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Book Review: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

     rivers   “He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and the sunshine glistened across the drenched land,” Mississippi native Michael Farris Smith writes in Rivers, his riveting new novel of speculative fiction.  In Rivers, Smith imagines a chilling future for the Gulf South, where relentless, Katrina-like storms roll in one after the other.

Although Hurricane Katrina did not hurt the author directly, seeing his state “suffer in that way” deeply affected Smith, he explained during a reading at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.  He originally thought that he wanted to write a Katrina or a post-Katrina novel.  After starting and stopping several times, Smith was unhappy with the direction in which he was heading.  The writing “felt really contrived” to him, and the “last thing” he wanted to do was “cheapen” the tragedy for those who experienced Katrina’s wrath.

Smith could not get the idea of storms out of his mind, however.  “To hell with Katrina,” he decided.  The wheels in Smith’s head slowly began to turn.  “What if after Katrina there came another one like a month later and after that there came another one just a couple weeks later?  And then what if for five or six years we essentially had a Katrina-like storm that never ended in the Gulf?  What would the world look like?”  Smith’s setting suddenly clicked, but he knew he could infuse even more conflict into his place, intensifying the mood and the story.

When Rivers begins, 613 days have passed “since the declaration of the Line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.”  Things only got worse “after several years of catastrophic hurricanes and a climate shift,” suggesting “there was an infinite trail of storms to come.”  The “consistency and ferocity of the storms” have not diminished but have instead accelerated.  This is the environment in which Smith plunges his characters and us—dark, elegiac, primeval, and utterly compelling.

With the stage for his conflict set, the author needed a main character.  Smith kept seeing “an image of a guy waking up in the middle of the night on family land outside of Gulfport after he’s been trying to live down there through all this, and he goes outside…gets on his horse, [and] splashes around to see what’s going on.”

That man is Cohen, a pragmatic Southern stalwart who stays in his home despite ruthless weather, anarchy, and violence.  The federal government got out of Dodge long ago, but not Cohen.  He insists on staying not because of stubbornness but because he possesses mile-wide streaks of idealism and sentimentality.  These traits, along with his memories, keep him from living a life north of the line.

Two recollections especially mark Cohen.  The first is the tragedy that befalls Cohen and his wife, Elisa, as they attempt to evacuate the coast during a maelstrom.  Smith writes, “On the asphalt of Highway 49, underneath an eighteen-wheeler, surrounded by screams of those who were running for it as they had all seen them coming, the handful of tornadoes breaking free from the still black clouds, like snakes slithering down from the sky, moving toward the hundreds, thousands of gridlocked cars that were only trying to do what they had been told to do.”  As the tornadoes close in on the couple and explode “through the bodies and the cars and the trucks, metal and flesh” fly in all directions.  Cohen, powerless at that moment, can only watch as his wife and unborn daughter die, a scene that makes for emotional reading.  The other memory from which Cohen cannot escape and returns to time and again throughout the narrative is his reminiscence of a vacation he and Elisa once took to Venice, Italy.  One cannot help but compare Venice, the floating city, to New Orleans, itself a precarious metropolis that features into the story.  These vignettes offer greater insight into Cohen’s mindset.

If Cohen leaves the coast, he fears he will desert Elisa, his birthplace, and even a part of himself.  With a horse named Habana and a dog as his only companions, Cohen trudges across a dark and stormy landscape and struggles to hold onto a past that is getting harder and harder to cling to as the last vestiges of the old world crumble around him.  Practicality and romanticism are at war inside Cohen, which Smith ably demonstrates in the story.  Cohen knows his home is forever altered; he knows that to stay is a lost cause; he knows there is nothing left for him.  But he cannot do it—he cannot leave.  Smith envisaged Cohen, an extremely intricate and layered personality, so complex, intriguing, and damaged, and rendered him perfectly.

The author peoples Rivers with equally strong minor characters—Mariposa, a haunted young woman from New Orleans; Charlie, an old friend of Cohen’s family who is the go-to guy on the coast; Aggie, a man who lures women and men to his compound for his own nefarious purposes; and Evan and Brisco, brothers who have only each other.

