For Lady, Vee and Delph Alter, suicide runs in the family. Now, the clock is ticking for the three sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell's dynamic turn-of-the-century family saga A Reunion of Ghosts. The Alter siblings believe their fates are sealed and have selected midnight, December 31, 1999 as the date they, too, will end their lives. But first, they want to chronicle the story of four generations of Alters in a sort of tell-all group memoir that is also their suicide note.
The Alter sisters come from a long, complicated line of suicidal tendencies going back to their great-grandmother, Iris. Iris was married to Lenz Alter, a Jewish Nobel prize-winning chemist who ironically developed the poison gas used by the Germans in World War II. Eventually, the scientist, their son Richard and his children (including the sisters' mother), also killed themselves. (Readers will find it helpful to refer to the detailed family tree included in the front of the book to keep track of who's who.)
Now, the Alter siblings are stuck. "The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that's where we've stayed," they said. They even live in the same inherited Upper West Side apartment, complete with a "death and dying room" no one has slept in for years. Lady, divorced and miserable, has already attempted suicide once. Vee, whose husband died, is facing a cancer recurrence. The youngest Delph contemplates what being cursed really means. They want to hasten what they feel is the inevitable course of events.
Mitchell has crafted here a stylistically complex, intertwining narrative through the unified voice of the three protagonists. It is their pragmatism and wry, dark humor that lend this family portrait its memorable quality. While Ghosts is about an imaginary family, Mitchell does use some historical material. The German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, were the inspiration for Lenz and Iris Alter. Readers interested in Mitchell's research will find a thorough bibliography at the end of this achingly elegant story.
Meghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.
Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.
Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.
It seems innocent enough in the beginning, the budding friendship between Nina and Emma in Harriet Lane's new psychological thriller Her. Nina is the well-heeled 40-something artist who outwardly seems to have it all. The pregnant Emma, on the other hand, has an understandably chaotic and messy life with a demanding toddler in tow. So when Nina takes a soothing interest in the harried Emma, the young mother is smitten and even a little flattered.
Lane wants readers to get nervous about this one-sided friendship that seems to take hold when the sophisticated Nina spots Emma on a London street one day. She recognizes the younger woman, but Emma doesn't recognize her. And the pursuit is on. What happens next is difficult to figure, as Nina deftly worms her way into the nucleus of Emma's life. When the complicated Nina lures Emma's small son away from his mother in a park, she instigates a parent's worst nightmare, but why does she do it? For sure, Nina's subtle and sinister cruelties hint of the Hitchcockian drama to unfold.
British author Lane, whose first novel was Alys, Always, seems keen on manipulative protagonists. In Her, she uses restraint in shifting the story from the alternating perspectives of the two women. With a simmering plot and plenty of questions to answer, the ending will sneak up on you and accomplish what a psychological thriller is meant to do: stay with you. Readers of Gone Girl and also-new The Girl on the Train will want to sit down with this tautly written gem that will also hit the spot.
Christopher Scotton's ambitious debut novel The Secret Wisdom of the Earth generated such a torrent of in-house support from the publisher that the novel's first printing was bumped up to 100,000 copies. Scotton, CEO of a software company, took 15 years to write this story of a 14-year-old boy who spends a fateful summer with his grandfather in Kentucky coal country. Widely appealing and whispering of second chances, the coming-of-age tale mines the burden of loss for those living in a poor rural landscape that will never look the same. Recently, Scotton answered questions for Between the Covers.
Between the Covers: You capture so eloquently your characters' voices. What was the process for making them come alive for your readers? Was there anyone from your background who was the inspiration for your protagonist, Kevin?
Christopher Scotton: I create a deep written study for each main character, detailing everything about them and getting to know who they are — their hopes, fears, histories and dreams. Then I just let them combust in the plot. The old English 101 chestnut, show don’t tell, is probably the best single piece of advice about creating great characters. If one describes a character through their actions it’s just a more fulfilling experience for the reader — it allows the reader to better build out the wireframe of the characters in their mind. Kevin is very similar to the kind of kid I was at 14 — insecure, unsure, a bit nerdy. Fortunately, I had none of the grief and guilt that life has layered on him.
BTC: You have multiple stories and themes coursing through the small town of Medgar. How did you prepare yourself for telling the story of this unique local culture since you are not from Appalachia?
CS: I visited the region often in my teens and 20s and again when I was writing the novel. I let the feel of the place seep into my marrow so that, when back in London, I could transport myself there. On my trips I would just listen to the stories folks would tell, listen to the rhythm of their dialect. What I found was that small town Kentucky is not that different from small town Maryland where I grew up.
BTC: The setting for your novel is 1985 Kentucky coal country, where the earth seems to languish as much as your characters. Were you looking to make a statement about the devastation of mountaintop removal?
