cover image The Desert Sky Before Us

The Desert Sky Before Us

Anne Valente. Morrow, $15.99 trade paper (448p) ISBN 978-0-06-274987-1

Valente’s latest (after Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down) misses the mark. Three months after their mother’s death, Rhiannon Hurst, a former Nascar driver, picks up her sister, Billie, at the prison she is being released from after serving a six-year stretch for arson, to drive them to a second funeral service pre-arranged by their late paleontologist mother, Margaret. Margaret also left behind a journal of geographic coordinates indicating stops that Rhiannon and Billie are meant to visit on the drive from the prison to the funeral. The sisters soon discover that each stop contains a clue in the form of an item of personal significance hidden by their mother for them to discover. On the two-week trip from Illinois to a dinosaur fossil quarry in Utah, Rhiannon and Billie rehash old hostilities and regrets while simultaneously excavating their mother’s motivations for the scavenger hunt. Hovering in the background is the inexplicable phenomenon of airplanes falling from the skies. As in her previous novel, Valente once again prominently features arson and documents inserted into the text—in this case, excerpts from scholarly disquisitions on, among other subjects, stegosauruses’ plates, Nascar champion Wendell Scott, and red-tailed hawks. But here, narrative idiosyncrasies have calcified into lackluster stylistic tics. The result is an overlong combination of road trip story and puzzle box that leaves its two main characters stranded. (May)