“Still, I would be loath to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not. In this book I narrate a life in overlapping panels of memory and experience.” So begins Howard Norman’s intimate memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. For the first time, Norman, author of Devotion; The Bird Artist; and What Is Left the Daughter, invites his reader into five distinct and thematically linked points in his journeyed past.
In 1964 Grand Rapids, Michigan, we find young Norman longing for his absentee father. His mother claims that he’s in California but Norman often spots his father in the café from the window of the bookmobile where he shelves books — his first summer job. Here, he discovers the catharsis of writing by secretly penning long letters of heartbreaking criticism to the fathers of everyone he knows.
“Kingfisher Days” takes us along on his extraordinary travels to the Arctic where he’s assigned to transcribe Inuit life histories and folktales. One moment we hear elder Lucille Amorak’s stoic recitation of her poetry; the next we’re beside the young lead singer of a Beatles cover band as he mournfully sings out into the cold, snowy darkness the night news hit that John Lennon had been shot.
Although some moments are heavy with sadness, the angakok, an Inuit shaman, brings both ominous foreboding as well as humor. This roving angakok is convinced that Norman’s presence is a blight against the community, which brings about an odd series of encounters which Norman finds inexplicably bizarre, yet humbling.
In its closing and perhaps most revealing section, we gain access to Norman’s dark yet delicate ruminations on the murder-suicide of poet Reetika Vazirani who violently killed her 2-year-old son and herself while staying in the Norman’s D.C. home. Despite this horrific crime’s descent onto his family’s life, Norman’s private revelations are filled with clarity and, ultimately, grace.
Each one of these engrossing sections is populated by one or more species of birds, from kingfishers to the western oystercatchers. These birds poignantly embody various stages in Norman’s own human migration through life’s pain and beauty.
Philipp Meyer’s new novel spanning nearly 200 years of the American West, The Son, opens with the transcription of a 1934 New Deal WPA recording of 100-year-old Eli McCullough’s reminiscences. Eli, also known as the Colonel, discusses his imminent death: in one breath, comparing himself to Alexander the Great and, in the next, dismissing women and marriage. From vests fashioned of scalps, Aztecs as “mincing choirboys,” and vaqueros to Texas rangers, ranchers and oil wells, the Colonel has seen it all and is not shy about sharing his opinions.
Meyer alternates narrators and timeframes by chapter, giving voice to Eli as well as to his son Peter and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne. Born in 1834, the same year in which Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Eli’s story is the backbone of the book. As a boy, he witnesses the brutal slaughter of his mother, brother and sister by a band of Comanche who take Eli captive and eventually incorporate him as a member of their tribe. Eli’s later choices reflect his determination to survive despite the torturous customs of his captors. His conduct also mirrors the rapacious actions of a government and its people relentlessly expanding westward into territory already occupied. The Colonel has a contentious relationship with his son Peter, whose chapters play the role of a conscience, ruminating on injustice and cruelty. As the only descendent of the Colonel interested in taking over the family legacies of ranching and oil, great-granddaughter Jeanne reflects on her struggles as a woman managing a vast business in a Texas-style man’s world.
Jeanne muses, “the blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean…” The Son dispassionately recounts the barbarous atrocities committed by settlers and natives alike. Like the western novels of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy, Meyer’s writing is notable for its lack of romanticism about its subject. Meyer, who grew up in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, has written a family saga packed with adventure and drama in which the sins of all the fathers have consequences reverberating down through generations.
You Are One of Them is Elliot Holt’s new coming-of-age novel, a story of two neighbors who become best friends at the height of the Cold War during the 1980s. Sarah Zukerman and Jenny Jones are best friends growing up in a Washington, D.C. suburb and doing everything together. Out of boredom on a rainy afternoon, they decide to write a letter to Yuri Andropov, the secretary general of the Soviet Union’s Communist party. They are children of the Cold War and afraid of nuclear war. They hope that Andropov will understand that regular Americans just want to live in peace.
Andropov actually decides to answer Jenny’s letter and a media sensation is born. Jenny and her parents are invited to the Soviet Union. She becomes a poster child for peace at a time when the US and USSR seem only to be obsessed with nuclear brinkmanship. Due to a possible betrayal by Jenny, the girls' friendship never quite recovers once Jenny's family returns to the US. Jenny and her family remain media sensations, taking publicity trips all over the country. One of the trip ends in plane crash, killing the entire Jones family.
Fast-forward 10 years: Sarah receives a mysterious email from a young Russian woman who suggests that maybe Jenny’s family did not really die in the crash. Maybe Jenny is still alive and living in Russia. The Russian reminds Sarah that Americans cannot believe everything they’re told by the media. Sarah decides to find out once and for all. She goes to Russia to find her friend — and maybe herself.
