Who recognizes this story? A young orphan lives with relatives who make her feel like a burden. To escape, she takes a job as a nanny to a little girl and falls in love with the child’s father. She flees that relationship to find herself in a second romantic entanglement but can’t forget about her first love. Yes, debut author Patricia Park freely admits that Re Jane was inspired by the Jane Eyre, but Park’s version is freshly minted and modern and anything but redundant.
Park’s Jane has a Korean mother and an American father, both of whom died when Jane was an infant. Jane has been raised in America by her traditional Korean uncle and his family, and works in his grocery in Queens. After a promising job offer in the financial sector falls through, Jane starts working as a live-in sitter for Devon, the adopted Chinese daughter of Beth and Bill Farley-Mazer. Gentrified Mazer family life opens a sophisticated new world for Jane, far from her familiar working class neighborhood of immigrants, and passion blooms between Jane and Bill. Just like the original heroine, Jane Re takes a trip to relieve her tap-tap-hai (an overwhelming discomfort), but her journey takes her to Korea to reconnect with extended family and explore her roots.
Park says the title Re Jane refers not only to her readaptation of the Bronte classic, but to Jane’s mixed heritage; Re is an Americanized version of the common Korean surname Ee, often pronounced in the United States as Lee. The cultural concept of nunchi, which Park describes as an expected social conduct combining anticipation and foresight, influences Jane as she struggles to find her footing as a Korean, an American, an adult and a woman. Sharply observant as well as endearing, readers will be pleased with this contemporary Jane.
Sarah Gerard’s unnamed narrator in Binary Star is channeled from a place most of us will never visit in our lifetimes. It’s a wonder that Gerard is capable of emerging from this place only to return again for the sake of siphoning creative energies, and her trial blurs the story in Binary Star into an unsettling reality.
The nameless protagonist in Binary Star is a young woman studying astronomy at Adelphi University in New York. She is anorexic and bulimic. Her boyfriend John lives in Chicago and is an alcoholic and an abuser of prescribed medication. The narrator is at a point in her life where she feels completely directionless. Though she’s intelligent enough to realize the cause of her misery is her failing health — she weighs just a hair over 90 pounds — she refuses to break the cycle she’s trapped in. John denies his condition with boisterous, masculine assertions, often leading to broken bones and bruised egos. Together, the two are a pathetic spectacle — but at least they’re something.
Gerard illustrates in Binary Star that sometimes people need each other in order to exist. Splashes of science parallel this tumultuous relationship:
A binary star is a system containing two stars that orbit their common center of mass. The relative brightness of stars in a binary system is important. Glare from a bright star can make detecting a fainter companion difficult.
They embark on a road trip with no real destination, which necessitates visits with old acquaintances and frequent stops at convenience stores. Through vegan literature collected during their journey, the couple becomes devoted to anarchy-fueled ecoterrorism. Will this new cause balance their orbit, or cause them to violently burn out?
Readers who enjoyed the classic anonymously written and narrated novel Go Ask Alice will find a lot of similarities in Binary Star. For more literary work on the topic of eating disorders, readers should look for How to Disappear Completely by Kelsey Osgood.
Emma Woodhouse is a 20-something young woman who believes her mission in life is to straighten out other people’s lives. Pretty, wealthy and well-intentioned, naïve Emma starts to play matchmaker to her loved ones only to discover that acting as Cupid is much more complicated than she imagined. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Jane Austen wrote Emma in 1815 and, 200 years later, Alexander McCall Smith has updated the story in Emma: A Modern Retelling. All of the beloved characters are there: dashing Mr. Knightley, tedious Miss Bates, silly Harriet and the insufferable Mr. Elton — they've just been given a 21st century makeover.
Smith’s book is the third to be released as part of The Austen Project, which “pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.” The first two, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, have met with mixed reviews by Austen fans and the general public. Smith’s text is perhaps the best attempt to modernize Austen’s plot while still retaining the original feel of her work. Smith has an excellent sense of character and dialogue and manages to capture the quirky individuals that inhabit Emma’s world.
Smith is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he is a prolific writer whose credits include over 50 novels, including three other series: Corduroy Mansions, Isabel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street. Smith uses his ability to encapsulate a character’s personality concisely through carefully crafted dialogue and descriptions quite effectively in this updated version of Emma. Interestingly, Austen referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yet, 200 years later, readers are still enthralled with Austen’s heroine. Smith’s “modern retelling” is definitely worth a read.
Fans of Toni Morrison will find the new and not-so-new in her latest novel, God Help the Child. The new: This is Morrison's first book to be set in present day instead of the historical past. The not-so-new are the issues Morrison is known for tackling, such as sexual abuse, betrayal and race perceptions. Each is accounted for in this slim, spare novel about the ways in which people revive themselves from life's early trauma and rejection.
