Ishmael Beah writes as though he is guided by a kaleidoscope of imagery. The old man's hair was not gray; it was the "color of stagnant clouds." Such is the pleasure of reading this Sierra Leone-born author, who recently published his first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, about the aftermath of civil war in his home country. The book, part fable/part allegory, is really several individuals’ stories set in the village of Imperi. It is about the redemptive nature of those who have suffered heartbreak few can imagine and the human need to renew, rebuild and rejuvenate.
Imperi is a devastated, desolate place since the war. Villagers are now making their way back, past the rows of human skulls that line their path. They bring with them memories. They bring physical scars as well, like those borne by Sila and his two children, whose hands were cut off by a 16-year-old boy soldier now living among them. They crave a return to the old ways, like Bockarie and Benjamin, two teachers at the center of the story who find it difficult to inspire students when conditions are so poor. Fortunately, there are storytellers, like the elder Mama Kadie, whose evening tales swaddle those listening in the tentative celebration of tomorrow. As more villagers return, we learn of their pasts. Insidious corruption from both within and outside of the government complicates matters.
Beah, a former child soldier who wrote about his experiences in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, was influenced by the tradition of oral storytelling as a young boy. "I bring a lot of that oral tradition to my writing and I try to let it seep into the words." His evocative narrative, conveyed in the third person, borrows from his native Mende as well as other languages. It is lyrical prose that invites readers to slow down and drift into a world Beah knows all too well.
Photographer Rebecca Winter became a feminist icon, celebrated artist and a wealthy woman thanks to her “Kitchen Counter” collection of domestic photographs. In Still Life with Bread Crumbs (also the name of Rebecca’s most famous photograph), Anna Quindlen confronts the challenges involved with aging – financial decline, parental infirmities, career relevance and love.
Rebecca, now 60 years old and long-divorced, is dealing with dwindling finances, supporting her elderly parents and supplementing her grown son’s income. These obligations are coupled with a drastic reduction in income and force her to sublet her cherished Manhattan apartment and rent a small country cabin in a town where everyone soon knows her name. Almost immediately, she is faced with decidedly nonurban issues such as raccoons in the attic and a lack of power outlets. Local roofer Jim Bates offers assistance with her home and also secures her a paying gig photographing birds. When not sitting in a tree stand with Jim, Rebecca embraces the nature around her and slowly feels her creative spark returning.
Quindlen’s nonlinear narrative infuses Rebecca’s tale with a fresh pace as the depth of her story is uncovered layer by layer. Her past has shaped the woman she is today and the reader gets glimpses of key events that had a profound impact on her evolution. In moving to the country, she has physically distanced herself from friends and family and embarks on a soul-searching journey. While she may no longer be the same woman who snapped those famous photographs, she is still vibrant and willing to embrace second chances. Quindlen once again delivers with this beautifully written, insightful novel of one woman embarking on a new phase of life filled with professional rejuvenation and unexpected love.
A heavily and densely woven debut novel by author Laura McHugh, The Weight of Blood oozes mystery, secrets and pain like a long-festering wound. Told primarily from the perspective of Lila, a young mother burdened by her past, the story is paralleled by Lila’s now 17-year-old daughter Lucy’s story. Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and she always wondered what really happened the day her mother was last seen holding a gun and heading toward a cave deep in the Ozark Mountains. When Lucy’s childhood friend, Sheri, disappears and is found dismembered a year later, old secrets and suspicions begin to surface as Lucy works to uncover the truth.
Lucy lives with her father who is often away for days at a time working out of town. Even when he returns home he is still only half there, the other half still consumed by the pain of losing his young wife so many years ago. Lucy has an intimate support network of pseudo-family members, her mother’s once-best-friend and her daughter, a grandmotherly figure who lives nearby in the woods and her father’s brother Crete who is fiercely protective of Lucy, treating her like his own daughter.
In a small town, where heritage is held to the highest of standards and outsiders are always kept at arm’s length, there are no limits to what someone will do for the sake of family. The events that unravel through Lila’s and later into Lucy’s stories attest to the lengths one will go for family.
Actor B. J. Novak’s first collection of short stories, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, shows that he is more than just another Hollywood star writing a book. Best known for his acting and writing roles on The Office, Novak brings the same sort of absurd humor to his collection of over 60 short stories. The stories range in length and subject — some only a few lines, others pages long — and while some stories are entirely new, others are retellings of stories readers know well.
