Elizabeth L. Silver’s debut novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is the kind of book that leaves the reader thinking about it long after finishing the last page. As the story begins, Noa is on death row awaiting X-Day, the day of her execution, when Marlene Dixon, the mother of her victim Sarah, approaches her. Marlene is a prominent Philadelphia attorney who tells Noa that she has changed her stance on the death penalty. Marlene says that she has formed a new nonprofit organization called Mothers Against Death, and she offers to petition for clemency on Noa’s behalf. What she really wants is for Noa to explain why she shot Sarah. During her trial and sentencing, Noa did not speak to defend herself. She did not offer any explanation for Sarah’s death.
The story is told through narratives written by Noa as X-Day approaches and letters that Marlene writes to Sarah at the same time. The truth is a murky thing that Silver slowly reveals over the course of the novel. The idea that both guilt and innocence exist on a spectrum is at the heart of the story. Neither of the women is what she seems to be in the beginning, and both share the burden of guilt to some degree. As Noa’s execution draws near, the reader realizes the complexity of the situation and must consider the difference between moral guilt and legal guilt. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a complex, character-driven psychological thriller that will yield heated discussions at your next book club meeting.
In author Gail Godwin’s newest novel, Flora, the aged Helen is remembering the summer of 1945. She lived on a mountaintop outside a small North Carolina town in her family’s once stately manse with her adored grandmother Nonie, described by one of Helen’s few friends as looking like “an upright mastiff driving a car.” Also in residence is Helen’s remote and sarcastic father who usually prefers the company of Jack Daniels to his daughter. Helen’s mother died when Helen was three. Nonie has died, unexpectedly, in the spring and Helen’s father has eagerly accepted a supervisory position at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee military facility, leaving the nearly eleven-year-old Helen in need of a caretaker.
Arrangements are made for cousin Flora to come tend Helen. Flora, a recent teacher’s college graduate, is everything Helen’s “right side of the tracks” family is not; her lack of guile and tender heart are viewed with polite condescension and her stories of Helen’s mother’s estranged family back in Alabama are an embarrassment. Hitler has killed himself but the Japanese are continuing to fight World War II. On the home front, polio has reared its paralytic head, victimizing Helen’s buddy Brian, and soldiers lucky enough to straggle home are bringing their own demons with them. Helen’s father declares that Flora and Helen must remain sequestered on the decaying estate for their own safety.
Writer Godwin is known for her graceful prose, sharply-drawn characters, and is at her best probing family dynamics influenced by Southern Gothic tradition. In Flora, she portrays both a country and a family on the cusp of change, responding to circumstances beyond either’s control. Helen’s struggle to regain her footing in a permanently altered world has far reaching consequences, and Godwin’s careful portrayal of Helen as a child desperately emulating her beloved adults rings sadly true.
What happens when an ex-wife is forced to live with the woman who broke up her once happy marriage? First time author Amy Sue Nathan delivers a novel with that tantalizing premise in The Glass Wives. Evie Glass finds her world upended when ex-husband Richard dies in a devastating car accident. While she had come to terms with living alone with their ten year-old twins in what had been their dream house, she still counted on Richard to be there. Sure, he now had a new wife more than ten years her junior, Nicole, and a baby son with that new wife. But Richard was still an active parent to her children, someone who would continue to be there through their life milestones: the bar and bat mitzvahs, their graduations. Or so she had always hoped.
Once the shock of Richard’s death begins to wear off, Nicole Glass realizes to her horror that her financial support is now gone as well. Her part time sales job at the gift store doesn’t bring in enough to pay the mortgage, let alone anything else. And although she initially was happy about the thought of removing Richard’s widow from her life, she hadn’t realized her children had already developed a bond with their half-brother. And Nicole herself is left adrift, estranged from her own relatives.
The Glass wives begin to redefine family as necessity brings their separate families together under one roof. Nathan’s smart, thoughtful story, told with compassion and a sense of humor, makes a great poolside read. Need a compulsively readable choice (with a lot of discussion points) for an upcoming book club? The Glass Wives is a sure bet.
The majority of American brides have diamond engagement rings today, but that wasn’t always the case. The American expectation of a diamond engagement ring largely grew from the aggressive marketing of the DeBeers Company in the 20th century. J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements brings together a diverse cast of characters in a story centered around relationships and, of course, the engagement ring.