Holt has successfully blended the '80s setting and D.C. locale to create an acutely realistic coming-of-age story. The period details are spot-on without obscuring the overall story. This book is also a riveting spy tale, but one with reflection and depth.
Also, highly recommended on audiobook.
“Is Samantha Shannon the next J.K. Rowling?” That's the question asked in the July 15th edition of Forbes magazine. Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is the first in what's expected to be a seven-part series. The novel begins in an alternate universe in the year 2059, about 200 years after a plague covered the planet causing some of the population to become clairvoyant. In the world Shannon has created, there are guards who protect the Scion city of London from clairvoyants because the general population has been told that clairvoyants are dangerous. This futuristic world is a totalitarian society where clairvoyants have to hide their abilities and are treated as criminals.
Paige Mahoney is the 19-year-old protagonist of this science fiction thriller. She is called the "Pale Dreamer" because she’s a dream walker, a rare form of clairvoyant. All clairvoyants have a specialty, an area of the sixth sense at which they excel, and Paige’s spirit is able to leave her body and travel into the aether to visit the thoughts and dreams of others. She uses her gift for an underground crime syndicate that employs clairvoyants in a variety of ways depending on their abilities. The lifestyle allows Paige to be around others like her and not feel ashamed of her gifts.
The Pale Dreamer’s world is thrown into chaos when underguards discover that she is clairvoyant. She is taken captive and detained with others who have similar abilities. She must learn about herself and her gift in order to regain her freedom, but the task is greater than it seems and failing isn’t an option.
This is an incredibly unique book by a debut author. According to The Bone Season’s website, the book’s movie rights have already been claimed by The Imaginarium studios.
Fans of Agatha Christie have much to rejoice this year, as the final five Poirot novels adapted to films by the BBC have been completed and will air in the United States later this year. David Suchet has been playing Poirot since 1989 and, in the end, will have filmed 70 episodes, including several full-length movies featuring Christie’s well-know Belgian detective.
The final films include Elephants Can Remember, based on a novel featuring Christie’s delightful recurring character, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver. Ariadne’s goddaughter Celia’s life is shrouded in mystery as Celia's parents perished in an apparent double suicide. There could be more to the story, and as Ariadne begins to dig, she will need the help of Hercule Poirot to get to the bottom of the case.
The final film will, of course, be based on Christie’s last Poirot novel, Curtain. Christie wrote Curtain in the 1940’s to give closure to the Poirot series, and the novel was locked in a bank vault and never published until after her death in the 1970s. Poirot is ailing and his body is beginning to break down, even though his mind is as sharp as ever. He returns with Captain Hastings to the scene of their first mystery together with concerns of his own. He will have to use Captain Hastings as his eyes and ears to find a devious killer who may have acted more than once in committing horrible crimes.
The final films will be bittersweet, as fans always had that next film or episode to look forward to, but now is a great time to brush up on your Christie and read the words that inspired the movies.
In Lori Nelson Spielman’s charming debut novel The Life List, Brett Bohlinger embarks on an unexpected year-long adventure that changes the trajectory of her life.
Brett thinks that she is happy with her life. She has a good job, a handsome boyfriend and a loving family. Brett’s world is rocked by the death of her beloved mother Elizabeth. Devastated and grieving, Brett is even more shocked when her mother’s will is read. Instead of bequeathing the family’s cosmetics business to Brett, Elizabeth has set an astonishing plan in motion. The terms of Elizabeth’s will stipulate that Brett has one year to earn her inheritance by completing a list of life goals that she set for herself when she was 14 years old. Each time she completes a task, Brett not only gets closer to her inheritance, she also earns a letter from her mother. Some of the tasks, like performing on stage or getting a dog, are fairly easy to complete. Others, like having a baby and having a good relationship with her father, seem impossible to Brett. As she works her way through the list, Brett begins to find her way, and the tasks her mother assigned her prove that her mother did indeed know best.
Brett’s journey is filled with heart and warm humor. In the end, she finds the true loves of her life just as Elizabeth hoped she would. Lori Nelson Spielman is an exciting new voice in women’s fiction. Readers who enjoy novels by Allison Winn Scotch, Marian Keyes and Emily Giffin will love The Life List.
She was the quintessential southern belle who married a reckless young writer, took New York by storm and became the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties’ flapper. In Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler envisions the dramatic, heartfelt life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, working through the entanglement of images, rumors and speculations which have been tied to this intriguing woman since her introduction into New York’s and Europe’s artisan circles over 90 years ago. What emerges is a portrait of a young woman full of life, an Alabama transplant with quick wit and plenty of sass.