One More Thing begins with “The Rematch,” a continuation of the fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” told from the Hare’s perspective in the years after the race that ruined his reputation. From retold fables to dating stories like “All You Have to Do” and “Missed Connection: Grocery Spill at 21st and 6th 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday,” the collection is varied, and sure to keep the reader laughing. In “All You Have to Do,” a man informs readers that in order to find love, all you have to do is wear a red T-shirt each day, then go to the Missed Connections website and find out who liked you that day. In the second “Missed Connection,” a woman is searching for a man in a red T-shirt after they met outside of Trader Joe’s and spent the night together.
As an actor, Novak uses his connections to get his famous friends to voice characters on the audiobook version. From his Office co-stars Jenna Fischer, Mindy Kaling and Rainn Wilson to Oscar-winner Emma Thompson to pop star Katy Perry, the wonderfully performed audiobook version adds to the hilarity of Novak’s off the wall stories. Fans of humor books filled with pop culture references and unique stories won’t want to miss Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.
The science fiction genre has been on the decline for quite some time, but with the rise of innovative, mind-bending authors like Ann Leckie that might be about to change. Leckie has set imaginations afire, garnered a constellation of outstanding reviews and received a recent nomination for a 2013 Nebula Award for her debut novel, Ancillary Justice.
Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in an interplanetary empire known as the Radch. The Radchii utilize humans, massive ships and space stations connected by a vast network of artificial intelligence and the Ancillaries. Ancillaries are formerly living humans that have been transformed into part of the collective mind of their ships or stations. No longer human but also not fully machine, they are the Borg with more humanity and better fashion sense. Breq, the book’s protagonist, used to be an Ancillary of the starship Justice of Toren. Something happened to the ship, and she is the last surviving piece with all of the ship’s memories and no individual identity of her own. Breq is on a quest for vengeance for the death of her favorite human officer. The story is told in both Breq’s present and flashbacks that tell of the events leading up to the loss of the Justice of Toren. These flashbacks allow the brilliance of the work to shine through.
With a narrator that is a ship consisting of hundreds of parts, you often seem to get point of views from dozens of perspectives, but they are all from the same character. It is no accident that the Radchii have no sense of gender. Throughout the book, Breq refers to everyone as "she," and it is only through the conversations of others that we get any sense of gender identity. As Breq’s story unfolds and you see a multifaceted Artificial Intelligence developing a split personality and hiding secrets from itself, you develop a true appreciation for what Leckie has accomplished.
A world on the verge of unimagined changes in identity, technology and biological change, Ancillary Justice delivers a window into our future and how the definition of being human might be more malleable than we think.
Whether you are an avid fan of Downton Abbey or just someone who enjoys a bit of humor involving cats, you are sure to enjoy Chris Kelly’s Downton Tabby: A Parody. In this book, you will be introduced to the aristocratic upstairs cats, whose day consists of grooming, sleeping, being fed and, of course, loafing around on expensive furniture in an adorable manner. There are also the downstairs cats — mostly named Emma — whose lots in life are to work in servitude to the upstairs cats. After all, this is England in the early 1900s. Their choices in life are really rather limited: serve, be served or be murdered by Jack the Ripper. Given those options, if one were not fortunate enough to be a proper kitty of breeding, a life of service is better than no life at all.
Following the general story line of the Downton Abbey television show, you will enjoy the trials and tribulations, the prides and the prejudices as well as the sense and the sensibilities of the felines of Downton Tabby. Learn how to keep a secret, the secret language of the tail, codes of conduct for both upstairs and downstairs cats and the art of arguing with someone who has deeply held beliefs.
Heavily illustrated, one of the gems of this book for cat lovers is the photos of cats dressed as characters from Downton Abbey reenacting scenes from the television show. A cheeky romp, this short book is an entertaining quick read. Who knows, you may even learn a bit about history, too!
After France’s stunning defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and its near defeat in WWI, no event garnered more attention or more divided the nation than the Dreyfus Affair. Robert Harris’s new book, An Officer and a Spy, is an incredibly compelling fictional account of the long-simmering scandal, especially the rabid paranoia and anti-Semitism that fueled it.
