The lush setting of Barbados — its rich history and tenacious people — is the backdrop of Naomi Jackson’s elegantly-written debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill.
Sixteen-year-old Dionne and her 10-year-old sister Phaedra are shipped to live with their tough grandmother Hyacinth in Barbados to lessen the burden on their ill mother. The culture shock of living in a world apart from their beloved Brooklyn and navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence in a place foreign to them is starting to wear on their own sense of self and their relationship with each other.
Dionne’s desire to be a true American teenager — with parties, dates and taking risks — contrasts sharply with the Bird Hill neighborhood of close-knit women. Whispers of her own mother’s difficult teenage years follow her around, and she wants desperately to be both similar to and separate from that legacy.
Phaedra observes how the entire community leans on her grandmother for support, both in this world and beyond. Hyacinth’s practice of obeah, an ancient mysticism of the West Indies, lures Phaedra into learning as much as she can from her grandmother. As the festival time of Kadooment Day draws near, Dionne and Phaedra will have to reconcile their past selves with their new lives, and make a difficult decision about where they want to be.
Richly constructed and heartbreakingly honest, this beautiful novel should be at the top of the summer reading list for fans of Zadie Smith and Alice McDermott. Those looking for a new, bold literary voice will find one in Naomi Jackson.
The novel In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a gripping page-turner guaranteed to become a must-read for the summer. Ten years ago, Leonora stopped going by Lee and became Nora. She left her past behind her, moved to a new location and became a successful and reclusive novelist. Nora soon receives a dubious email inviting her to a bachelorette party somewhere in the English Countryside to celebrate the nuptials of her old college friend, Clare. When the weekend is over, Nora wakes up in a hospital bed, severely bruised, having survived an apparent car crash. Scanning her recent memory, she can’t recall the events that lead her there, and with the arrival of the police, she realizes that something is very wrong. Someone at the party is dead, and Nora cannot be sure that she is not the murderer.
In a Dark, Dark Wood is a psychological thriller at its best. Ware keeps the reader as much in the dark as the menacing woods surrounding the house where the action takes place. The atmosphere is tense, taught and slightly disturbing, and the reader will feel an impending sense of dread right along with Nora. As each piece of the story is slowly revealed, the reader will be glued to the pages until the final outcome — great for readers who enjoy domestic suspense. Readers who enjoy this title may also want to try The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford, Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly or Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.
In The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, David Smith has made a deal with Death. He is given 200 days to make his mark on the art world — for the things he makes to come out just as he imagines them. But he's David Smith, awkward and angry, and a man of strong opinions and often hard edges, stiff and unbending. With his mortality in short supply, David has just met the love of his life.
The Sculptor is a great many things. It is made up of the countless small moments and memories that make up a life. It is made up of the big ideas that drive those moments. This is a metacommentary on the expression of life through art, and if that sounds intimidating, it shouldn't be because this story comes from the capable hands of Scott McCloud, who literally wrote the book on graphic novels as an art form (Understanding Comics, 1993).
With Understanding Comics, McCloud took apart graphic novels, studying how pieces large and small, overt and subtle, fit together to create tones, ideas, impacts and stories. The book is a masterwork of art criticism, necessary and friendly reading for anyone who wants to understand graphic novels or any other form of narrative art.
In The Sculptor, McCloud has put the parts he explained back together, and the result is nothing less than a masterpiece. This is not a book so much as it is a symphony, with great rising movements, drumming beats, soft counter melodies and a wave of pictures and people living through ordinary lives in extraordinary ways.
This is a big read, with questions about art, integrity, family, love, purpose. But it is also a peaceful read. Everything is colored in a soft, blue-gray that never stresses the eyes. David walks the simple, complex and bittersweet joys of growing into a new love. The images come with the wild energy of an artist pushing their boundaries as hard as they can, living alongside quiet domestic scenes, neither ever drowning each other out.
Which is better, to live a good life or to throw everything into a calling?
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.
Maeve Kerrigan, detective constable with the London Metropolitan Police Force, is once again drawn into a case of multiple murders in Jane Casey’s The Kill. This time the circumstances are hitting close to home. The targets are all police officers on the job, performing their duty in the wake of the police shooting of an innocent teenage boy.
Hundreds of leads must be explored, including the personal lives of the victims. Unearthing the unflattering behavior of victims is a necessary, if unpleasant, part of the job. But when it’s your colleagues that have been viciously attacked it’s particularly painful. Maeve is also protecting a dark secret held by her boss, Superintendent Godley that threatens the success of the entire investigation. Her colleagues, sensing that something is shared between them, wrongfully accuse her of having an affair with the superintendent. While Maeve struggles with her conscience, she’s dealing with Inspector Derwent’s shockingly abrasive, frankly sexist personality. She’s also juggling her relationship with a fellow police officer whose work life is every bit as demanding as Maeve’s.