When something unforeseen and unwelcome happens to Cohen, he is right in the thick of things and must decide, once and for all, if michael farris smithhe will be a man of action or inaction.  Cohen may be an unlikely hero, but we all are really.  Heroism is thrust upon him, just as it is forced upon so many ordinary people in extraordinary times.  Smith takes Cohen on multiple odysseys in Rivers, fully developing his main character and binding him to us.  I believe Cohen will appeal to readers because he is an Everyman type of figure, relatable, likeable, and sympathetic.  He is the sort of guy you would see at the local football game on Friday nights, barbequing on weekends with a beer in one hand, and driving his old Chevy around town.

If you enjoyed Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, and Cormac McCarthy’s works, you will surely appreciate Smith’s clarity, vision, and voice.  Rivers, as Smith tells me, “is about redemption” and “survival both emotionally and physically,” universal themes we can all understand.  Perhaps that is why Rivers struck such a chord with me.  The gloomy, sinister future of which the author writes is not implausible but wholly possible and therefore terrifying.

If Rivers is made into a movie (Please God), I’d love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen, Billy Bob Thornton as Charlie, and America Ferriera as Mariposa.

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Think Twice Before Opening Boxes

Book Review: Let the Dark Flower Blossom by Norah Labiner (Coffee House Press, 2013)

Reviewed for Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013 Issue

 

let the dark flower blossomIn Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman, was given many gifts from the gods. Athena gave her clothing; Aphrodite endowed her with beauty; Hermes bestowed upon her the gift of speech. Zeus was not so benevolent. Seeking revenge after Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus presented a beautiful box (some say jar) to Pandora with one caveat. He instructed her not to open the box for any reason. Compelled by curiosity, Pandora could not resist, and, one by one, she unwittingly unleashed evils all over the world. The story of Pandora illustrates that we have a universal desire to seek and know the truth, no matter the cost. Sometimes, though, on our quest for fact, we discover ugly, unwelcome truths and malevolent, horrible acts.

Twins Sheldon and Eloise Schell have a box of their own in Norah Labiner’s dark, cerebral, and labyrinthine novel Let the Dark Flower Blossom. What secrets are the mysterious pair keeping? What evils lurk inside the box? And what monsters can be found in each of us who call ourselves readers?

Metafiction, or writing about writing, features prominently in Let the Dark Flower Blossom. When the story opens, celebrated novelist Roman Stone, former college friend of the twins, has died. He was murdered in an attempted robbery. When Eloise first met Stone in college, she remarked, “Roman Stone was born to be murdered.” Although Labiner shows Stone’s character only in flashbacks, he figures prominently in the story. Roman ironically “wrote of fate and then fell to it.” Later in the book, Labiner reveals that Stone “was murdered. And he deserved it.” Considering his rocky past with the twins, one cannot help but wonder if they played a role in his death.

Very early on in the novel, the author deftly illustrates Sheldon’s jealousy of Stone, who wrote the bestselling book Babylon Must Fall on Sheldon’s typewriter. Roman “was big and brash and relevant as hell. Even his death was relevant. America’s literary zeitgeist cut down in the heartland? What did it mean? Was it a metaphor? Or a symbol? It was more than an ending; it alluded to godlessness and dark times ahead.” Labiner hints his death might also unravel her characters or at least make their lives messier.

Varied perspectives allow the reader to get into each of Labiner’s bold and unforgettable characters. In addition to the twins serving as narrators, Labiner also chronicles her tale from the points of view of a young woman named Beatrice who lives on an atmospheric island in the middle of Lake Superior and another young woman named Susu who wants us to know there are rules to telling a story. Because of Labiner’s multiple voices, flash fiction is a worthy and effective narrative form in Let the Dark Flower Blossom.   Sometimes the author gives us only one sentence from a character and then changes the point of view to another narrator; in other instances, one raconteur may tell the story for several pages.

Using different storytellers enables Labiner to show the unreliability of memory. For example, the author alludes to a horrible secret the twins are keeping about their childhood—a mystery that involves a fire, a locked box, and death. While Sheldon remembers an incident one way, Eloise recalls something very different. To get to the truth, we must sift through clues and symbolism. If humans have a natural curiosity, like Pandora, then humans also have a biological inclination to lie. Let the Dark Flower Blossom overflows with unreliable narrators, some of whom are downright liars. Employing various plot twists and red herrings throughout her story, Labiner makes an already intriguing and beguiling tale much more so. As the author reveals to me through email, “Novels deceive and seduce; this is an inherently and unabashedly dishonest form. Every novel is lying to you. Every novel wants to get you into bed. Every novel will pull the chair out from under you.”

