Short stories are usually read in a single sitting. Pick up either of these new collections, This House Is Not for Sale by E. C. Osondu or Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, and find that sitting stretching out as one story leads to the next.
This House Is Not for Sale is set in a nameless African village. The main character of each story lives in Grandpa’s grand family house and so falls under his powerful, and perhaps corrupt, domain. Some of the stories feature ordinary problems, like Abule and his serially cheating wife or Uncle Currency’s workplace embezzlement. Other problems are more closely tied to African folklore, such as the soul-stealer who prevents Tata from carrying pregnancies to term. Conflicts are illuminated by anonymous villagers’ gossipy commentary reminiscent of a fragmented Greek chorus, and when necessary, the godfather-like Grandpa steps in to deliver a final judgment. Esondu, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, captures both the joy and pain of everyday life in these thoughtful vignettes.
Bitingly irreverent wit, an unsentimental use of aging protagonists and unpredictable plots mark the wonderful Stone Mattress. The first three stories form a sort of trilogy. In “Alphinland,” widowed Constance, author of a cult classic fantasy series, is guided through a blizzard by the blow-by-blow verbal instructions issued by her dead husband. At the same time, she is also remembering her first love, the pompous and ever-randy poet Gavin, who betrayed Constance with another woman. “Revenent” features Gavin, now an impotent curmudgeon married to his third, much younger wife who is heavily invested in preserving Gavin’s legacy, if not necessarily Gavin himself. Finally, in “Dark Lady,” all the players — including the “other woman” — meet again. Other stories revisit the friends from “The Robber Bride,” find a predatory widow meeting up with her rapist prom date of 50 years ago or track a one-trick pony author determined to snuff out old friends living off his royalties. Atwood is a master wordsmith and excels when revealing her characters’ internal dialogue. The only disappointment here is that by their nature, these stories are short so the pleasure of reading them ends too quickly.
Katie’s having a rough time in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds. Her restaurant just keeps getting farther and farther behind, her ex-boyfriend has started showing up at her job and, in one phenomenally disastrous evening, one of her waitresses gets burned — and it’s her fault. She gets lucky, though. In a small box in the back of her dresser, she finds a mushroom and a notepad that allow her to rewrite a day that went wrong. Things improve so much that she ignores the rule about only making one wish. That’s when things start to get weird.
O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series was one of the biggest comics of the past decade, a rampaging tour-de-force that fused relationships, video game mechanics, a Toronto setting and indie music. Seconds is a quieter story, more focused on the tail end of one’s 20s. Reality may warp, but this is a story about homes, families and making a place in the world, not just falling into one. When Katie uses a mushroom to undo all the time apart from her boyfriend, she winds up in a relationship that doesn’t work because she hasn’t been present for it. Homes need to be built, not cheated into.
When O’Malley created Scott Pilgrim, he published in black and white, creating art that went for dynamism over nuance. Seconds is a full-color print in soft reds and pinks, navy blues and ochres. Even though Seconds is set during a Canadian winter, this is a warm book. Scott Pilgrim made fighting a metaphor for personal history. Seconds toys more with security and running away, using that soft palette to shade in the nuances of what it means to both screw up a home and grow up enough to fix your mistakes.
When composed by a gifted writer, creative nonfiction can be a magical vessel capable of alchemizing the mundane into the enthralling. Lifelong-Chicagoan Peggy Shinner is one such sorceress; in her collection You Feel So Mortal, she reflects on the elemental aesthetics and feelings of the human body, touching on the ideas of awkward feet, poor posture, proper fit and even plastic surgery.
In “The Fitting(s),” Shinner recounts a harrowing trip to an upscale department store to purchase new bras with the aid of a professional fitter. Her tale is laced with memories of shopping with her mother, and her own ponderings on the implications of choosing the alluring over the practical as a sort of gratuity to the fitter’s expertise. Shinner chronicles her experiences training as an advanced martial artist in “The Knife,” an essay about the myriad reciprocities between our bodies and the tools we use. “Elective” is a soul-bearing debate on the merits of plastic surgery: Does the empowerment of perceived beauty outweigh the emotional strain born from the defilement of one’s natural state?
