Let’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.
Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.
Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.
Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.
Annie Barrows resurrects the spirit of a small West Virginia town in 1938 in The Truth According to Us. Layla Beck, the privileged daughter of a U.S. Senator, has struck a blow for independence and refused to marry a very wealthy bore. The senator decides if Layla wishes to be independent then she can make her own way in the world. Forced to take a position as a writer with the Works Progress Administration, Layla finds herself in Macedonia, tasked with documenting the history of the town for its sesquicentennial celebration.
Layla boards with the Romeyn family and finds a font of information in her landlady, Jottie. Having lost the love of her life, Jottie has devoted herself to her brother’s children, Willa and Bird. Willa, an irrepressible, surprisingly wise 12-year-old, is determined to uphold the qualities of ferocity and devotion. Willa’s father Felix is a charming cad no one seems to be able to refuse, especially women.
As Layla unearths a wealth of not entirely flattering information to the self-proclaimed important people of the town, she falls deeper under the spell of the scheming Felix. Jottie, fearing for Layla, struggles with demons from her tragic past. The indomitable Willa, hoping to dig up what her father is really up to on those business trips, finds far more truth than anyone can hope to handle.
Barrows tells an irresistible story, slowly unfolding an 18-year-old secret. Labor unrest, social standing, old scandals and new heartbreaks define a town struggling to survive. Barrows’ characters are witty, wise and wonderfully genuine. She is the co-author of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and her latest offering is not to be missed.
Looking for the perfect book to take poolside, distract you on the plane or transport you from your backyard lawn chair? Lose yourself in The Wrong Man by Kate White or Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms, each story filled with suspense and misdirection.
In The Wrong Man, Kit Finn just ended a staid relationship and feels like she is treading water. On a buying trip to Florida, the interior designer resolves to shake up her life and chance stepping outside her comfort zone. Chance presents itself as Matt Healey, a hot and handsome fellow New Yorker who arranges to keep this new romance going once they return to the city. But when Kit shows up at Matt’s door for dinner, she finds instead The Wrong Man; it’s the real Matt Healey and he is not the man Kit met in Florida. As Kit tries to figure out this case of misrepresented identity, she’s drawn in to a web of deceit and corporate corruption which just might turn deadly. Author Kate White, who served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years, writes a snappy, sexy mystery which keeps the reader guessing till the last pages.
Author Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, Dark Rooms, tells a chilling and somewhat seamy tale. Posh Chandler Academy is an archetypal New England prep school brimming with wealth and privilege. Grace is a graduate of Chandler, her parents on its teaching staff, but she’s dropped out of college and is living at home while she focuses on solving the shooting death of her charismatic younger sister Nica. Nica’s death has unraveled the family — former good girl Grace is popping pills while her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol. The girls’ mother, a photographer who both favored and obsessively photographed Nica, decamped to an artist commune, effectively abandoning what’s left of her family. Grace’s refusal to accept the official story — that an alienated student smarting from unrequited love shot Nica and hung himself — helps her discover her own strength and independence as she unearths the grim secrets sheltered in Chandler’s ivy-covered towers.
For other twisty thrillers, try Disclaimer by Renee Knight or Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.
Emma Woodhouse is a 20-something young woman who believes her mission in life is to straighten out other people’s lives. Pretty, wealthy and well-intentioned, naïve Emma starts to play matchmaker to her loved ones only to discover that acting as Cupid is much more complicated than she imagined. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Jane Austen wrote Emma in 1815 and, 200 years later, Alexander McCall Smith has updated the story in Emma: A Modern Retelling. All of the beloved characters are there: dashing Mr. Knightley, tedious Miss Bates, silly Harriet and the insufferable Mr. Elton — they've just been given a 21st century makeover.
Smith’s book is the third to be released as part of The Austen Project, which “pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.” The first two, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, have met with mixed reviews by Austen fans and the general public. Smith’s text is perhaps the best attempt to modernize Austen’s plot while still retaining the original feel of her work. Smith has an excellent sense of character and dialogue and manages to capture the quirky individuals that inhabit Emma’s world.