CS: I was not trying to make a statement so much as present the truth of mountaintop removal — the argument is not as simple as big bad coal vs. the people. The issues are much more nuanced than that. There really are few economic options for the hard working folks in the region so they are left with some very hard choices to make about their future. I’m personally against mountaintop removal, but I hope the novel presents a more balanced approach to the problem.
BTC: Your readers may be encountering a “madstone” for the first time. Why was introducing this folklore important to the story and your characters?
CS: A madstone is an old folk remedy to cure snake bites and fevers. It’s a calcified hairball-like thing from the intestine of a cud-chewing animal. You’re probably thinking, “Cool, where can I get one!” If someone is bitten by a copperhead or a rabid dog, the madstone would be applied to the bite, and the poisons would be drawn out of the bite. Madstones vary in strength and effectiveness — a madstone from a cow is only mildly effective, a madstone from a deer is considered quite powerful. However, the madstone from a white deer is the most powerful of all and unicorn-like in their scarcity. Interestingly, madstones can’t be bought or sold or they’ll lose their power; they must be found or given.
In the novel, the earth becomes a madstone for several of the characters, drawing out the pain and poison from the losses they suffer. The healing properties of the earth — both to heal us, her caretakers, and to heal herself — are a major theme in the novel, and the madstone is an example of that theme.
BTC: You grew up outside of D.C. in an area not too different from your protagonist, Kevin. Can you talk about how your experiences impacted the writing of the novel?
CS: I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved out to the country 30 miles north when I was 9 or 10 — back then it was undeveloped land and a truly magical place to be a kid. Those summers of secret swimming holes, tree forts, mud pits and dammed-up creeks provided a rich influence for Kevin and Buzzy’s back-country adventures. In my early teens, developers bought up much of the land and the endless woods of my youth became tract housing. I tried to bring that same “loss of place” experience to the novel. Being an outsider, as is Kevin, allowed me a bit more freedom to write as an outsider — but ultimately the narrative needed to be authentic, and I hope it is.
BTC: These are exciting times for you. Hachette ordered a 100,000 first printing. Reviews have been favorable. Some have compared your book to To Kill a Mockingbird. Taking a breath now, how has this whole process of publishing felt to you as a new author?
CS: It’s been fascinating, fun and more than just a little surreal. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be in this place. Hachette is taking a huge gamble on me as a complete unknown, with zero writing credentials and no platform. It really does demonstrate their commitment to bringing new voices to the market. The support I’ve gotten within the company, especially from the sales team, has been overwhelming…I’ll start breathing again come summer.
BTC: What’s next for you?
CS: I’m working on my second novel. It’s a completely different time period and a different setting from Secret Wisdom. It takes place in 1875; two 14-year-old Irish twin sisters emigrate to New York to live with their aunt and work as domestics. After a few weeks in America, they disappear without a trace. Their 19-year-old sister comes over to try and find them and she follows their trail from New York, across the country and ultimately out west in an attempt to rescue them and bring them home. It’s a great story and based on an actual series of events that happened in my family in the 1800s.
It’s hard to root against a 7-year-old named Millie Bird, the charming, precociously wise protagonist in Lost & Found, the heart-tugging debut by Australian author Brooke Davis. Millie just wants to find her mum, who has absconded from the large ladies’ underwear section of a local department store. Fortunately, Millie crosses paths with two peculiar octogenarians who become the unlikely minders for the abandoned Millie. It falls to them to reunite the little girl with her wayward mom.
Millie desperately needs a “Dot Four” since her father has died and now her grief-stricken mother has disappeared. Connecting the three dots from mom to dad to herself meant Millie felt safe. But now the red-gumboot-wearing, curly headed youngster is obsessed with dead things and carries a “just in case” glass jar around. She finds herself on a bumpy road trip through Western Australia suburbia with two elderly companions, who are also thinking about death but for different reasons. Karl the Touch Typist nervously types letters in the air as he speaks. He misses his dead wife. Millie’s neighbor, the sad and grumpy Agatha, has not left her house since her husband died seven years ago. “How do you get old without letting sadness become everything?” wonders Agatha. Indeed, it’s but one of many questions asked in Davis’ irresistible story that fuses the psychological reservoirs of grief with humor and the hopefulness of youthful perspective.
A suggested book club selection, Lost & Found may appear as a lighter read from its colorful, whimsical cover, but don’t be fooled. Inspired by events in the author’s own life, the novel was born out of a doctoral thesis on grief. Davis, whose own mother died suddenly in 2006, was “relearning the world” too, like her three distinctly voiced characters. With steady pacing and brief sectioned chapters, Lost & Found will strike a chord with anyone who has ever considered the many forms of missing someone and the different shapes of acceptance. Fans of The Rosie Project by fellow Australian author Graeme Simsion may also want to give this strong first effort a try.