In author Gail Godwin’s newest novel, Flora, the aged Helen is remembering the summer of 1945. She lived on a mountaintop outside a small North Carolina town in her family’s once stately manse with her adored grandmother Nonie, described by one of Helen’s few friends as looking like “an upright mastiff driving a car.” Also in residence is Helen’s remote and sarcastic father who usually prefers the company of Jack Daniels to his daughter. Helen’s mother died when Helen was three. Nonie has died, unexpectedly, in the spring and Helen’s father has eagerly accepted a supervisory position at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee military facility, leaving the nearly eleven-year-old Helen in need of a caretaker.
Arrangements are made for cousin Flora to come tend Helen. Flora, a recent teacher’s college graduate, is everything Helen’s “right side of the tracks” family is not; her lack of guile and tender heart are viewed with polite condescension and her stories of Helen’s mother’s estranged family back in Alabama are an embarrassment. Hitler has killed himself but the Japanese are continuing to fight World War II. On the home front, polio has reared its paralytic head, victimizing Helen’s buddy Brian, and soldiers lucky enough to straggle home are bringing their own demons with them. Helen’s father declares that Flora and Helen must remain sequestered on the decaying estate for their own safety.
Writer Godwin is known for her graceful prose, sharply-drawn characters, and is at her best probing family dynamics influenced by Southern Gothic tradition. In Flora, she portrays both a country and a family on the cusp of change, responding to circumstances beyond either’s control. Helen’s struggle to regain her footing in a permanently altered world has far reaching consequences, and Godwin’s careful portrayal of Helen as a child desperately emulating her beloved adults rings sadly true.
Havaa’s father once told his young daughter that a true chess player thinks with his fingers. The eight-year-old girl would remember his comments when a year later her father's fingers were savagely cut off by government security forces in war ravaged Chechnya. It is one of the many atrocities in Anthony Marra's beautifully realized literary debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, where the spiral of murder and torture is as much a part of the landscape as the myriad of landmines, checkpoints, and disappearances in the night.
Spanning a decade of war with Russia from 1994 to 2004, Marra exposes the underbelly of his complicated Caucasus region by weaving together the lives of the damaged souls in its wake. At its core are two doctors whose pasts must be reconciled as they cycle toward their fates. There is Akhmed, a neighboring doctor who rescues Havaa, now being hunted by the "feds" after her father is kidnapped for aiding the rebels. Akhmed flees with the girl, careful to avoid a neighbor's war damaged son who is now an informant. They end up at a nearly abandoned hospital heroically run by a brilliant, sharp witted ethnic Russian doctor named Sonja. She reluctantly agrees to hide the child in exchange for Akhmed's help. An artist at heart, Akhmed would rather be drawing his patients than amputating their mangled limbs.
Marra enriches his compelling, richly-detailed writing with surprising bursts of humor, sidebars, and characters whose stories are plentiful and achingly poignant. It is a place where death is prevalent but hope is instinctive. It is about being ready when the time comes; just like Havaa's "just in case suitcase" her father had her pack, waiting by the door. Readers of The Tiger's Wife or The Cellist of Sarajevo will recognize here the challenge of living with dignity at the greatest of costs.
It has been six years since Khaled Hosseini’s last book, but for lovers of literary fiction the wait has been worthwhile. And The Mountains Echoed begins quietly, with a father telling his children a story on the night before a long journey. A monster comes to a village steal a child, and a father must choose which child will go or else the monster will take them all. He does so in agony, discovering years later that the chosen child has had a better life away from the poverty of the village. The story is meant to illustrate the heartbreaking choices we make for the ones we love. Unbeknownst to the children, their journey the next morning is to Kabul, where their father will give his daughter up to a wealthy family so that she might have a better life. As the novel moves forward, each chapter brings a new point of view, often in a different time and place, yet all are interconnected. Stories of family members, servants, and friends ripple outward like water rings from a rock tossed into a pond, each bringing new truths to the tale before it.
As expected, Hosseini’s characters are multi-dimensional and rich, full of love, longing and regret. This book is very personal to him, and he describes it as “a story that speaks to the experience of someone living in exile, as well as that of refugees coming back home.” The novel moves across the globe, beginning in Afghanistan and touching down in places such as San Francisco, Paris and the Greek Islands. The largest of his books in terms of scale and story, And The Mountains Echoed is a long-awaited gem sure to appear on many award lists in the future.
Leave it to Joyce Carol Oates to pull together several unusual elements, well-known historical figures, a dash of the paranormal and tremendous historical detail. In her new novel, The Accursed, we meet the Slade family, who seem to be suffering the effects of a terrible curse. The daughter Annabel falls under the spell of a smooth-talking Southern gentleman named Axson Mayte, who may be more than he appears to be. Annabel’s brother Josiah will go to great lengths to protect his sister from harm. Wilhelmina Burr, their cousin, is plagued by visions of serpents while away at school. While the Slade family suffers, Woodrow Wilson, the current president of Princeton University, struggles to keep his post from a keen usurper bent on knocking him from his pedestal. But there are other figures lurking around Princeton as well. Grover Cleveland, suffering terribly from the death of his child, sees visions of her in dark hallways. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, is convinced that the shadowy figure he spies leaving in a carriage with a man is his wife. Murder and mysterious deaths are plaguing New Jersey. There is talk of the legend of the “Jersey Devil,” but most residents remain convinced it is only a story to frighten children. But as 1905 becomes 1906 and the strange events continue, more questions are raised as to the validity of the curse.
Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer with a tremendous love for language, so The Accursed is not a quick read. The plot often meanders and you discover much about the characters living in the area. Many of the historical figures are not looked upon kindly and readers will see an unfavorable side to many of them. Oates creates a sinister atmospheric tone that runs through the novel, and her very detailed text offers footnotes as the narrator/historian weaves the tale. The use of diary entries and letters help to round out the novel and make it a very thoughtful read.
Small town life, folklore, Norse mythology and a senseless murder are all threads skillfully woven together into the amazing literary work Little Wolves by Thomas James Maltman. A farming community, inhabited by descendants of the first German families to settle the area, is rocked when a troubled teen murders the town sheriff and then commits suicide. The boy’s father is left devastated and confused; unable to understand what possessed his son to perpetrate such an awful crime.
As the new pastor tries to help his congregation heal, his pregnant wife Clara struggles with the knowledge that she was also an intended victim. She believes herself to be haunted by the boy, who was a student in her English class at the high school. Clara, herself a student of ancient literature, focuses on Old English words and phrases to calm herself in times of stress. As a result, the novel is peppered with interesting vocabulary from a lost era, which adds an almost mystical element.
The mystery of what really brought Clara and her husband to this remote area from the city, as well as the unanswered questions from the shooting, keep the reader captivated. A reoccurring element of the story is the presence of the wolves. Wolves play an omnipresent role in the tales Clara’s father would tell her as a child, now wolves have started coming into the town at night; they haunt her dreams and fill the residents with fear. This is an intriguing novel, beautifully written and full of suspense.
Whoever said growing old gracefully was easy has not met the residents of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement community in Fulton, North Carolina. Decisions regretted and bittersweet memories are countered with surprising friendships and old fashioned orneriness. The confederate jasmine and wisteria arbor may shield the cemetery next door, but Pine Haven residents know it is the next stop. Oh well, such is life and death in Jill McCorkle’s stirring new novel, Life After Life, where the challenge to keep from disappearing meets the desire to embrace life at any age.
McCorkle, whose previous five novels were New York Times notable books, has loaded this, her first novel in 17 years, with quirky, well-drawn characters from both in and out of the retirement village. Making sense of it all is hospice volunteer Joanna Lamb, who ensures that dying residents are not forgotten. Arriving after her own tough spell, Joanna is there for their last day in the sun, "one more song, word, sip of water" before they pass. So she holds the hands of the dying and writes in her journal touching, eloquent remembrances of those who have died. For the eccentric group of residents still around, life remains a journey defined by their own choices. A former lawyer who feigns dementia, a retired school teacher who thinks everyone is really eight-years-old at heart, a Jewish resident from up north who wonders how she ended up in "the land of quilts and doilies," are among the repertoire of voices. Youth, too, passes through Pine Haven, as seventh grader Abby prefers the residents to spending time with friends her own age, and a tattooed young mother named CJ does pedicures to escape her own past.
At times witty and other times poignant, McCorkle's brief narratives show off her penchant for short story form, along with the soul-searching that takes place when the life one has always known coalesces with the realities of aging. Fans of this southern writer are likely welcoming her return.
Housesitting is a rather ambiguous sort of activity. It isn’t really a proper job but it still comes with enough responsibilities to prevent the time spent from ever truly transforming into a vacation. Some people are better at handling this tension between obligation and pleasure than others, and occasionally accidents happen. A crystal glass might become broken, or a nick or two may appear in a previously flawless expanse of plaster. But take a particularly fragile home and add a more-than-usually disorderly house sitter and you don’t just face an accident or two; you court utter disaster. Will Wiles, in his debut novel Care of Wooden Floors, hilariously portrays the panic, guilt, and misery that one such hapless house sitter experiences during the gradual devolution of his friend’s pristine flat into complete chaos.
Wiles’ protagonist, who remains unnamed, is doing a favor for Oskar, an old school chum, by staying in his flat for a few weeks while he travels to LA to finalize his divorce. The house sitter, who is from London, takes an instant dislike to the (also unnamed) Eastern European city that the flat is in and is less than attentive to the many notes that the persnickety Oskar has left regarding the proper care of his two cats, his grand piano, and his precious pale wooden floors. Less than twenty four hours into his stay, Oskar’s meticulously maintained home has already been marred by the faint blush of a tiny wine glass stain, one that Oskar is sure not to miss. And that is just the beginning of a slowly escalating week of mishaps and casual negligence that contains as many surprises as it does calamities. This madcap misadventure is sure to delight fans of Matthew Dicks’ Something Missing, as well as psychological drama aficionados and screwball comedy enthusiasts.