The narrative occasionally meanders with strange though beautiful streams of consciousness, but this is done purposefully, to throw the reader a curveball, to keep her off-track. Labiner’s work of fiction never bores. Instead, Let the Dark Flower Blossom accomplishes something very few novels do these days—the tale forces the reader to think not only about the book itself but also about writing, reading, and even the nature of being human. “A story is a labyrinth, and all paths lead to the monster,” Labiner writes. “Who is the monster? Is it the storyteller? A good storyteller must be a monster. The best stories tell of the worst of human nature. The worst, our broken laws. Our nightmares realized. To write of such things, an author must commit the act himself; if only on the page.” “What of the readers?” she asks. “In the real world, we read our newspapers. We butter our bread. We read of murder and we are sickened. But in fiction, in the story: we want the dead girl. So—who is the monster?”

Let the Dark Flower Blossom is wholly original and brilliantly imaginative. Labiner says she wanted to “to write a story about the things I love: gardens gone to ruin, dogs and cats, about chocolate and oranges and mythological punishments for unspeakable crimes. It’s an ode to Poe, Hawthorne, Hitchcock, and Hollywood….” In her words, Let the Dark Flower Blossom is “an unrequited love story about an unrepentant writer and an unreliable reader.” She tells me she is currently “working on a novel about Lizzie Borden and little dogs and trains and hatchets and the history of the corset. It’s called I Murdered Philip Roth: A Love Story.” If it’s as powerful a story as this, count me in.

Equal parts satire, tragedy, and comedy, Let the Dark Flower Blossom may be fiction, but Labiner offers us insight into universal themes and emotions—such as jealousy, memory, sibling bonds, celebrity, violence, and morality— in her novel. The author has created a living narrative, one that almost seems to grow, change, and breathe right before our eyes. It is almost as if Labiner’s story has a mind of its own. You’ll never read a book the same way again. And you may think twice before you open any more boxes, especially those that are meant to stay closed.

To see other reviews and essays in Gently Read Literature‘s Fall Issue, please visit this website.

 

 

 

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Great September Reads

Typically, publishers unveil some of the year’s best and biggest books in September.  Cooler weather means weightier, more serious novels.  The same is true for 2013, and I so welcome them!

Here are THE titles to read this month (or at least according to Bookmagnet).

What To Read Now:

affairs of others

From Picador

A MESMERIZING DEBUT NOVEL ABOUT A YOUNG WOMAN, HAUNTED BY LOSS, WHO REDISCOVERS PASSION AND POSSIBILITY WHEN SHE’S DRAWN INTO THE TANGLED LIVES OF HER NEIGHBORS

Five years after her young husband’s death, Celia Cassill has moved from one Brooklyn neighborhood to another, but she has not moved on. The owner of a small apartment building, she has chosen her tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Celia believes in boundaries, solitude, that she has a right to her ghosts. She is determined to live a life at a remove from the chaos and competition of modern life. Everything changes with the arrival of a new tenant, Hope, a dazzling woman of a certain age on the run from her husband’s recent betrayal. When Hope begins a torrid and noisy affair, and another tenant mysteriously disappears, the carefully constructed walls of Celia’s world are tested and the sanctity of her building is shattered—through violence and sex, in turns tender and dark. Ultimately, Celia and her tenants are forced to abandon their separate spaces for a far more intimate one, leading to a surprising conclusion and the promise of genuine joy. 

Amy Grace Loyd investigates interior spaces of the body and the New York warrens in which her characters live, offering a startling emotional honesty about the traffic between men and women. The Affairs of Others is a story about the irrepressibility of life and desire, no matter the sorrows or obstacles. 

Coming Soon:

September 3 from Little, Brown and Company

The American master’s first novel since Winter’s Bone (2006) tells of a deadly dance hall fire and its impact over several maids versiongenerations.

Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the mother of three young boys, works as the maid for a prominent citizen and his family in West Table, Missouri. Her husband is mostly absent, and, in 1929, her scandalous, beloved younger sister is one of the 42 killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. Who is to blame? Mobsters from St. Louis? The embittered local gypsies? The preacher who railed against the loose morals of the waltzing couples? Or could it have been a colossal accident? Alma thinks she knows the answer-and that its roots lie in a dangerous love affair. Her dogged pursuit of justice makes her an outcast and causes a long-standing rift with her own son. By telling her story to her grandson, she finally gains some solace-and peace for her sister. He is advised to “Tell it. Go on and tell it”-tell the story of his family’s struggles, suspicions, secrets, and triumphs.

