Few collectives of the 20th century grabbed as much attention or gathered as much talent as the prolific Bloomsbury Group. Made up of luminaries of the art, literary and academic world, their indelible stamp on the thoughts and trends of the turn of the century still resonate with fans today. Much has been written and dissected of the Group’s offerings, particularly the writing of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. While Virginia’s remarkable career and personal struggles may consume most of the spotlight, author Priya Parmar has delved into the mind of Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, in her novel Vanessa and Her Sister.
Told through a series of fictional diary entries, letters and telegrams, Vanessa attempts to carve out her painting career amidst the chaos of falling in love, having children, grieving and dealing with Virginia’s violent and troubling moods. Vanessa often feels on the outside of the literary world she is forced to inhabit. While her friends are off having love affairs and traveling the world at large, she wonders if she is meant to fall behind because of her family obligations. Her creative mind will not allow her to give up on her art. As it becomes clear that Virginia’s jealousy extends beyond Vanessa’s artistic talents and moves to her family life, she grapples with the knowledge of how devious and manipulative the very people she loves most can be.
Rich in characterization and detail, fans of the Bloomsbury Group and of novels like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours will find this sumptuous novel a treat for the brain.
M. O. Walsh’s heartbreaking novel My Sunshine Away follows a man looking back at tragic events that formed him into the adult he became. It was 1989 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a teenage girl is raped in a middle class neighborhood, throwing suspicion on several of the people that live there. One of the suspects is a teenage boy who has become obsessed with the victim, and his obsession leads him on a quest to discover the truth, even when the victim herself just wants to leave the past behind her. While he ruminates over the event that will ultimately change him, life continues to move forward, throwing more tragedy and grief his way. He must find a way to come to terms with where he has been in order to become who he is meant to be.
My Sunshine Away is beautifully written but is not an easy read. It deals with the darker corners of the human heart, and the sense of loss and longing is palpable. M. O. Walsh is a gifted writer, and, even if you don’t genuinely like the narrator at times, the reader will be captured by his story and his need to press forward. The author uses events in American history to further capture the sense of place and time, and his descriptions of Baton Rouge bring the city to life. Ultimately, it is a coming-of-age tale, told from the male perspective. The author does an amazing job getting inside the narrators head, slowly revealing things needed to be said. Truly a discussable novel, My Sunshine Away would be a perfect fit for book groups. After this, you may want to try The Little Friend by Donna Tartt or Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
Missing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.
Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.
In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.
Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives is the perfect book for customers clamoring for their holds on Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment. Like Klay, Pitre is also a former Marine who served in Iraq before returning home to chronicle his thoughts in writing, using fiction to reveal the realest truths.
Fives and Twenty-Fives reads as an assemblage of harrowing experiences Pitre survived while on active duty, told through three characters whose stories are woven into a moving novel. These three Marines comprise a portion of an Iraq Road Repair Platoon that sweeps U.S. military routes through the desert in search of hidden explosives. Donovan, the lieutenant, tries to lead and represent his squad while combatting the weight of self-loathing and the isolation of rank amidst imminent ambush. Lester “Doc” Pleasant is the platoon’s medic responsible for the lives of his teammates, but after witnessing a Marine overlook a live bomb, he resorts to his field kit for solace. Road Repair’s interpreter is an intelligent third-world post-grad named Kateb, known as callsign “Dodge” by his platoon. Dodge harbors an internal war between morality and loyalty that keeps him distanced from the Marines. Whenever his wall of superficiality is breached by violence, Dodge folds into a disheveled copy of Huck Finn and reflects on the university life that was stolen from him.
With a supporting unit of strongly humanized soldiers, Road Repair wages perpetual war with scorching desert conditions and treacherous insurgent traps. Pitre illustrates these losing battles without overwhelming readers with military jargon or trivializing the emotions and dispatches. Even with checks like fives and twenty-fives in place, it’s impossible to return from deployment unscathed.