This story of a mother and her daughter stares down a heartrending path, punctuated by cruelty and denial. Sweetness, the mother, is a light-skinned African-American woman who is repulsed by the midnight blackness of her own daughter, Lula Ann. “She was so black she scared me,” says Sweetness, who calls herself “high yellow.” For Lula Ann, growing up with a distant mother meant that she would do just about anything to gain her attention, including telling a devastating lie that will haunt her. As an adult, Lula Ann changes her name to Bride. Successful, with a soon-to-be-launched cosmetic line, the stunningly beautiful young woman embraces her fashionable blue-blackness, dressing in accentuating white. She falls apart when her lover leaves her. Her search for him leads to more discoveries about herself and the man she may not know at all.
Told from shifting points-of-view, God Help the Child exudes characteristic Morrison prose with its powerful imagery and subtle emotional probing. There is also a bow to the author's canon of previous works, including a spell of magical realism that readers may recognize. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison is widely considered one of the world’s superb storytellers. And while the length of her novels may be shortening (this is her 11th and one of the leanest at 178 pages), the 84-year-old continues to mine the black American experience for lessons from the past. In her latest work, a breach of trust in childhood becomes the conduit that shapes all that comes later, making forgiveness and reconciliation necessary but daunting.
Detroit: in its heyday, it was the bustling host to Motown and the "Big Three" auto manufacturers. The city also served as a mecca for African Americans escaping Jim Crow and taking advantage of the jobs available in its thriving economy. Set in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, tells the story of husband and wife Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children while exploring their ties to their family home in Detroit.
Oldest sibling Cha-Cha is the Turner family patriarch by default. At 62 years old, he is both accustomed to and tired of assuming the role of leader to his younger siblings. With his father’s passing and his mother’s deteriorating health, the family’s house on Yarrow Street, once an emblem of success in Black America, is vacant and crumbling and saddled with a mortgage 10 times the home’s current value. While the Turner children jockey with their differing views of what to do with the debt-ridden property, Cha-Cha is engaging in a mid-life retrospective, evaluating his relationships with his parents, his wife and his siblings. The narrative revealing how Francis and Viola each made their way to Michigan from rural Arkansas is especially poignant. Flournoy’s writing is gentle, pointed and witty as she explores if blood ties, shared memories or something else entirely creates family bonds. Fans of Anne Tyler or J. California Cooper will lose themselves in the thoughtful story of The Turner House.
Kate Atkinson’s powerhouse novel Life After Life garnered impressive reviews in 2013, landing it on many "Best Of" lists for that year. Now she delves back into the lives of the Todd family in her soaring new novel, A God in Ruins.
Where Life After Life focused on the time-bending reimagining of the life of Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins’ lead character is her brother Teddy. We see Teddy come of age and go off to war, but this isn’t just a war novel. We are treated to every aspect of Teddy’s life: his marriage to girl-next-door Nancy, raising his daughter Viola and even his interactions with his grandchildren. His multiple triumphs and disappointments make it easy to root for his happiness.
The story isn’t chronological — rather it is told back-and-forth between different points of Teddy’s life, leaving the reader to make connections and judgments about events, waiting to see if those predictions are realized. Thanks to the richly developed characters and winning style, the novel is an engaging read. It is a wistful letter to the Todd family, and overall, to what it means to be a part of a family and part of our collective humanity.
Atkinson has said that she doesn’t view this novel as a sequel, rather as a companion piece to her previous bestseller. Those who enjoyed Life After Life will be glad to dive into A God in Ruins to catch up with the characters they loved. Both of these novels are also an excellent fit for those who have just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and are looking for a similar great read.
Daniel Torday’s new novel The Last Flight of Poxl West is so meticulously researched and convincingly written, readers will believe they’ve found the second coming of Unbroken. Similar in theme, The Last Flight of Poxl West is the story of Leopold Weisberg, a.k.a. Poxl West, a Czechoslovakian pilot who enlists in the Royal Air Force (RAF) to combat Nazis in the skies above Britain. Poxl’s story is told in portions of excerpts from his memoirs and from the present-day perspective of Eli Goldstein, Poxl’s young nephew who idolizes his uncle.
Poxl and Eli take frequent trips into town for ice cream sundaes. Over mounds of whipped cream topped with cherries and sprinkles, Poxl regales Eli with stories from a rough draft of a manuscript he’s working on, which would later become Skylock, his best-selling memoir. Eli treasures time with his uncle and is proud when Poxl’s book is released to critical acclaim, but he soon feels the sting of his uncle’s absence when Skylock flies Poxl to stardom.
Skylock is Poxl’s story of his life during World War II. He spent his teenage years watching his mother paint and his father tinker with a personal airplane, until pressure from the encroaching Reich and a familial disturbance cause him to flee to the Netherlands. The next few years of Poxl’s life are marred with love and loss and pockmarked from falling bombs. Remorse drives Poxl to enlist in the RAF and take to the skies, where he hopes to reciprocate the pain the Nazis have caused him.