Harris, as seen in previous works like Fatherland and Pompeii, is a master of historical fiction. In An Officer and a Spy, Harris presents us with a cast of actual historical figures in an account that reads like a spy novel. Georges Picquart is a French Army officer who is convinced of the alleged treason of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer accused of selling secrets to the hated Germans. As an award for his service in the Dreyfus Affair, Picquart is given command of the intelligence section responsible for catching spies in France. Although clearly anti-Semitic himself, Picquart slowly realizes two things: Dreyfus was not guilty, and the real spy is still on the loose. Picquart petitions his superior officers to reopen the Dreyfus case and give him leave to continue the investigation. The French High Command, unwilling to admit its own mistakes and face the political consequences, decides instead to exile Picquart to Tunisia. What follows is a smear campaign and eventually Picquart is defending himself against charges of treason. Meanwhile, over the decade that this story plays out, a solitary figure – Alfred Dreyfus – is kept prisoner on the remote Devil’s Island.
This 100-year-old scandal fits in perfectly with our modern era’s headlines of domestic spying, rendition and puppet trials. It is a novel that is unafraid of showing its hero, George Picquart, as a flawed human being. With its espionage and dramatic courtroom scenes, this novel will have you yelling “J’accuse!” at the power-mongers who would convict innocent men in order to advance their own ambitions.
In addition to her busy career as a reporter for NBC’s Boston affiliate, Hank Phillippi Ryan has made a name for herself as a bestselling author of suspense fiction. In Ryan’s most recent novel, The Wrong Girl, reporter Jane Ryland is contacted by a former co-worker who asks for Jane’s help because she believes that she was reunited with the wrong birth mother. At the same time, Detective Jake Brogan is investigating the brutal murder of a woman who was found in her house with two young children and an empty crib. He believes that it’s more than the simple domestic violence case that it seems to be. Soon, it becomes obvious that the cases are linked. Ryan’s writing is pitch-perfect as she builds suspense and continues to develop Jane and Jake’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship.
Ryan generously agreed to answer a few questions for Between the Covers readers. She tells us about her lifelong love of mysteries, her inspiration and why she writes page-turners but not “stomach-turners.”
When you wrote your first novel, you already had a very successful career as a television reporter. What made you take that leap? Did you always want to write fiction?
I grew up in very rural Indiana ... so rural you could not see another house from our house. My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library – we’d get books and put them in the saddle bags and then read them up in the hayloft of our barn. (Yes, I know I look like a city girl now! But that’s how it all started.)
I fell in love with Nancy Drew, then, soon after, Sherlock Holmes. Then soon after that, all the wonderful Golden Age mystery authors – Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers ... and of course Agatha Christie. And I think that’s where my love of mystery storytelling was born.
But I went on to be a journalist – starting in radio in 1971! Then in TV in 1975. (So far, I’ve won 30 Emmys for investigative reporting, and I am still on the air at Boston’s NBC affiliate.) And when you think of it, journalism is also storytelling, right? It’s just stories that are true. I never gave up my love of mystery and thriller reading, but – okay, I’ll admit it. I just never had a good idea for my own fiction.
Then in – 2005, maybe, I had a great idea. I knew it instantly, and from that moment on I was obsessed with writing what turned out to be the Agatha Award-winning first novel, Prime Time. (It’s a great story – maybe invite me to visit the library, and I’ll tell you the whole thing.)
After that, I was completely hooked. Now I have the joy of juggling two fabulous careers – stressful, and high-stakes and unpredictable, yes – but I am very lucky.
How does your work as a reporter influence your writing?
Well, it’s all about telling a story, right? Whether you’re making it up or not. I am well aware as a TV reporter that if a viewer isn’t interested, entertained, informed and riveted, they can simply zap me away with the click of a remote. So I have learned over all these years to tell a good story.
Happily, I get to use the same skills in crime fiction. I know if you don’t love the characters and the plot, if you’re not riveted to turning the pages, you’re going to close the cover and find another book. I do my best not to let that happen! And that’s all about the story.
I’ve also wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, gone undercover and in disguise, been tear-gassed and at hostage situations, at fires and crime scenes, had people confess to murder, seen how people behave when they’re lying or terrified. So there’s an authenticity from my day job that I bring to my crime fiction. The things that happen to Jane could happen to me! And some of them certainly have!