Diane Cook’s stories in her debut collection Man v. Nature are similar to Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book series in that they depict an end of the world in which conflict is more survivor-centric than cataclysm-centric. Cook accomplishes this feat repeatedly throughout her stories, with multiple instances of apocalypse serving as mere backdrops while her characters continue their lives unabated by cordiality. While Kirkman’s tales ooze with gore, Cook’s exude wonderment and danger in dazzling prose.
Premiere in Man v. Nature is “Moving On,” the grim telling of a widow internment center that functions like an adult orphanage. The mood around the grounds is bleak enough that reality becomes overpowered and contorts to make room for places like this to exist as if they’ve been institutionalized. “Meteorologist Dave Santana” pits a woman against her own sexual desires as she tries everything to seduce her neighbor, a homely and less than upstanding weatherman. “The Mast Year” portrays a woman who is chosen by fate to share her good fortune with those in need, no matter the personal cost. She grapples with notions of sacrifice, unable to separate charity from obligation until she no longer recognizes her own life. Lastly, the titular “Man v. Nature” is the account of a man and his two friends who are stranded in a tiny lifeboat adrift on a vast lake. As exposure besets and their bodies atrophy, they reminisce and eventually curse one another for past transgressions until their misdirected anger threatens to become their undoing.
Man v. Nature’s stories are all so convincing in their heavy fictitiousness that the reader never questions the altered existences. Emotions are so poignant that doubt never surfaces; rather, fingers are crossed, eyes are squeezed shut and knees are taken in supplication to will the characters to safety. But in Cook’s worlds, safety may no longer exist, and instead readers are given deliciously unsettling new normalcies.
Mobile Library is David Whitehouse’s second novel and a beautifully written and deeply expressive work of fiction. Whitehouse has a way of using unique and well thought out metaphors that seem to catch you off guard with their exquisite accuracy.
The novel follows Bobby as he struggles through life as a socially awkward 12-year-old boy. His father doesn’t seem to care for him, his mother is out of the picture and his peers bully him. Sunny is not only the one person he can call a friend, but is also his bodyguard of sorts. It’s when Sunny moves away that Bobby becomes completely lost and disheartened until the day that he meets Rosa.
Rosa is a girl to whom Bobby feels almost instantly connected to, and when he meets her mother Val he realizes that families aren’t just people who share your blood. Val happens to get paid to clean a mobile library and this is where Bobby, Val and Rosa spend many hours each week learning about life through the books they read.
Bobby’s abuse and neglect, combined with the termination of mobile library services, creates a sense of foreboding in Val that leads her to take drastic measures. She can see no option for keeping the family together other than spiriting them away using the mobile library as their transportation. Though Val’s intentions were honorable, her methods were less than discreet. Will Val be able to keep her eclectic family together?
Pick up a copy of this title to see what happens to these well-developed characters engulfed in vivid imagery. Whitehouse is an award-winning author who created a profound and delightful read in Mobile Library.
It’s not often that a book cover really captures the essence of the words contained within, but J. Robert Lennon’s collection See You in Paradise is complemented perfectly by its paradisal suburb set against a split pea soup sky. Lennon’s stories share a theme of familial dissolution, which makes the pop art a choice of scrumptious irony. It's always easiest to smile and embrace delusions of complacency.
See You in Paradise's opening story "Portal" is a clever spin on the concepts of growing up and growing apart and sets the tone for the book. A young brother-sister duo discovers a portal in the woods behind the family house and rushes to tell mom and dad. After a cautious inspection, the family decides to venture through together and reappears on the other side of town. Portal trips quickly become a familial ritual, until one goes awry and has lasting consequences for everyone. "Zombie Dan" is what happens when scientists develop a revivification process for the rich, but haven't quite perfected their techniques. Each newly restored corpse exhibits unintended complications; in Dan's case, he develops mind-reading powers after reminiscing with former friends and uses his new powers to exhume buried truths. "The Wraith" is the story of a manic woman who is able to separate her negative energies into a sullen, lifeless copy of herself, which she does before each workday. Her husband works from home and is left alone with his husk-wife until curiosity eventually gets the best of him, and their relationship is forever altered.
