High expectations don't come with a guarantee. Matter of fact, they're often precursor to disappointment.
So it was with some trepidation I cracked open Keith Donohue's "Angels of Destruction," published two years after his magnificent inaugural effort, the acclaimed (including by this reviewer) "The Stolen Child."
Sophomore jinx? Hardly. With "Angels," Donohue delivers a magical tale of love and redemption that is as wonderfully written as it is captivating. But let's start with captivating.
One night in the middle of winter, widow Margaret Quinn hears a tiny rap on her door. To her surprise, she finds a 9-year-old girl shivering in the cold. She shuffles the child into her home and, soon enough, into her heart.
Shaye Areheart Books ($24)
Margaret has grown reclusive with the years. A decade earlier, in 1975, her daughter, Erica, ran off with a high school sweetheart to join a West Coast revolutionary group called Angels of Destruction.
Not long after, her husband, Paul, died. She mourns them both, but especially the lost years with a daughter whose rejection remains heartbreaking and puzzling.
When the beguiling 9-year-old says she has no family and no home, Margaret's mind races. She names the girl Norah and decides to pass her off as a granddaughter. Norah is her conniving equal, and their bond deepens at breakneck speed.
Enrolled in elementary school, Norah befriends a boy named Sean, whose father abandoned him and his mother. Naturally withdrawn, given the circumstances of his life, Sean warms to Norah, who quickly reveals -- first to him and later to classmates and adults -- ethereal displays of magic.
Initially with Margaret's sister, but soon enough within the community, skepticism rears its head. Is the child what she claims to be? Should we fear her? What is her purpose? Does her sudden appearance have something to do with Erica's disappearance?
Donohue is delightfully descriptive in his writing. His word choices are carefully considered -- "She grabbed his hand and pulled, running and laughing as they parted clots of children" -- and his pacing rivets you to page after page.
It's also a finely layered story, with flashbacks to Erica and a suspenseful build to the answers to all of those questions.
Does it rise to the level of his first book? That's probably a matter of taste. Donohue's penchant for mystical realism is on display here, just as it was in his exploration of lost identity in "The Stolen Child." But no second effort could capture the freshness of his debut.
Still, "Angels of Destruction" will enthrall readers -- maybe especially in Western Pennsylvania. The author, a Scott native, sets his tale in a small town near Pittsburgh, and readers will note the many references to our region.
But mostly, they'll note the craftsmanship of a story artfully told. "Angels" earns its wings.
Allan Walton is the Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor for multimedia.