 

 

September 3 from Algonquin

explanationThere is nothing inherently threatening about Melissa, a young evangelist hoping to write the definitive paper on intelligent design. But when she implores Andy Waite, a biology professor and a hardcore evolutionist, to direct her independent study, she becomes the catalyst for the collapsing house of cards surrounding him. As he works with Melissa, Andy finds that everything about his world is starting to add up differently. Suddenly there is the possibility of faith. But with it come responsibility and guilt—the very things that Andy has sidestepped for years. 

Professor Waite is nearing the moment when his life might settle down a bit: tenure is in sight, his daughters are starting to grow up, and he’s slowly but surely healing from the sudden loss of his wife. His life is starting to make sense again—until the scientific stance that has defined his life(and his work) is challenged by this charismatic student.

In a bravura performance, Lauren Grodstein dissects the permeable line between faith and doubt to create a fiercely intelligent story about the lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions we sustain with others, and how violated boundaries—between students and teachers, believers and nonbelievers—can have devastating consequences.

 

September 3 from Nan A. Talese

Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from maddaddamthe vicious Painballers. They return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake. Their reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb. 

Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge. 

Combining adventure, humor, romance, superb storytelling, and an imagination at once dazzlingly inventive and grounded in a recognizable world, MaddAddam is vintage Margaret Atwood—a moving and dramatic conclusion to her internationally celebrated dystopian trilogy.

 

September 10 from Ballantine

songs of willow frostTwelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

 

September 10 from Simon & Schuster

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave riversway to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees. The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.

Cohen is one who stayed. Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land. Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.

But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter. On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.

Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.

Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.

 

September 10 from Random House

enonThe next novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Tinkers, in which a father’s grief over the loss of his daughter threatens to derail his life.

Powerful, brilliantly written, and deeply moving Paul Harding has, in Enon, written a worthy successor to Tinkers, a debut which John Freeman on NPR called “a masterpiece.” Drawn always to the rich landscape of his character’s inner lives, here, through the first person narrative of Charlie Crosby (grandson to George Crosby of Tinkers), Harding creates a devastating portrait of a father trying desperately to come to terms with family loss.

 

 

 

 

September 10 from Doubleday

A dazzling novel from one of our finest writers—an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-dissident gardensAmerican radicals

At the center of Jonathan Lethem’s superb new novel stand two extraordinary women. Rose Zimmer, the aptly nicknamed Red Queen of Sunnyside, Queens, is an unreconstructed Communist and mercurial tyrant who terrorizes her neighborhood and her family with the ferocity of her personality and the absolutism of her beliefs. Her brilliant and willful daughter, Miriam, is equally passionate in her activism, but flees Rose’s suffocating influence and embraces the Age of Aquarius counterculture of Greenwich Village.

Both women cast spells that entrance or enchain the men in their lives: Rose’s aristocratic German Jewish husband, Albert; her nephew, the feckless chess hustler Lenny Angrush; Cicero Lookins, the brilliant son of her black cop lover; Miriam’s (slightly fraudulent) Irish folksinging husband, Tommy Gogan; their bewildered son, Sergius. These flawed, idealistic people all struggle to follow their own utopian dreams in an America where radicalism is viewed with bemusement, hostility, or indifference.

As the decades pass—from the parlor communism of the ’30s, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, ragged ’70s communes, the romanticization of the Sandinistas, up to the Occupy movement of the moment—we come to understand through Lethem’s extraordinarily vivid storytelling that the personal may be political, but the political, even more so, is personal.

Brilliantly constructed as it weaves across time and among characters,Dissident Gardens is riotous and haunting, satiric and sympathetic—and a joy to read.

 

September 17 from Soho

a beautiful truthTold simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truth—at times brutal, other times deeply moving—is about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspectives of a Vermont family that has adopted a chimp as a surrogate son, and a group of chimpanzees in a Florida research institute.

Looee, a chimp raised by a well-meaning and compassionate human couple who cannot conceive a baby of their own, is forever set apart.  He’s not human, but with his peculiar upbringing he is no longer like other chimps.  One tragic night Looee’s two natures collide and their unique family is forever changed.

