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.
Mike Greenberg is best known as one-half of ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning. But here, in his debut novel, All You Could Ask For, Greenberg leaves sports behind and hits a home run with this powerful novel about three women connected by cancer. Meet Samantha, Katherine, and Brooke, who share Greenwich, Connecticut as their hometown but are all at different places in their lives. Samantha is twenty-eight and two days into her honeymoon she discovers pictures of a naked woman in her husband’s email. Nude photos are also on Brooke’s mind. At forty, and after fifteen years of marriage and two kids, she is trying to muster the courage to present her husband with a personal portfolio featuring her and not much else. Finally, there is Katherine, a high-powered executive with a fabulous lifestyle. Her only problem is that her boss is the man who broke her heart eighteen years ago. Each woman works through her issues and gradually reaches resolution and happiness.
Those flashes of bliss are soon shattered as each receives a diagnosis of cancer and must face the disease head on. It is through a support group message board that the three meet and share their anger, fear, and hope for the future. The posted messages add more depth to each of these women as their innermost thoughts are revealed. These realistic, modern women struggle with the disease, treatment options, and side effects, yet they are strong and courageous. As their friendship grows, so does their spirit as each resolves to experience more “best days” of their lives. Perhaps the women’s voices are so honest because Greenberg, like so many of us, has personal experience with cancer and wrote the book to honor the memory of a close friend. Greenberg and his wife are donating all of the author proceeds to The V Foundation for Cancer Research.
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.
Actress Nia Vardalos won seemingly overnight stardom and acclaim with her first movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which she also wrote. Although she seemed on top of the world, there was one thing missing from her life—a child. Married to fellow comedic actor Ian Gomez, Vardalos tried for over a decade to become a mother. In the funny and touching new memoir Instant Mom, she chronicles the journey that led the pair to the adoption of their daughter, and shares with the reader the transformative experience that is motherhood.
Despite the title, there was nothing “instant” about Vardalos’ becoming a mother. Much of her professional success in life, she admits, is due to her stubborn nature and her refusal to take “no” for an answer. She admits to translating the meaning of the word as “try a different way.” Five years of devastating miscarriages led her to many more years of IVF treatments and even attempts with a surrogate. She kept this personal heartbreak hidden from the media even as millions embraced her as an actress they could immediately relate to, a Greek-Canadian girl next door.
Vardalos’ humorous, approachable tone makes Instant Mom a page-turning read, and when she decides to explore adoption via foster care, you know that this will finally be the answer. When she receives the phone call confirming that they have been approved to adopt a three-year-old little girl, she and her husband have just fourteen hours to prepare for her arrival. From this point, the book becomes a love story, one filled with trial and error as well as joy and frustration as the family gets to know one another and settles into the routines of everyday life. Instant Mom is a memoir of hard-earned motherhood with just a dash of Hollywood name-dropping, a book with wide general appeal.
Letting it Go is Miriam Katin’s gorgeous new graphic novel, in which she tries to come to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. Due to her past, Katin had come to despise all things German. When her son moves to Berlin, she realizes she must somehow come to terms with Germany if she is to maintain a relationship with her son.
Born in Hungary during the Second World War, Katin eventually immigrated to Israel in 1957 where she worked as a graphic artist for the Israeli Defense Forces. She went on to work for the MTV Animation and Disney Studios. She wrote her first graphic novel, We Are On Our Own, at the age of 63. Although Katin is writing about very heavy subject matter, the overall tone and art remain fairly light and at times, humorous. At once literary and accessible, Letting it Go reveals Katin’s daily life with her husband in New York while calling on the likes of Kafka to reveal her inner fears.
Done in colored pencil, Letting it Go works exceedingly well as a graphic novel. Katin is able to reveal details and nuance in her art, letting us inside her psyche. The mostly panel-less comics flow nicely with the fairly free-form text. The mix of black and white and color also nicely juxtaposes past and present. Like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, this would make an excellent introduction to nonfiction graphic novels.