Through the modern-day lens Fowler applies to her writing, Zelda’s challenges, including her battle with mental illness and her supposed unhealthy obsession with ballet, are reexamined. Fowler also highlights what is often overlooked — Zelda herself was an accomplished writer, even penning a review of her husband F. Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, but much of her writing was overshadowed or published jointly with his name, so as to make it more acceptable with editors of the time.
Zelda and F. Scott have remained intriguing, due in large part to their fast rise to fame, nomadic existence and self-destructive downfall. Readers will appreciate this insightful reconstruction of their lives during the heyday of the 1920s. Fans of Fitzgerald’s novels will also see bits of the couple’s lives and conversation which were later incorporated into his stories. Z is the latest in a string of historical fiction about wives of famous men, including The Aviator’s Wife and The Paris Wife, and this lively tale would make an excellent travel companion or book club pick.
Three friends find an abandoned sofa at their bus stop one day that not only changes their lives, but saves the lives of everyone they know. In fact, the title What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark pretty much gives away the plot. Middle school students River, Freak and Fiona live in Hellsboro, Pennsylvania, a fictitious town full of secrets and problems. Hellsboro, so named because of its bleak, Hell-like landscape, has a ‘coal seam fire’ that has been burning under the town for years. When the trio discovers the old sofa, they begin to find unusual items hidden in its cushions, including a very rare and valuable crayon. On a hunch, these tech savvy kids put the crayon on an online auction and are amazed when a bidding war starts. However, crayon collectors aren’t the only ones interested in their findings. Can the three friends outwit a devious billionaire out to control the universe, an eccentric old inventor, an axe-wielding ghost and some bizarre flash mobs in time to save the world?
Clark’s debut novel is full of interesting and quirky characters, dialogue and situations similar to those found in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Edward Eager’s Half Magic series. While the friends try to save the world from impending doom, they also deal with issues that many young teens can relate to including peer pressure, not fitting in, dysfunctional family life and discovering who their real friends are. The story is told from River’s point of view, but all three of the main characters have unique voices and are well-drawn. While coal-seam fires are a real issue in parts of Pennsylvania, let's hope that none of them hide the secrets that River, Fiona and Freak uncover.
Hilary T. Smith’s debut teen novel Wild Awake is a powerful story exploring loss, mental illness and family. Kiri Byrd, the 17-year-old narrator of the novel, is spending a few weeks home alone while her parents are on a cruise, when she receives a phone call from a stranger named Doug. Doug claims to have the rest of her beloved dead sister Sukey’s belongings, and tells Kiri she can come pick them up from Sukey’s old apartment. Sukey died when Kiri was 12, in what her parents told her was a car accident. Kiri is suspicious of Doug’s motives, but meets him because she misses her sister.
When she arrives at the address, she’s dismayed to find that her sister had been living in a rundown apartment in a dangerous area of town, not with the other up-and-coming artists that Sukey had described. As she discovers that Sukey’s life wasn’t at all what she had imagined, she finds that her sister didn’t die the way her parents told her. This revelation turns Kiri’s life upside down. As she struggles to accept this news, she spirals out of control—she drinks, takes drugs, stays up all night practicing for a piano recital, and makes rash, dangerous decisions—making her friends and family scared for her. Her only bright spot during the ordeal is Skunk, a boy she meets near Sukey’s apartment who becomes increasingly important in her life.
Wild Awake takes readers along on Kiri’s search for the truth amidst the grief she still feels from losing her sister and discovering the secrets her family has kept from her. Smith has written a moving novel that older teens and even adults will enjoy.
Love learning new things while also reading a page-turning historical thriller? Check out David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art. Set in Victorian England, Morrell’s “hero” is the essayist Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater.
A heinous crime is committed in 1854, England. The gruesome methods of the crime are lifted directly from a De Quincey essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” As it happens, De Quincey and his daughter Emily were in England at the time of the murder. He suddenly becomes a prime suspect. With the help of a couple of Scotland Yard detectives, it will be up to De Quincey and Emily to prove his innocence and find the killer.
De Quincey is a fascinating historical figure. He wrote about the inner psyche decades before Sigmund Freud and was surrounded by artistic friends such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Murder as a Fine Art is one part novel and one part history lesson. Scotland Yard was still relatively new, and investigative techniques were still rather primitive. Morrell gives his readers a real sense of Victorian England, with its straight-laced exterior hiding a dark underbelly of vice.
For additional historical thrillers set in the Victorian era, check out The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Alex Grecian’s The Yard. For an excellent nonfiction treatment of crime in the Victorian era, see Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.