Kate, who lived through the turmoil of her parents’ failed marriage, has vowed never to marry. She and her partner Dan are very happy together, but she must set aside her feelings about marriage as she helps her cousin plan his wedding to his long-time partner. Evelyn married Gerald soon after the loss of her first husband. They have been married 40 years, and they now face their son’s crumbling marriage and his choice of a new relationship. James is a paramedic who married his high school sweetheart Sheila. Their life together is far from perfect, but they are working to stay together. Delphine’s relationship with musician P.J. is coming to an end because of his infidelity. She reflects back on their doomed relationship as she methodically trashes his apartment. In the midst of these stories, we also meet Frances Gerety, a fictionalized version of the woman who wrote the famous DeBeers slogan “A Diamond is Forever” in the 1940s. Frances works for the N. W. Ayer advertising agency in Philadelphia and has helped craft many of the marketing catchphrases for diamonds that we still recognize today. She never married, and her experience as a single woman working to promote engagements and marriage provides a counterpoint to the other stories.
Over the course of the novel, Sullivan slowly connects these seemingly unrelated stories. She presents no perfect characters and no perfect relationships, but the enduring nature of love and family shines through. This entertaining and rich look at relationships and marriage will be the perfect addition to your summer beach bag.
A biography of a language? That’s what Jean-Benoȋt Nadeau and Julie Barlow have undertaken, in The Story of Spanish, a linguistic history of the second-most spoken language in the world. Did you know that Spanish is the choice of over 65% of American high school students who study a world language? Nadeau and Barlow investigate the origins of the language, pinpointing the genesis to a small area in the north of Spain. The effects of Roman, Arabic, and Germanic invasions on the Iberian Peninsula and the terminology they left behind are well-documented with maps and charts, all of which created a recognizable version of Spanish today.
The medieval years were hardly the end of the evolution of the international language of today. A major development of the Spanish language pushing beyond a corner of southwestern Europe was the decision of Ferdinand and Isabella to support Columbus’ 1492 voyage. This changed the world in many ways, of course, but it changed Spanish considerably through contact with Native American vocabulary.
The authors discuss the ways Castilian (spoken in Spain) and Latin American Spanish now differ; though both remain easily understandable to speakers of each (similar to the English variations heard throughout the world). The blossoming of literature in Spanish over the past two centuries, and the current information age have also affected Spanish with words added from many far-flung sources. The simplicity of Spanish pronunciation, verb tenses, and vocabulary, in comparison to many international languages, has propelled it to a place of common recognition. Contemporary issues of the ways Spanish has made inroads to the United States and Brazil complete this interesting look into a subject that is at once familiar but rarely examined in this manner.
How does one continue after the death of a child? This is what two mothers contemplate when they are faced with the unimaginable. In The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp lays bare the utter devastation she and her husband experienced when their infant son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic disorder which is always fatal. Rapp, herself a writer, describes in a heartbreakingly poetic style the dreams and plans she had for Ronan before he was even born, and the course their life together took after the diagnosis. Reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, Rapp draws on different religions, philosophies and myths as she delves deep into her grief and pain, assuming a role no parent wants to play. Rapp eschews the idea of measuring the worth of Ronan’s life by his developmental progress; instead, she learns to focus on the small ordinary moments with her son, determined to make his brief existence count.
In I’ll See You Again: A Memoir by Jackie Hance (with Janice Kaplan), Hance recounts the devastating day in July 2009 when a van being driven by her sister-in-law Diane crashed, killing Hance’s three daughters and five other passengers. Besides coping with the horrific reality of instantaneously losing all of their children, Hance and her husband Warren also had to deal with the family fallout and ensuing publicity. Diane’s body tested positive for alcohol and drugs, which was a complete shock to the family, and there were a number of bloggers and media outlets who blamed the parents for letting their three girls ride with Diane. The Hances’ quest to create meaning out of senseless tragedy led to the establishment of a foundation in honor of the girls, and in 2011, the birth of their fourth daughter. Like The Still Point of the Turning World, this is a painfully beautiful story of emotional frailty balanced with resilience, introspection in the face of loss, and boundless parental devotion. As Rapp muses, “children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.”