Smith is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he is a prolific writer whose credits include over 50 novels, including three other series: Corduroy Mansions, Isabel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street. Smith uses his ability to encapsulate a character’s personality concisely through carefully crafted dialogue and descriptions quite effectively in this updated version of Emma. Interestingly, Austen referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yet, 200 years later, readers are still enthralled with Austen’s heroine. Smith’s “modern retelling” is definitely worth a read.
Most of Amelia Gray’s stories in Gutshot are unusually short — two or three pages each — which makes their power to shock and awe feel overwhelming. Each story begins with a harbinger sentence informing character or setting and descends into chaos, with all kinds of taboos roiling around between the beautifully adorned covers.
Grindhouse-level ultraviolence comprises the stories “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover” and “The Moment of Conception.” In “Date Night,” couples out for a good time flay one another to get to the person within. Different perceptions of love and adoration are absolutely ruined in “House Proud,” “The Swan as a Metaphor for Love” and “How He Felt.” “The Lives of Ghosts” portrays the departed returning to life in the form of grisly bruises and boils on those who miss them most. There’s provocative defilement in “Monument” and “Legacy,” and perverse detainment in “Western Passage.” In “House Heart,” a couple confines a girl to the ventilation system of their house and listen to her shimmy around...as foreplay.
Disgusting as this may sound, Gutshot is a tiny grimoire of genius brimming with macabre and hilarious imaginings. For every derisive snort elicited, there’s an equine chortle that’ll render readers suddenly cognizant of their wide-eyed, shell-shocked states. In the right light, stories like “Thank You” and “Go for It and Raise Hell” and “Gutshot” can feel like palate cleansers, reminding readers that it’s all for fun and nobody actually got dismembered at a fancy restaurant.
Fans of Toni Morrison will find the new and not-so-new in her latest novel, God Help the Child. The new: This is Morrison's first book to be set in present day instead of the historical past. The not-so-new are the issues Morrison is known for tackling, such as sexual abuse, betrayal and race perceptions. Each is accounted for in this slim, spare novel about the ways in which people revive themselves from life's early trauma and rejection.
This story of a mother and her daughter stares down a heartrending path, punctuated by cruelty and denial. Sweetness, the mother, is a light-skinned African-American woman who is repulsed by the midnight blackness of her own daughter, Lula Ann. “She was so black she scared me,” says Sweetness, who calls herself “high yellow.” For Lula Ann, growing up with a distant mother meant that she would do just about anything to gain her attention, including telling a devastating lie that will haunt her. As an adult, Lula Ann changes her name to Bride. Successful, with a soon-to-be-launched cosmetic line, the stunningly beautiful young woman embraces her fashionable blue-blackness, dressing in accentuating white. She falls apart when her lover leaves her. Her search for him leads to more discoveries about herself and the man she may not know at all.
Told from shifting points-of-view, God Help the Child exudes characteristic Morrison prose with its powerful imagery and subtle emotional probing. There is also a bow to the author's canon of previous works, including a spell of magical realism that readers may recognize. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison is widely considered one of the world’s superb storytellers. And while the length of her novels may be shortening (this is her 11th and one of the leanest at 178 pages), the 84-year-old continues to mine the black American experience for lessons from the past. In her latest work, a breach of trust in childhood becomes the conduit that shapes all that comes later, making forgiveness and reconciliation necessary but daunting.
In 1985, the first Back to the Future movie was released and was an instant blockbuster. Two sequels followed and the trilogy remains popular. Ten years later, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, was released and became a touchstone for a generation. Two new books go behind the scenes of these seminal movies and offer gossipy tidbits, interviews, photographs and more.
We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy by Caseen Gaines explores the time-travelling vehicle which brought us Marty McFly and catapulted Michael J. Fox to superstardom. More than 50 original interviews were conducted with key players, including director Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Huey Lewis. Gaines shares insider information about the movie, including details of the recasting of Eric Stoltz and the resulting domino effect, but he also looks at the staying power and devoted fan base of these three inventive films.