So having this career which brings me into places the public can’t always go and into situations that can be exciting and high-stakes gives me a never-ending (I hope) source of inspiration. I don’t take my TV stories and fictionalize them, but I do use the real-life experience to make it genuine.
While crime plays a major part in your novels, the violence takes place “off the page.” Was that a conscious decision or just something that evolved as part of your writing style?
Oh, interesting. When I read a particularly ghoulish and violent book – confession here – I sometimes skip the graphic parts. (Yes, I know, it’s funny, since my real life shows me a very dark part of the world.) Did I decide – oh, I’m not going to go graphic? No. But they always say to write the kind of book you love to read – and for me that’s Lisa Scottoline, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Meg Gardiner, John Lescroart, Harlan Coben, Steve Hamilton. Very, very suspenseful, yes, very high stakes, yes. But gory/bloody/violent? No. So I write my books to be page-turners – as Library Journal called The Wrong Girl “stellar” and a “superb thriller” – but they are not, um, stomach-turners!
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write The Wrong Girl?
It’s a great story. I got a call at my TV station – and this is the perfect example of what you were asking – from a woman who said, “Hank! You’ve got to do a story about my cousin. She was given up at birth to an adoption agency 25 years ago and got a call from them asking if she wanted to be reunited with her birth mother. She said yes – but you know, when they met? Turned out they weren’t related! The agency had sent that woman the wrong girl!”
I’m laughing now, even as I type this. I remember thinking, “Thank you, universe! The Wrong Girl! There’s my book!” A book about mothers and daughters, the struggle of adoption from all sides, the need for a family. What if someone made up a family history for you – would you believe it? What if you didn’t know the truth about your own family? How would you recognize your own daughter? Fascinating and relevant questions. And I was off and writing!
What’s turned out to be just as timely and fascinating – there’s a huge problem, making headlines right now, about the chaos in the Massachusetts foster-care system. A completely fictional version of that is key to The Wrong Girl. Amazing, huh? That book as written way before those headlines.
And did you see it’s now nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Novel?
What are you working on next? Will we get to see more of Jake and Jane?
Yes, absolutely! (And thank you.) Truth Be Told will be out on September 30. It’s about a mortgage banker who decides to keep her economically challenged customers out of foreclosure by manipulating their records so it looks like they’ve paid – good hearted, of course, but illegal. It’s about a man who confesses to a cold case murder the police have stopped investigating – why would he do that? And about a reporter who makes stuff up.
Will Jake and Jane find a way to be together? We shall see.
What have you read lately that you loved? Are there any authors who are on your personal must-read list?
Personal must read - Lisa Scottoline. John Lescroart. Ian Rankin. Julia Spencer-Fleming. Sue Grafton, the master! I love Nelson DeMille’s John Corey books and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Dennis Lehane, of course. Gone Girl, I’m a fan.
New books? Look for M. P. Cooley’s Ice Shear, Rachel Howzell Hall’s Land of Shadows. Jenny Milchman’s Ruin Falls and Chris Pavone’s (he wrote the Edgar Award-winning The Expats) new The Accident. (Unique! But great.)
As for me, I’m in the midst of writing What You See – In solving a murder, Jake wonders why cameras don’t lie – but photographs do. And Jane’s own family puts her in deadly danger. That’s what you get when you plan a wedding, right?
Sharon Sala, a prolific and successful writer with over 1 million books sold, ventures into the world of Southern women’s fiction in The Curl Up & Dye. Blessings, Georgia, springs to glorious life, along with its unique and quirky residents, especially LilyAnn Bronte, a former Peachy-Keen Queen. After losing her almost fiancé in the war in Iraq, her zest for life was zapped and she let herself go for 11 years. Finally, LilyAnn gives in to the ladies of the local beauty parlor, The Curl Up & Dye, and starts to get herself back in the game. This happily coincides with the arrival of a new hottie in town who provides LilyAnn with further motivation. But was love already in Blessings the whole time? A little bit Steel Magnolias and a little bit When Harry Met Sally equals a whole lot of fun.
Get to know Sala as she sheds light on her creative process, offers a sneak peak at what’s next in Blessings and shares plenty more, including the Hollywood superstars she would cast to bring The Curl Up & Dye’s romantic duo to life on the big screen.