How do you finally let go when you lose what matters most? This is the question asked by Barbara Taylor Sissel in her new novel Evidence of Life. When Abby’s husband Nick decides to take their daughter on a camping trip, Abby is thrilled that he wants to spend more time with his daughter. After they leave, the skies darken and the weather takes a turn for the worse. Roads are blocked with debris, major flooding ensues and emergency services warn travelers to stay off the roads. Abby receives a disturbing phone call from her daughter Lindsey, who tells her in a scared and distressed voice that they have traveled through San Antonio, Texas, a city far from their intended route. This is the last that Abby would hear from Nick or Lindsey.
Everyone is quickly presuming that Nick and Lindsey are dead, even though their bodies have not been recovered. Abby wants to give up the search and begin the grieving process, but there are too many unanswered questions. Her son Jake becomes distant, making fewer trips home from his college. Abby’s best friend Kate, though sympathetic, also seems to know more than she is telling. Nick was a lawyer on a high profile case and some suspect him of absconding with a great deal of money. Could Nick and Lindsey still be alive? Abby’s friends and family are skeptical and urge her to declare them dead and plan a memorial service, but Abby chooses a different path. She will keep searching until she uncovers the truth.
Evidence of Life is a suspenseful mystery with many twists and turns. Barbara Taylor Sissel creates an engaging main character in Abby, whose inquisitive nature pulls the reader through the story as we discover the truth along with her. Fans of Mary Higgins Clark will definitely find something to like in this novel.
Lauren Willig’s new stand-alone novel The Ashford Affair is a departure from her well-known Pink Carnation series. The story, which the Library Journal says combines an “Out of Africa sensibility with a Downton Abbey cast,” takes readers from the English countryside before World War I to 1920s Kenya and 1990s New York City. Clementine “Clemmie” Evans is a successful, overworked attorney whose personal life is a mess. As Clemmie’s ninety-nine-year-old grandmother Addie nears the end of her life, Clemmie stumbles upon a secret from Addie’s past. A family member hints to Clemmie that there may be more to the story than meets the eye, and Clemmie begins to investigate Addie’s life story. Addie grew up in England on her uncle’s estate as a poor orphan taken in by her rich family. Addie and her effervescent cousin Bea grew up to be best friends and close confidants, but with time came change. As Clemmie learns about Addie’s past, it begins to influence her own future. The Ashford Affair is a multi-layered love story that will enchant fans of Kate Morton.
What are the odds that two authors would leave behind their popular series and write stand-alone novels set in the same place in the same time? While at a conference, Willig met her friend Deanna Raybourn for cocktails. When the discussion turned to their work, both were surprised to discover that their latest projects were set in 1920s Kenya. Raybourn’s new novel, A Spear of Summer Grass, is the story of Delilah Drummond, a socialite whose family banishes her to Kenya to avoid a scandal. Delilah quickly connects with a group of British ex-pats, but a murder within her group forces Delilah to make an important choice. These two novels are a perfect pairing for a literary getaway.
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 short-listers 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.
Travel can be a tortuous process. First you plan your itinerary, then you pack (and pack and pack). Eventually you end up with all your belongings at the airport or the train station and your journey begins. Most often, after a few hours you have arrived at your destination with the happy knowledge that your journey is almost at an end. But what if it didn’t end? What if you kept traveling and traveling, across continents and oceans and deserts, until you had made it all the way around the world? In 1889, two women set off to do just that, racing to circumnavigate the globe by steamship and railway in no more than seventy-five days at a time when Jules Verne’s fictional hero could do no better than eighty. Matthew Goodman’s new work, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, chronicles both women over the course of their very long trek.
Nellie Bly, a plucky and ambitious newspaperwoman, was surprised but willing when her editor at The World asked her to try to become the fastest person to circle the Earth. Not to be outdone, The Cosmopolitan, a rival newspaper, sent out their own female journalist travelling in the opposite direction on the same day. As they sped on, Bly and Bisland suffered from seasickness, missed connections, and the vicissitudes of the weather. Interest and speculation raced along with them, especially in Bly’s case. All of America and many parts of the world were anxiously counting the minutes and seconds until the day an American girl would become the fastest woman in the world. Goodman’s well-paced and extensively researched story is quietly suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable. History buffs, travelogue addicts, and narrative nonfiction lovers will find themselves careening through this tale of long-lost American traveling glory.