In her haunting debut novel, author Helene Wecker unfurls an intricately-blended tapestry of Arabian and Jewish folklore, set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York. The Golem and the Jinni combines elements of Syrian mythology and Kabbalistic tradition, rendering a remarkably poignant story of the unlikely friendship between two souls out of time and place.
Chava has just arrived in New York and, like many new immigrants, she is alone and friendless. Yet Chava has left no homeland to come to America. She has no family keepsakes or mementos. She is a golem, a magical being made of clay and bound to serve. Brought to waking life aboard a ship bound for America, Chava had little time to know her master, who did not survive the voyage. Now, with the help of a rabbi who recognizes her true nature, Chava struggles to find a place and purpose in this strange land. It has been a thousand years since Ahmad last tasted freedom. A jinni, Ahmad is an elemental creature born of fire. For centuries he roamed the Syrian Desert, his home and source of strength. In his youth, his curiosity about humans often led him to trail after caravans and wandering Bedouins. However, even a fire jinni can fly too close to the sun. When he awakens in a New York tinsmith’s shop, all he can remember of his last encounter with humans is the face of the wizard who imprisoned him. Adrift among people who cannot possibly comprehend his plight, Ahmad searches restlessly for a meaning to the mystery behind his capture.
Within the pages of this alluring story, the commonplace rubs shoulders with the fantastical. Freedom of will can become as much a burden to those who hold it as it is a necessity to those deprived. Friendship, redemption and acts of sacrifice often appear from unexpected quarters. This novel is recommended for fans of historical fiction and fantasy.
Since its launch in 1996, the London-based Orange Prize has recognized the achievements of women authors around the world. Organized partly in response to a perceived bias weighted towards male-authored books receiving literary awards, this prize is judged by a committee of women, issues long and short lists of book contenders and ends with one grand winner. As it undergoes a change in sponsorship this year, the 2013 prize is known as The Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The 2013 short list was announced on April 16, and includes several titles familiar to Between the Covers readers. Probably the least surprising title to appear on the list is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The second in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, it focuses on the final year of Anne Boleyn’s life and has been heaped with awards and accolades including the Man Booker Prize and the New York Times’ Top Ten Books of 2012. Previous Orange winner and American author Barbara Kingsolver is also named for her book, Flight Behavior. A financially strapped southern family is ready to sell their land to a strip-mining company until they find an immense roost of migratory butterflies has unexpectedly made their mountain a home. New to the prize scene is author Maria Semple, honored for Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A comically satirical look at Seattle and privilege, wife and mother Bernadette has disappeared and it may be up to her daughter to find her.
Another Orange Prize winner, Zadie Smith, is back on the list for her book NW. Described as a “story of a city,” Smith writes about friends from northwest London and examines their progress, or lack thereof, on the ladder of social climbing and upward mobility. The final shortlisters are Life After Life by Britain’s Kate Atkinson and A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven. Garnering glowing reviews, Atkinson’s tale begins in pre-WWI England and is centered around a character who dies repeatedly only to return to live her same life again with the ability to alter her choices. DC native Homes introduces the brothers Silver. First-born George’s life is the definition of success--fame, money, a lovely wife and prep school children; younger Harold is a history professor at a community college who moves in on George’s family when George starts to unravel, triggering a calamitous series of events. The complete long list of nominated books can be found on the Women’s Prize website and the winner will be announced on June 5, 2013.
Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, begins with an end. Sai family patriarch Kweku lies in the dewy grass before dawn, slowly dying in his garden amidst a riot of African color and beauty. Get up, call for help, the reader wants to shout at this Hopkins-educated physician; instead, Kweku passively waits for his heart to stop beating.
Selasi’s title refers to the forced expulsion of Ghanaians from neighboring Nigeria as well as to the distinctive, cheap carryall bags in which they stuffed their belongings. Dr. Kweku Sai is from Ghana and his wife Fola is Nigerian. They meet in Pennsylvania where he is completing surgical training and she is in law school. They marry, have four intelligent and driven children, move to Boston, and continue to rack up professional and personal accomplishments. The Sai family epitomizes immigrant success until one unjust and cataclysmic event causes the foundation of the family to crumble and collapse. Written in three sections, “Gone,” “Going,” and lastly “Go,” Selasi allows her characters to reveal the insecurities which enabled their family bonds to stretch, break, and perhaps reform. Recollections, some of which are poignant and others shocking, are integral to understanding each of the family members.
This is a story of Africa and of America, of third world attainment and stellar achievements by anyone’s first world standards, and of a family unraveled and lives destroyed. It is a story of putting one foot in front of the other when one foot is in Africa and the other foot stateside. It is a story of leaving and of rebuilding. With its image-rich prose, acidic observations, and perceptive take on family relationships, Ghana Must Go is also very much a story to enjoy.