In 250 words Poxl’s story sounds heroic, but what sets The Last Flight of Poxl West apart from other WWII stories or other memoirs of courage and victory is Poxl’s motivation. Depending on how readers perceive his actions, he could be a brave and selfless soldier, or he could be an obsessive and cowardly young man. It’s up to readers to decide which flight is actually Poxl’s last.
For nearly 20 years, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been honoring the contributions of women writers around the world for their extraordinary contributions to contemporary fiction. This year’s winner, announced on Wednesday, June 3, is How to be Both by Ali Smith.
Prize judges describe the winning book as a story of “grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.” Two separate narratives, entitled Camera and Eye, take place 500 years apart with a glorious painted fresco as the link to both. Camera is the story of George(ia), a contemporary English teen who is thinking over exchanges with her mother who has since died. Eye tells of Francescho, an Italian girl, also motherless, masquerading as a boy in order to gain entrance as a painter in the 15 century art world. Smith says her inspiration to write How to be Both came from viewing Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa’s beautiful works.
The shortlist of nominees included beloved local author Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which follows a Baltimore family as its younger generations cope with their aging parents. A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie combines Ottoman Empire history, archaeology, a treasure hunt and romance against the backdrop of World War I. Rachel Cusk was nominated for Outline, a book of revelatory conversations between a woman and an assortment of people who cross her path while she is teaching a writing class in Greece. Rounding out the shortlist are two titles which appeared earlier on Between the Covers: The Bees by Laline Paull, which immerses the reader in an imaginative, totalitarian honeybee hive society; and Sarah Water’s The Paying Guest, which explores the effects of societal constraints on women, resulting in a crime of forbidden passion in post-World War II England.
Don’t judge this book by its simple cover; the stories contained within Arthur Bradford’s collection Turtleface and Beyond are highly original and situationally hilarious. Turtleface and Beyond features a series of stories starring Georgie, a hapless, lackadaisical fellow who seems to be a magnet for the bizarre.
In the titular "Turtleface," Georgie is canoeing down a lazy river with his friend Otto and their girlfriends, when Otto spies an imposing cliff and wants to leap from it. Against Georgie's advice, Otto scrambles up the mountainside and dives into the river below, where his face meets a meandering turtle. Georgie is racked with guilt not because of Otto's foolish accident, but because the turtle's shell is fissured.
"Lost Limbs" is the story of Georgie's unrequited interest in Lenore, a woman with a prosthetic arm. Lenore interprets Georgie’s lack of interest in her prosthesis as self-absorbed and ignoble, but poor Georgie didn’t even realize her arm was fake until their second date. Lenore breaks things off with Georgie, who is content with her decision until months later when he gets his leg caught in a wood chipper. As his calf is mangled in the machine, his first thought is, "Hm, I should call that lovely girl with the fake hand."
Georgie works the graveyard shift in an attorney’s library in "217-Pound Dog," where he meets Jim Tewilliger, a partner at the firm whose life is beginning to unravel. Sensing Georgie's kind nature, Jim asks him for help acquiring some marijuana. Georgie senses Jim is a man in need of a rare kind of help, so he acquiesces. Jim's behavior around the office becomes increasingly erratic, and Georgie, left vouching for him in a whirlwind of unfinished work and fast food wrappers, wonders what his acquaintance’s endgame entails.
Arthur Bradford’s imagination illuminates Georgie’s misadventures in Turtleface and Beyond, a collection genre lovers will find funny, laconic and clever.
When a novel depicts a brief period of time, the pacing becomes just as crucial as the plot and the characters of the story. Hannah Pittard’s new novel Reunion takes place in the mourning period between a death and subsequent viewing. During those emotional few days, readers witness genuine exchanges between siblings who revert to old tendencies as soon as they’re in the same room together.
En route to Chicago via plane, Kate Pulaski checks her phone and discovers her estranged father Stan has killed himself. Her older siblings Elliot and Nell are pausing their busy lives to fly to Georgia to be with Sasha, Stan’s fifth wife, and their daughter Mindy. Kate is baffled by how quickly her brother and sister have booked their flights, and is forced onto another flight by her husband Peter — right before he tells her he wants a divorce. Kate remembers an affair she had and isn’t surprised by her husband’s scorn, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Wondering how any of her siblings, half-siblings or mothers-in-law could possibly want to mourn Stan’s death, Kate tries in vain to bolster her head and her heart for a tumultuous next couple of days. Days spent drinking far too much wine and attempting to read into familial relationships that she barely knew existed — what else is there to do at a family reunion predicated on a suicide?
Hannah Pittard opens and nurses complex relations between her cast of lovingly crafted and completely human characters, illustrating that a sense of familiarity — with people, places or things — can cause people to take an introspective look at what they’ve become and where they’re headed. Coming-of-age fans will find lots to like in Reunion, as will teens and new adults who enjoy relationship-centric stories.