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.
Debut author Rebecca Scherm has embedded her new psychological suspense thriller Unbecoming with the ambiguous moral cracks of a femme fatale-like character, complicated and difficult to package. Grace keeps her life simple for a reason. The part-time antiques restorer can't return to her Garland, Tennessee, home because too many people know her story. Or do they? There is an art heist gone wrong, but this story is also about the interior journey of a 23-year-old woman whose past and conscience shape her into what she needs to be.
Grace is no longer Grace. Now she's Julie from California, working in the gritty outskirts of Paris. At Zunuso et Filles, she fixes broken old things and is not above switching out gems given to her by an unscrupulous boss. Her only friend is Hanna, a 34-year-old Polish woman, who sits across from her. She, too, has escaped her past. It's been three years since Grace's hometown artist husband Riley and his friend (and Grace's one-time lover) Alls broke into and looted the historic Wynne House Estate at Grace's suggestion. Now both men have been released from prison. Julie can't help but look over her shoulder. Will they come looking for her? What about the missing Dutch painting?
Things are never as they seem and so it is with this story. Scherm, who grew up in the South, was inspired by the Hitchcock movies she watched in her youth. She decidedly mines her protagonist's psyche to see where it falls in a plot that unfolds steadily and mainly in flashback. Rather than focus exclusively on the suspense of the crime, Scherm chooses the continuum of Grace's choices. With plenty of lying and double-crossing and lively, detailed descriptions of objets d'art, readers will find an entertaining read in the distant shades of Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith.
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.
Ellen Hawley introduces readers to Abigail in The Divorce Diet. She loves her baby Rosie, her husband Thad and food. She just doesn’t love the newly gained baby weight and is convinced that shedding those pounds will renew her husband’s attention. With the help of an imaginary guru, the author of a
diet lifestyle book, she is ready to achieve her weight-loss goal. But when Thad announces that he’s not sure about this marriage and fatherhood thing, her world crumbles. Even his reassurances that it’s not her, it’s him have little impact when she realizes it’s not her, it’s his new girlfriend.
Abigail moves back to her parents’ house, tries to find a job and raise a daughter all while coping with the notion of Thad’s girlfriend sleeping in her bed. Is it really possible to stick to a diet under such circumstances? As she comes to grips with her situation, she follows the advice of her guru to make an inventory of her skills. Abigail loves eating food, but she also loves preparing food which leads to a promising restaurant job. This is the first step in the reinvention of Abigail as she begins to shape her life into the one she really wanted all along.
Hawley has created a completely recognizable and relatable character in Abigail whose sense of humor sees her through trying times. Abigail shares humorous takes on her daily dietetic meals and exercise ideas which will keep readers laughing out loud throughout the book. Don’t be alarmed that the included recipes contain anything but the most comfortable of comfort foods, including chocolate cake and meatloaf with ham and cheese. This is a snarky take on marriage, motherhood and divorce, but at the same time is a discerning and considerate look at the life of a single mom struggling to do the best for herself and her daughter.
Poet, playwright and novelist Greer Macallister inspires intrigue with The Magician’s Lie. While Macallister’s plays have been performed at the American University and she has been published in periodicals such as the North American Review, this is her debut novel.
The Amazing Arden is one of the few female magicians in the early 1900s, which is controversial enough without her being wanted in question for her husband’s murder. Virgil, a down on his luck police officer, stumbles upon Arden and, though he is able to restrain her, he is unsure of her. As the capture would substantially boost his status, Virgil is conflicted about how to proceed.
After bringing the magician to his office and restraining her with several pairs of handcuffs, he allows her to recount her story before deciding how to move forward. Arden’s story is so captivating that Virgil can’t help but be taken in by her resilience and attention to detail. It’s in the midst of the narrative when Virgil learns that Arden may just have something to offer Virgil that he can’t get elsewhere, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
Macallister is able to use Arden’s story to pull the reader into history and what life was like for a young woman with few options in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With Arden’s success she is able to challenge the traditional gender roles for woman of the time, transforming her character into an inspiration. If after reading this you are looking for another historical fiction novel with a strong female protagonist, look to Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar.
Jane Austen apparently got the idea for Pride and Prejudice from an 80 year old minister named Mansfield. At least, that’s the general premise in Charles Lovett’s novel First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen which delves into possible connections between Austen and Mansfield. Told in chapters that jump back and forth between Austen’s time and the present, Lovett’s modern day heroine, Sophie Collingwood, is part Austen scholar and part amateur sleuth.