As If!: The Oral History of Clueless As Told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew by Jen Chaney delivers on its title’s promise with an in-depth account of this innovative movie told by the people who were there. Chaney’s interviews garnered information about casting, costume design, soundtrack and setting, all of which were so vital to the film’s message and success. It appears that this Beverly Hills comedy of manners holds up after 20 years as it remains one of today’s most streamed movies. Chaney includes never-before-seen photos, original call sheets and casting notes, along with ideas as to why the movie continues to have such a powerful pop culture presence. Think you’ll find a more fun summer read? As Alicia Silverstone’s Cher would say: As if!
Jane Smiley continues the saga of the Langdon family with Early Warning, the second installment in her trilogy. Picking up the story from where it left off at the end of Some Luck, Early Warning begins in 1953. We follow the second generation through the Cold War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King and wars across the planet. Mothers raise their children according to Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach. Fathers take jobs that make their fortunes and bend their principles. Through the social unrest of the campuses, the shifting political tides, the Jonestown Massacre and Watergate there is one constancy — the family.
Only one child of Matthew and Roseanna Langdon will choose to stay on the farm. The siblings roam the country — in some cases the world — and settle in locations from Maryland to California. The Langdons are prolific, but fortunately Smiley provides a family tree in case we get lost. Indeed, some of the characters lose themselves along the way, only to find themselves in unexpected ways. Through it all, we find ourselves sharing the joy and heartache as each Langdon child negotiates the perils of adulthood and defines their own family. Despite the foibles of the world, it is ultimately the daily challenges that affect our lives the most.
Each chapter depicts a year of the characters’ lives. Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, is a master at weaving a tale through large historical events while never losing the minutia of daily life. In Early Warning, she chronicles the story of America through the lens of 19 characters while staying true to the story and their personalities.
Lisa Jewell’s riveting family drama The Third Wife unravels the layers of a seemingly cohesive blended family to reveal emotional scars and disquieting truths, all while delivering an authentic tale complete with love, loss and renewal. Jojo Moyes raves that this remarkable new novel is “Clever, intelligent . . . wonderful.”
At 48, Adrian Wolfe’s life is ideal. He is married to the much younger Maya who is perfectly at home in his world which consists of two ex-wives and five children. Maya’s calm spirit and amenable attitude mask a different reality which comes to a head when she can’t cope any more, gets plastered and is killed when she steps in front of a bus. Circumstances indicate that it was just a tragic accident, but a string of events a year after her death prompt Adrian to investigate what really happened.
First, Jane, an attractive stranger, begins appearing wherever Adrian and his family are. Then a series of vitriolic emails directed to Maya are unearthed and Adrian vows to uncover what really happened to his wife. As he uncovers more facts, he tries to avoid the real truth that his marriage was not a happy one and his family is not perfect. Jewell successfully manages to present multiple perspectives, including Maya’s, which allows the reader to see the other side of the Wolfe family, the unpleasant reality which Adrian ignored in an effort to make himself feel at peace with his abandonments. The characters are sharply written and the quick pace will keep you turning the page as revelations from the past affect the present all while creating an honest portrayal of a real modern family.
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, set for publication on July 14, is one of the most anticipated books in recent memory. Publisher Harper Collins has said that pre-orders for this novel are the highest in company history. The book has been closely guarded, but now a few details are being revealed with both The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian previewing the first chapter available here. If you want to get a taste of Reese Witherspoon’s narration of the audio book, here’s a sneak listen to the first chapter.
Lee’s second novel takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and opens with Scout returning by train to Maycomb, Alabama. Lee has said the novel did not undergo any revisions since she completed the manuscript in the 1950s and is “humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
Learn more about this big event, including a preview of PBS’ Thirteen Days of Harper Lee, on BCPL’s tumblr, and be sure to check back for a Between the Covers post about the novel soon!