In a rather touching tale of self-discovery amidst the landscape of the animal rights movement, Natalie Brown’s debut novel The Lovebird introduces us to a flawed character searching for change who ultimately finds it in herself. Margie comes from a troubled childhood. Her father smokes and drinks too much and seems unwilling to accept the death of his wife. It seems only natural for Margie to discover another lost and lonely soul, a professor of Latin raising his daughter after the death of his wife. Simon offers her love but also the chance to fight for the small creatures of the earth. Margie becomes vegan and an active member of H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Encouraging Animal Rights Today) and begins to perform slightly unsavory acts for the benefit of nature. But a life event changes her course, and suddenly she is thrust into the leadership of H.E.A.R.T., and her decisions will affect the course of her life forever.
The Lovebird is an engrossing character study, following Margie’s thoughts in the first person. As her story unfolds, the reader feels a deep sympathy for a character that, although often misguided, has complete compassion and care for others. The story takes an unexpected turn in the middle and readers will be surprised and delighted by Margie’s journey. Natalie Brown’s prose is thoughtful and expertly crafted, so readers who appreciate a good turn of phrase will certainly enjoy her writing. The novel is heartfelt and inspiring with an ending that readers will remember, a perfect choice for book groups.
What happens when a girl who shouldn’t have survived a violent attack hunts a killer who shouldn’t be able to exist? This is the story at the center of the hypnotic web that South African author Lauren Beukes creates in her new thriller The Shining Girls. In the 1930s, serial killer Harper Curtis found something magical that has made his murders almost unsolvable. The front door of his house opens onto different times, allowing him to travel back and forth through time to find his girls. He finds himself drawn to some girls because they shine; their lives are full of promise. He murders the girls, leaving trophies from his kills in other times at the grisly murder scenes. He is confident that he’ll never be found, so he begins to go back to visit his girls when they are children, years before he kills them.
Kirby Mazrachi is a survivor. In 1989, she was attacked by a serial killer and left for dead. She is determined to find answers. She becomes an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times and works with Dan Velasquez, a former homicide reporter who wrote about her attack. She begins to find answers, but Kirby quickly realizes that the more she learns, the more impossible it all seems. Tension builds as readers realize that Kirby and Harper are on a collision course to meet again. Beukes has created a chilling, genre-bending thriller that may ruin the childhood toy My Little Pony for you forever. For a sneak peak at the novel, watch this book trailer that will make you sleep with the lights on tonight!
Baltimore is front and center in Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel. Vogel, a Washington Post military reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, focuses on a six week period during the War of 1812 – specifically, the British attacks on Washington and Baltimore.
Vogel’s experience is evident in this fast-paced military account peppered with characters essential to the story. The book opens in the summer of 1814 (two years after America invaded Canada) and the British forces are looking for payback. None is more focused on destroying the upstart nation than Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Cockburn would quickly become America’s chief nemesis with his priority of destroying Washington D.C. He eventually advanced on the nation’s capital and ordered the burning of the city’s public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Not content with that successful conflagration, he and his troops turned their attention to Baltimore.
In recounting the remarkable events that led to the last stand in Baltimore, other principals are introduced and their impact duly noted. In addition to the well-known actors in this drama such as James Madison and James Monroe, readers also learn more about Dolley Madison, who rescued so many White House artifacts and Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress responsible for crafting the flag. And a book about the Battle of Baltimore wouldn’t be complete without Francis Scott Key, an innocent prisoner of the British troops and witness to the brutal destruction during the defense of Fort McHenry that inspired him to write "The Star Spangled Banner". This is a colorful presentation of both sides of the story filled with details that complement the narrative of military events. The victory at Baltimore remains a turning point in American history that changed both the outcome of the war and the fate of our fledgling nation.
The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village by John Strausbaugh is a loving tribute to one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the world, Greenwich Village in New York City. In the modern era, Greenwich Village has been synonymous with radical art, poetry music and political change.
Since the very beginning of its settlement in the 17th century, the land that would later be known as Greenwich Village or just “The Village,” has always been an outpost for rebels and misfits. It was originally home to just a few hundred people, whose regular sources of entertainment included taverns and brothels. During the next 400 years, The Village continued to be home to radicals and rogues of every stripe.
Just browsing through Strausbaugh's history is a reminder of the Village’s amazing artistic output, in the late 20th century alone. Alan Ginsburg and Bob Dylan got their start in The Village, as did Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce. It was also an epicenter in the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn Bar had been raided many times before but the infamous police raid on a hot night in June of 1969. That particular raid has been memorialized as simply “Stonewall,” the event galvanized the LGBT community into civil rights activism. For anyone interested in New York City or American cultural history, The Village is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and personalities.