxication. After a fall in the coal mine where he worked in 2000, he became addicted to OxyContin and Lortab. At the time of his death, he had five times the lethal limit in his system. The prescriber, Dr. Donald Kiser, had already moved his practice out-of-state due to federal charges against him. When Bull died, there was nothing in his medical chart from Dr. Kiser — not even an MRI from the initial emergency room visit — to demonstrate the extent of his injury or the need for medication. Kermit, West Virginia's Save-Rite Pharmacy filled these scripts without question. In fact, owner Jim Wooley gave away free popcorn and soda to the droves of people who came to his pharmacy to fill their questionable prescriptions, as if running an illicit tourist attraction. In a mere three years, Kermit was shipped 12 million hydrocodone pills for the town's population of 382. This was bigger than Bull.

Debbie Preece's legal actions against Sav-Rite Pharmacy and its owner Jim Wooley encouraged other locals to demand addiction treatment resources and legal accountability for the opioid crisis. When Eyre's reporting gained traction, journalists in other impoverished, rural coal communities took notice of the similarities in their own hometowns.

As a pattern emerged, Eyre's focus shifted to the supply chain, rather than the individual doctors who wrote the prescriptions and the pharmacies that filled them. Some of the biggest drug distributors, including McKesson, Cardinal Health, and Amerisource, were failing to regulate shipments, increasing prescription caps, and pushing sales. Other people who had lost loved ones started their own lawsuits, and the state of West Virginia took legal action on behalf of the public.

In Eyre's coverage of these developments, he discovered that drug distributors had been exploitatively profiting from the suffering of citizens since they first introduced these new narcotics. Pharmacy reps descended on vulnerable communities with high rates of manual labor injury, poverty and isolation to push the newly developed OxyContin, specifically seeking demographics of people more likely to develop addiction. The reps were also armed with sensitive data about doctors' patients and their existing conditions. They told prescribers that it would be "malpractice" to refuse prescribing these innovative, pain-reducing medications.

Eyre's reporting challenges readers to reconsider the nature of the opioid crisis in the United States. In revealing the failures of pharmacies, distributors, manufacturers, doctors, politicians and regulating boards, he makes the case that corporate greed has human causalities. This disease is not just uncontrolled but encouraged by those profiting from it.

Where Death in Mud Lick falls short is in its scope. Eyre has successfully described the complexity of the issue and the seemingly impossible path towards legal accountability, but a look at potential solutions would have been helpful. If legal action is not enough, how can corporate greed and corruption be eliminated from healthcare? Does a privatized healthcare system have the means to effectively resolve this public health crisis? How can addiction treatment and prevention be tailored to rural communities? Thus far, no new drug recovery centers are being built in Kermit. Little money is allocated to small towns for healthcare objectives. The structural issues — manual labor injuries, poverty and isolation — are not being confronted. These problems remain, and despite Eyre's efforts to raise awareness, there is little insight into possible directions for moving forward.

That said, by looking at the opioid epidemic as a multifaceted public health matter, Eyre is successful in bringing visibility to the issue and its many layers. He places it in a national context, sharing not only West Virginia's specific relationship with opioids, but also data about nationwide drug distribution. Thanks to his investigative work, the public has new information showing a side of addiction that is seldom understood, one that looks beyond individuals and into the larger systemic factors that make this problem a pattern, particularly in rural and industrial regions of the United States.

For more information about Death in Mud Lick and Eric Eyre's work, check out his interview with 100 Days in Appalachia.

Book reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

Beyond the Book:
Federal Raid on Mingo County, West Virginia

A church and other buildings in Kermit, West VirginiaIn 1988, Mingo County, West Virginia appeared in headlines across the country, with reports of staggering corruption in the southwest part of the Mountain State. There were allegations that elected officials paid for votes, firefighters set property ablaze for insurance payouts, and mom-and-pop trailer shops peddled pot, LSD and PCP.

The Preece family was at the center of the town, and in turn, the center of the scandals. "Wig" Preece and his wife "Cooney" had 13 children. They were affiliated with folks in the highest offices — the county prosecutor's office, the school board, the fire house, the county commission and the jail. With clout in practically all pockets of Mingo County, they seemed untouchable. According to FBI Special Agent Calvin Knott, the Preece family pulled in over $1 million annually in the drug business alone, attracting clients from across Mingo County and the surrounding area. Traffic was so heavy that the Preeces put a trailer on their property exclusively to sell drugs. Reports note that they brazenly posted signs such as, "Out of drugs. Back in 15 minutes." For years, no one stopped them.

Despite the dark side of the Preece family — or maybe in part because of it — they were loved by many of their neighbors. According to residents interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel, "If you were hungry, the Preeces would feed you. If you needed money and had something to sell, the Preeces would buy it. If you were in trouble, they would open their door, day or night." Such sentiments are not without precedent; the Italian mafia is known to step in and help the needy, as are Mexican drug cartels. Yet others were critical of the rampant crime taking over Mingo County; its lone newspaper, the Williamson Daily News, published over 300 articles covering the Preece family. But with power concentrated in so few hands, and with claims about an arson ring in operation, it was dangerous to speak out about what was going on.

Crimes to this extent committed so openly conflicted with many outsiders' perceptions about rural, small-town life. However, the federal investigation left little room to doubt the legitimacy of the allegations. Plans for the undercover investigation began in 1984, spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Joe Savage. In 1985, Savage sent a trio of agents to Mingo to gather hard evidence documenting the crimes. They hid in a boxcar on the Norfolk Southern tracks, right across from the Preece's trailer. From the boxcar's cracked door, the agents used a long-lens camera to photograph what happened on the property. In the two-day stakeout, the agents gathered pictures of over 600 people going into the trailer. On May 30, 1986, the long-awaited federal raid unfolded, with 20 suspects arrested in the first sweep and 30 felonies lodged against them. Seven of the suspects were Preeces.

By the end of the trials and plea deals, around 70 people were convicted of various crimes (not including charges concerning electoral fraud and other incidents of corruption). The convictions revealed to the rest of the nation that the corruption in "Bloody Mingo" was more blatant than in most of the country's biggest cities. The controversies permeated Mingo's police, politicians, bus drivers, school board members and preschool workers.

Today, three decades after the national exposure, Mingo County faces another unraveling. Although the power of the Preece family was broken up, Mingo and the surrounding area never recovered from the circumstances that made the corruption possible. What New York Times writer B. Drummond Ayres Jr. described as the "achingly poor coal community" is still isolated, struggling and unrepresented, as are many cities and towns with industrial and coal-based economies in places like Ohio, Kentucky and South Carolina.

As Purdue Pharma descended on the impuissant Mingo County in the late 1990s, pushing their newly-patented OxyContin and accusing doctors who refused the drug of sacrificing patient welfare and committing malpractice, tragedy was inevitable. The opioid epidemic pervaded Mingo County. But over decades, some things change. Back in 1988, no one could have foreseen that one crusader hoping to find help and retribution for Mingo County would be a Preece. To learn more about Debbie Preece — daughter of Wig and Cooney — and her work with Eric Eyre to push the opioid epidemic into the national spotlight, read the journalist's debut book, Death in Mud Lick.

Kermit, West Virginia, courtesy of Brian Stansberry

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.