Sophie’s world has centered on her beloved Uncle Bertram who introduced her to great writers such as Austen. When Bertram dies of an alleged accidental fall down his stairs, Sophie begins to suspect that someone may have wanted her uncle dead. It all seems to be related to an obscure book in her uncle’s collection written by Mansfield that may shed some light on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice. However, as she digs into the mystery of her Uncle’s death and the missing manuscript, Sophie puts herself into a very dangerous situation.
Lovett is at his best when he is engaged in the modern day writing of the conflicts and crises in Sophie’s rather than Austen’s world. While this book is a work of fiction, there are some historical facts mixed in. After finishing this book, readers may want to do some research on their own to discover which parts are invented and which parts are true.
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.
When faced with a tragedy, it is common to reflect on what might have been if only we had done or said something differently. This is the theme explored by German author Jenny Erpenbeck in The End of Days. Set in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, the story begins with the sudden accidental death of an infant girl. The tragedy tears the family apart. But what if her parents could have found the baby in her cradle in time, and by some miracle had managed to bring life back into that little girl? What path would their lives have taken if only their baby hadn’t died?
Erpenbeck’s story is written in five parts, exploring the possible paths that this one life could take if only something different had happened. While the first part is her death as an infant, the second part begins with the girl as a teenager in Vienna just after the end of World War I. Her fate stems from her choices made as a rebellious youth, getting mixed up with the wrong boy and paying for those choices with her life. What would have happened if different choices had been made? Each of the following parts explore those possible lives, and by the fifth telling, her life spans almost a century.
Readers who enjoy the works of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy may be interested in this book for its complex style of writing and bleak, haunting themes. I was drawn to this book because of the thought-provoking subject matter and because I enjoy historical fiction set in Europe. It is human nature to think about what might have been, and Erpenbeck deftly explores this subject with grace.
Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, is a book with a mission, the public face of a project determined to get humanity moving back in the right direction. What direction is that? The direction is big dreams backed by science, a drive unseen since the furious push of the space race. Hieroglyph is built on the idea that scientists and engineers need science fiction writers to dream big dreams for them to chase after. To that end, Arizona State University started the Hieroglyph project to get everyone talking with each other. These debates are open to the public. This book is an anthology of short stories. After every story, URLs are provided to discussions with the hope that the readers read further, and maybe even take up the torch themselves.
The stories run a range. Most aren't concerned with space travel, keeping the science closer to home, and more likely to be reached within our lifetimes. The first story is about the massive architectural shifts that could come from building a tower 20 miles high. Other stories create greener cities, or more peaceful conflict resolution through social media and advanced common literacy. This is an optimistic book, sometimes utopian in its outlook, but often not. There's a lot of pragmatic futurism here, including massive acknowledged debts to Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, which was far less about space travel than it was about the business deals necessary to make space travel possible.
As literature, the stories vary in quality from crisp prose by Cory Doctorow to long descriptions about future cities that aren't really stories. It pitches big ideas and strange ideas, through narrative and experiments. Considering all of the technology we use every day, from medical technology, smartphones and touch screens that came out of Star Trek, sending science after science fiction makes sense. If Hieroglyph gets traction, expect sequels with more dreams.
Cozy mysteries are great books to snuggle up with. Ellie Alexander’s debut novel Meet Your Baker is such a book. While the storyline is quaint and the character development is provocatively drawn out, the book is light enough that it’s a quick and undemanding read.
Jules decides to take a break from her husband troubles and heads home to Ashland, Oregon, where she can bake her troubles away. Ashland is a small tourist town that is known for its Shakespearean outdoor theater. The comfort of her home town is supposed to help Jules sort out her troubles, so when she finds a dead body in her mother’s bake shop, she is completely taken aback.
Instead of the comfort she was looking for, Jules is lured into a murder investigation by her high school boyfriend. Between murder, lying husbands, financial problems and ex-boyfriends, Jules’ respite is anything but refreshing. Will Jules be able to put her life in order while helping the local law enforcement solve a murder?
The combination of murder mystery, family drama, cooking and Shakespearean references are enough to engross anyone looking for a light read that’s not too kitschy. Alexander saves the full recipes till the end which allows for an unbroken storyline, but still provides the details for people whose mouths were watering throughout the enticing descriptions. This book is a great read for those who are fans of Jessica Beck or Joanne Fluke.