Casey is accomplished at layering complex situations and sophisticated relationships throughout this police procedural. The characters are raw and flawed; sometimes heroic and sometimes cowardly. Maeve’s voice is powerful, personal and painfully real. We are provided a very clear portrait of the life of a female homicide detective in a male dominated-world. But there is nothing whiny or weak about Maeve; she knows her job and is determined to make her mark.
Casey is the author of the Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning The Stranger You Know. The Kill is the fifth entry in the Maeve Kerrigan series, but is just as enjoyable as a standalone novel. After you’ve finished, the other novels in the series are compelling reads.
Fifteen-year-old Ana Cortez is in a bind when she gets kicked out of her fifth foster home in 10 years in Andi Teran’s debut Ana of California. A contemporary Anne of Green Gables, this Ana of Los Angeles will delight readers in all of the same ways as the original with her spunk, smart mouth and sometimes flawed decision-making.
At this point Ana is left with two options: a group home or a work internship on a farm in Northern California. Ana chooses the latter knowing that if it doesn’t work out, she can file for emancipation when she turns 16, which is just a few months away. Her arrival at Garber Farm owned by siblings Emmett and Abbie isn’t as welcoming as she hoped. Emmett was expecting a 16-year-old boy and thinks they should send her back. But Abbie is thrilled with Ana and is convinced that she will be a good worker. Abbie’s resolve wins out, and Ana’s first week on the farm is a blur of early mornings, hard work and new people. As a denizen of the city with limited familiarity of fresh foods, her learning curve on the farm is steep. Fortunately, farm manager Manny Lavaca takes her under his wings, and Ana appreciates the kindness of this fellow Mexican American.
Ana begins to finally feel comfortable in this place she dares to think of as home, even making her first real friend. But when one bad decision might have her headed back to L.A., she realizes that life, friendship and love is a complicated mess. This charming retelling of a beloved classic introduces an endearing heroine, a small town with quirky characters and a quickly paced coming-of-age story for readers of all ages.
Let’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.
Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.
Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.
Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.
Annie Barrows resurrects the spirit of a small West Virginia town in 1938 in The Truth According to Us. Layla Beck, the privileged daughter of a U.S. Senator, has struck a blow for independence and refused to marry a very wealthy bore. The senator decides if Layla wishes to be independent then she can make her own way in the world. Forced to take a position as a writer with the Works Progress Administration, Layla finds herself in Macedonia, tasked with documenting the history of the town for its sesquicentennial celebration.
Layla boards with the Romeyn family and finds a font of information in her landlady, Jottie. Having lost the love of her life, Jottie has devoted herself to her brother’s children, Willa and Bird. Willa, an irrepressible, surprisingly wise 12-year-old, is determined to uphold the qualities of ferocity and devotion. Willa’s father Felix is a charming cad no one seems to be able to refuse, especially women.
As Layla unearths a wealth of not entirely flattering information to the self-proclaimed important people of the town, she falls deeper under the spell of the scheming Felix. Jottie, fearing for Layla, struggles with demons from her tragic past. The indomitable Willa, hoping to dig up what her father is really up to on those business trips, finds far more truth than anyone can hope to handle.
Barrows tells an irresistible story, slowly unfolding an 18-year-old secret. Labor unrest, social standing, old scandals and new heartbreaks define a town struggling to survive. Barrows’ characters are witty, wise and wonderfully genuine. She is the co-author of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and her latest offering is not to be missed.
Looking for the perfect book to take poolside, distract you on the plane or transport you from your backyard lawn chair? Lose yourself in The Wrong Man by Kate White or Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms, each story filled with suspense and misdirection.
In The Wrong Man, Kit Finn just ended a staid relationship and feels like she is treading water. On a buying trip to Florida, the interior designer resolves to shake up her life and chance stepping outside her comfort zone. Chance presents itself as Matt Healey, a hot and handsome fellow New Yorker who arranges to keep this new romance going once they return to the city. But when Kit shows up at Matt’s door for dinner, she finds instead The Wrong Man; it’s the real Matt Healey and he is not the man Kit met in Florida. As Kit tries to figure out this case of misrepresented identity, she’s drawn in to a web of deceit and corporate corruption which just might turn deadly. Author Kate White, who served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years, writes a snappy, sexy mystery which keeps the reader guessing till the last pages.
Author Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, Dark Rooms, tells a chilling and somewhat seamy tale. Posh Chandler Academy is an archetypal New England prep school brimming with wealth and privilege. Grace is a graduate of Chandler, her parents on its teaching staff, but she’s dropped out of college and is living at home while she focuses on solving the shooting death of her charismatic younger sister Nica. Nica’s death has unraveled the family — former good girl Grace is popping pills while her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol. The girls’ mother, a photographer who both favored and obsessively photographed Nica, decamped to an artist commune, effectively abandoning what’s left of her family. Grace’s refusal to accept the official story — that an alienated student smarting from unrequited love shot Nica and hung himself — helps her discover her own strength and independence as she unearths the grim secrets sheltered in Chandler’s ivy-covered towers.
For other twisty thrillers, try Disclaimer by Renee Knight or Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.
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.