Lennon's stories depict the repressed tragedies of suburbia in a witty, imaginative manner, which makes the slightly melancholy mood feel more like reverie than depression. Readers who enjoy See You in Paradise should also check out Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.
Following the journey of the heroine in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks gives the sensation of jumping down a confusing yet richly stylized rabbit hole. Holly Sykes is not only a strong-willed English teenager who loves her Talking Heads LP, she’s also a hypersensitive psychic phenomena. At age 15, she rebels against her callous mother by running away for a weekend. This typical rite of passage causes a terrible loss to the family and Holly herself. And so the jostling expedition begins through space, sanity, and many years.
Throughout her life, Holly develops complex relationships with a series of eccentric characters who also narrate this intricate tale, including an arrogant college student, a journalist covering the Iraq War in 2003 and an aging egocentric literary writer. Reality begins to distort as Holly’s psychic strength attracts two separate groups of mystics with supernatural powers and questionable intents. The plot’s jagged terrain has the unhinged feeling of sewn together novellas, and seeing the seemingly free-flowing threads come together is a one-of-a-kind reading experience.
By definition, a wallflower is someone who yearns to stay out of focus and is content with experiencing the world from a vantage point far removed from social commotion. Wallflowers are typically observant people who possess the uncanny ability to find beauty in unique places. Eliza Robertson's debut collection Wallflowers places a series of introverted characters in situations with the potential to reveal more than their individual livelihoods.
Unified by central themes of longing and loss, Robertson's characters all wish for a way to forget the past or escape the present. In "Here Be Dragons," a geographic surveyor sees shades of his late fiancée in every corner of the remote locations he visits. She haunts him not in the convenient visages of doppelgängers, but in the complicated forms of reverie associated with people, places, things and experiences amidst savage and newly loveless lands. "Slimebank Taxonomy" thrusts readers into the empty life of a young mother living with her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law does not shoulder the added burden gracefully as she diverts attention from her own child to care for the new baby. The young mother realizes this, yet remains powerless to rear her newborn; instead, she finds solace in dredging drowned animals from a nearby swamp and cleaning their bodies. "Roadnotes" tells the story of a woman who leaves her job to drive through the Northeast on an autumnal leaf-viewing tour. Conveyed in the form of a series of letters addressed to her brother, readers see glimpses into her true motivations for her journey as she laments the loss of her mother, despite her rough childhood.
Robertson's debut collection shimmers with beauty enhanced by flecks of melancholy, with hints of hope where it seems toughest to find. With stories less about the wallflowers that populate them and more about the collective souls of humanity, Wallflowers is not to be missed by literary fiction enthusiasts. Fans of the rustic Canadian backdrop and the accompanying aloneness might also enjoy D. W. Wilson's collection Once You Break a Knuckle.
Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 is a jungle; readers require courage and a literary machete to traverse this five-part psychological horror story. Told through the mediums of a manifesto left in the wake of a heinous murder spree, a first-hand account of the police investigation into the atrocities, and a disjointed recollection stitching the pieces together with plenty of room for the viscera to seep out, 300,000,000 is filled with rare glimpses of toxic and transcendent ravings.
Gretch Gravey is 300,000,000’s patient zero of homeland terror, supplicating and drugging teenage metal heads in his city to transform them into thralls of murder. He releases his ever-expanding army of brainwashed husks into the suburbs to kidnap people and bring them back to his house to be killed and buried in a sub-basement crypt. Gravey’s ultimate goal is the utter decimation of America by its own pudgy hands, and his successes are unhindered despite his eventual incarceration. Investigating police officer E.N. Flood feels himself being consumed by Gravey’s residual evil and attempts to chronicle his descent into madness in his notes, which are actively redacted by other members of the force who have succumbed to Gravey’s will.
As if Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and Damned were chewed up and spat out in a bilious, meaty mass, 300,000,000 is disgusting and schizophrenic, yet somehow delicious in its depravity. Readers who enjoy wandering through their pitch-black houses when it’s so late that it’s actually early will be tickled by the way Blake Butler makes them question their sanity.