Blended with sentimental storytelling in a lighter literary voice, Shinner’s factual anecdotes help characterize her worldly observations. She treasures her rare vantage and shares her assembled insights in nine accessible essays brimming with equal parts nostalgia and profundity. You Feel So Mortal is perfect for literary essay enthusiasts, for nonfiction lovers looking for something endearing and sentimental, or for readers interested in a Jewish or lesbian perspective.
Julia London and Julia Quinn are bestselling, award-winning novelists with devoted followings. So readers have hit the jackpot with delightful new novels from each that are sure to please those looking for engaging characters and compelling stories rich with romance.
Grace Cabot has run out of ideas to save her family from disgrace in London’s The Devil Takes a Bride. Marriage to a wealthy man is her only option and she sets out to trap one of her favorite flirts. But her plan goes amiss when she accidently seduces the wrong man — the not-to-be-trifled-with Jeffrey, Earl of Merryton. The sizzling duo at the heart of this second title in the Cabot Stepsisters series will captivate readers. Jeffrey is rational, a control freak and a planner whose plans do not include a wife. Grace is scattered, spontaneous and impulsive. But these opposites are attracted to one another as they enter into a marriage in name only, fully intending on burying their secrets forever. Fans will relish this Regency with flawed and realistic characters who share an emotional journey of discovery on their way to happily ever after.
Keeping family secrets is at the root of Quinn’s The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy. In picking a wife, Sir Richard can’t be choosy, as he only has one month to tie the knot in order to hide his teenage sister’s soon-to-be teenage mom status from society. When he spots Iris Smythe-Smith at her family’s annual musicale, he is instantly taken with her unassuming nature and quiet charm. Iris is not used to being the center of anyone’s attention, so when Richard demands an introduction, she is stunned, and when he starts relentlessly courting her, she is pleasantly surprised. His quick proposal heightens her suspicions, although she agrees to be his wife. In the end, Iris must face her fears and decide whether to follow her heart or her head in this perfect, passionate finale to Quinn’s Smythe-Smith quartet series.
One of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.
Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.
Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.
Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!
It seems innocent enough in the beginning, the budding friendship between Nina and Emma in Harriet Lane's new psychological thriller Her. Nina is the well-heeled 40-something artist who outwardly seems to have it all. The pregnant Emma, on the other hand, has an understandably chaotic and messy life with a demanding toddler in tow. So when Nina takes a soothing interest in the harried Emma, the young mother is smitten and even a little flattered.
Lane wants readers to get nervous about this one-sided friendship that seems to take hold when the sophisticated Nina spots Emma on a London street one day. She recognizes the younger woman, but Emma doesn't recognize her. And the pursuit is on. What happens next is difficult to figure, as Nina deftly worms her way into the nucleus of Emma's life. When the complicated Nina lures Emma's small son away from his mother in a park, she instigates a parent's worst nightmare, but why does she do it? For sure, Nina's subtle and sinister cruelties hint of the Hitchcockian drama to unfold.
British author Lane, whose first novel was Alys, Always, seems keen on manipulative protagonists. In Her, she uses restraint in shifting the story from the alternating perspectives of the two women. With a simmering plot and plenty of questions to answer, the ending will sneak up on you and accomplish what a psychological thriller is meant to do: stay with you. Readers of Gone Girl and also-new The Girl on the Train will want to sit down with this tautly written gem that will also hit the spot.
Famous for her taut, gripping, forensic thrillers, Tess Gerritsen once again leads us to the edge in Die Again.
Seeing a dog in the window of a home with a human finger in his mouth, a mailman immediately contacts the police. Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzolli and forensic pathologist Moira Isles discover the body of a big-game hunter, trussed hanging upside down, and ultimately the victim of a large cat. Leon Gott has hunted big game and is considered the finest taxidermist in the business, but it looks like the animal kingdom has decided to redress the difference. Isles believes this case is tied to a series of suspicious incidents involving hikers in remote areas. All of those killings involved big cat attacks, and some were dismissed as unfortunate encounters with nature. The investigation leads to a link between the taxidermist and a group on safari in Africa victimized by a leopard.