The Curl Up & Dye is such a fun slice of Southern life but represents a departure from the romantic suspense genre in which you’ve achieved such great success. What prompted the change and what challenges were created?
I love that you enjoyed The Curl Up & Dye. It was so much fun creating and then living in that world. As for what prompted it, I’ve been writing in different genres for several years now. Young adult, women’s fiction, Western historical (humor) romantic suspense and straight fiction. Going the Southern route was a breeze and so much fun. As for challenges, there were none. As a writer, it’s freeing creatively to do something different. Keeps me fresh, creatively speaking.
In all of your books, your characters are engaging, the stories gripping and the romance palpable. What sparks your ideas after so many successful stories?
My ideas are my dreams. I just write what the universe gives me. As for keeping the stories fresh, I think it would be fair to say that it’s the characters themselves who lead me through the maze that becomes their lives. Once you try to force a scene to work, you’ve already lost your way. I just let the characters tell me what comes naturally to them and then find a way to let the reader see it as I do.
I know you’ve said it was a hated job that led you to writing, but was writing professionally always a dream? And what was that hated job?
The hated job was checking groceries, and I never imagined, even once, of becoming a professional writer. I was just a dreamer with thousands of stories in my head, and one day the hated job triggered an urge to put down on paper what I was seeing in my head.
Share some of your process. Do you write every day? Where? Whom do you use as a sounding-board?
Yes, I write every day, but my writing process no longer exists because I also care for my 94-year-old mother who lives with me and who has dementia and no short-term memory. It is daily chaos but also a sweet sad journey for the both of us. I write when I can and am thankful that my process for writing is naturally fast. I have no sounding board but myself. I am also my worst critic.
You just got the call that The Curl Up & Dye is being made into a movie and you have free reign with the casting. What’s your dream cast? Do you use celebrities as models for your characters when you’re writing?
The dream cast is Jennifer Lawrence as LilyAnn and Channing Tatum as Mike. They both have an ability to do sweet/funny/dramatic, and the story calls for all three. No, I never use a picture of anyone to create the characters in my books. They’re already in my head as themselves.
Will you be returning to Blessings in a future novel? Can you give us a sneak peak?
Yes, I am happy to say that I’m going back to Blessings this year writing a book called Family Specials. Of course The Curl Up & Dye plays a pivotal role in how the plot plays out, but the story is entirely different from the others.
It’s about two teenagers: a boy and his two little brothers and a girl and her baby boy, who have been thrust into adult roles far too soon and who find a way to team up to save their families and, in doing so, finally fall in love long after the wedding has taken place.
It is a story that makes my heart happy. I look forward to sharing it with you.
Be careful what you wish for: a reminder that sometimes wishes are fulfilled in a way not quite anticipated. The desire to turn back the clock or proffer up a desperate bargain in order to keep a loved one with us is universal. Two new novels, The Returned by Jason Mott and Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, explore the consequences of cheating death and getting a second chance.
Lucille and Harold Hargrave are watching a riveting television news story reporting what seems to be an ongoing resurrection of the dead. A knock on the elderly couple’s door reveals a federal agent holding hands with a boy who calls Harold “Daddy.” The child is their eight year old son Jacob who drowned 50 years prior. The Returned explores not only the Hargraves’ reactions to the reappearance of their child, but also the complex societal and governmental responses to this unimaginable and unexplainable global phenomenon. Mott hit the author jackpot with this debut novel. In addition to climbing up The New York Times Best Sellers list, ABC developed the story into a television series entitled Resurrection, which is set to premiere in March.
In Bellman & Black, handsome Will Bellman is viewed as blessed. He’s inherited the family fabric-making factory where he’s introduced the principles and technology of the Industrial Revolution to great success. He adores his wife and young children and is a beneficent country gentleman. A man in black dogs Bellman, however, appearing at the funerals of his friends and family. When a diphtheria-like illness plagues Bellman’s village and takes the lives of his family, Bellman cuts a deal to save the life of his remaining child, Dora. Who is this man in black? Is it wrong to profit from death? Setterfield, who also wrote the popular ghostly story The Thirteenth Tale, delivers another atmospheric story that looks at the price one pays for a deal with the devil.