Six years previously, a group of vacationers seeking a unique African experience joined a safari. Expecting exotic adventures, fabulous sights and romantic evenings by the fire, they instead fought for their lives in a world that was ruled by “eat or be eaten.” Told through the eyes of Millie Jacobson, a London bookstore owner, we travel alternately between the murder investigation in Boston and the growing horror in Botswana, as each vacationer is attacked and dragged away, one by one.
Gerritsen is a master at weaving grisly details into her forensic science, and the result is a suspense-filled trip through terror. The writer is also ably adept at drawing believable, deeply human characters who struggle with the normalcy of daily life while facing the worst human nature can provide. The complex relationships among the investigating team as they struggle to unearth the truth and unmask a killer add to the realistic portrayal.
Fans of Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffery Deaver will find this a deeply satisfying read. There is also a television series featuring Rizzoli and Isles. Just remember, this trip is not for the faint of heart.
Since the Clone Wars, Emperor Palpatine’s reach spans as far as Star Destroyer warp drives can extend. For some, the tumultuous peace is just another inevitable hardship of border planet living, but other galactic citizens aren’t as keen to bend to the Emperor’s will. In Star Wars: A New Dawn, longtime comic and Lucas Books writer John Jackson Miller introduces two new characters who are poised to become lingering thorns in Palpatine’s side as they rally their own rebellion, one refugee at a time.
Planet Gorse is only inhabited by holdout colonists clinging to a declining mining trade. They spend their days harvesting thorilide, a commodity for droid and weapons manufacturing, and their nights drinking away their hard-earned credits at Okadiah’s planetside cantina. Working to impress the Emperor, ruthless and cunning business mogul Count Vidian arrives on Gorse to survey the thorilide supply and optimize what little industry remains. His investigation leads him to Cynda, Gorse’s moon, which is also laden with thorilide. The trick is that extracting thorilide from beneath the moon’s surface is time-consuming, and both Vidian and the Emperor are unwilling to wait for the materials to trickle in from border space.
Kanan Jarrus is a Cyndan miner seemingly like all the other holdouts, but he is able to draw exceptional strength and willpower from the pain of loss he has been harboring since childhood. Jarrus notices the out-of-place Vidian marching around with his clone soldier escorts and takes it upon himself to keep the other miners safe by any means. He runs into Hera Syndulla, a Twi’lek spy who has been trailing Vidian across the galaxy, and the two ally to combat the encroaching Empire. Can they stop Vidian from hatching a nefarious plan to harvest Cynda’s resources in a highly unethical and ultimately lethal manner?
Kanan and Hera continue their adventures in the animated series Star Wars Rebels which has spawned numerous Star Wars books for children. Adult and teen readers who enjoy A New Dawn should round up their children, brothers and sisters for a Star Wars party!
Paula Hawkins debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, delivers a suspense-driven plot filled with complex characters exploring memory and meaning, fantasy and reality.
Rachel could be like any commuter, scanning the scenery from the train as they slide by, aimlessly viewing the same landscape day after day. Except that Rachel has created a whole other world out of the window — finding a favorite house on a favorite block of Victorian homes, creating an entire persona around a golden couple she names Jess and Jason. They are the couple that Rachel and Tom used to be, before the alcohol, the scenes and the recriminations. They are everything Rachel had, until she turned to cocktails to dull the pain of infertility. Jess and Jason live only a few doors down the street from the house Rachel and Tom furnished with so much anticipation. Only now, Tom lives there with his new wife, Anna, who is pregnant with their first child.
The fantasy couple are really Megan and Scott, and they have problems just like everyone else. Megan is emotionally scarred by two tragic events she can’t reconcile. Scott senses she is hiding something, possibly another man, and his jealousy scars their relationship. Rachel sees Megan kissing a man that is not her husband, and shortly after, Megan disappears.
This book is told by three narrators: Rachel, the obsessed, delusional alcoholic struggling to make herself heard; Anna, the new young wife consumed with creating a perfect family; and the ill-fated Megan, propelled by the past she can’t relinquish and a future she can’t embrace. Gripping, suspenseful, an irresistible read, The Girl on the Train explores all facets of human nature, our understanding of the past and our perception of the present. Hawkins is a master storyteller, weaving a tale that is as compulsively readable as it is electrifying. If you enjoyed Gone Girl, hop on board. You are in for the ride your life.
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.