At the Girdish Institute in Florida, a group of chimpanzees has been studied for decades.  The work at Girdish has proven that chimps have memories and solve problems, that they can learn language and need friends, and that they build complex cultures. They are political, altruistic, get angry, and forgive. When Looee is moved to the Institute, he is forced to try to find a place in their world.

A Beautiful Truth is an epic and heartfelt story about parenthood, friendship, loneliness, fear and conflict, about the things we hold sacred as humans and how much we have in common with our animal relatives. A novel of great heart and wisdom from a literary master, it exposes the yearnings, cruelty, and resilience of all great apes.

 

September 24 from Little, Brown and Company

A taut, thrilling adventure story about buried treasure, a manhunt, and a woman determined to make a new life for herself in the outcastsold west.

It’s the 19th century on the Gulf Coast, a time of opportunity and lawlessness. After escaping the Texas brothel where she’d been a virtual prisoner, Lucinda Carter heads for Middle Bayou to meet her lover, who has a plan to make them both rich, chasing rumors of a pirate’s buried treasure. 

Meanwhile Nate Cannon, a young Texas policeman with a pure heart and a strong sense of justice, is on the hunt for a ruthless killer named McGill who has claimed the lives of men, women, and even children across the frontier. Who–if anyone–will survive when their paths finally cross? 

As Lucinda and Nate’s stories converge, guns are drawn, debts are paid, and Kathleen Kent delivers an unforgettable portrait of a woman who will stop at nothing to make a new life for herself.

 

 

September 24 from A.A. Knopf

lowlandTwo brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution: the Pulitzer Prize winner and #1 New York Times best-selling author gives us a powerful new novel-set in both India and America-that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan-charismatic and impulsive-finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind-including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

Suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland expands the range of one of our most dazzling storytellers, seamlessly interweaving the historical and the personal across generations and geographies. This masterly novel of fate and will, exile and return, is a tour de force and an instant classic.

 


September 24 from St. Martin’s Press

When prestigious plantation owner Cornelius Allen gives his daughter Clarissa’s hand in marriage, she takes with her a gift: Sarah—wedding gifther slave and her half-sister.  Raised by an educated mother, Clarissa is not a proper southern belle she appears to be with ambitions of loving who she chooses and Sarah equally hides behind the façade of being a docile house slave as she plots to escape. Both women bring these tumultuous secrets and desires with them to their new home, igniting events that spiral into a tale beyond what you ever imagined possible and it will leave you enraptured until the very end.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Theodora Allen, Cornelius’ wife, Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s The Wedding Gift is an intimate portrait that will leave readers breathless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that you know my picks for the best books of September, I want to hear from you!  Which titles will you read?  What books are you hoping to read in September?

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Storied Places

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).

The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative.  When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself.  And that’s when the magic begins.

Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers.  In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region.  Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.

battlebornBattleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales.  Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless.  Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.  More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.

Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection.  The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson.  In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative.  Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.

From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise.   Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist.  Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people.  This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.

In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American this is paradisetourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki.  Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection.  Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic.  Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.”  In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity.  Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.

In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us.  Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California.  Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.

 

 

 

 

 

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Book Review: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

(Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.95).

claireIn Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat, author of The Dew Breaker, brings the rich culture of Haiti to life on the page.  Despite the title, the story is less about the main character, Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) Faustin, than the people who inhabit the Haitian village of Ville Rose.  Danticat expertly charts how tragedy is an everyday occurrence in the community as mothers die in childbirth, daughters in car accidents, fathers from gunshot wounds, and friends are lost to the sea.  Nozias, Claire’s father, worries over the fate of his daughter if an accident should befall him.  His anxiety has merit, as he and his neighbors live precariously: disaster is part of their everyday lexicon.   Nozias knows this more than most as his wife died while giving birth to Claire.  Danticat does an excellent job of placing the reader in his mindset, urging us to sympathize with a father desperate to make the right choices for his daughter.  When Claire turns ten, Nozias decides to give her to a local woman, who lost her own daughter in a horrific accident, to raise.  Claire gets wind of the plan and flees.  Danticat’s storyline suffers as she explores the lives of villagers and loses her overall focus.  Although the plot periodically meanders, the author’s language is magical and striking.  A “wall of water” rose “from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.”  Sometimes when Claire was “lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died.” Ultimately, Claire of the Sea Light is a breathtaking but sometimes uneven character-driven novel.

  

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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert

Book Review: The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert (West Hills Press; 324 pages; $15.95).

cairo codexWhen an earthquake nearly buries anthropologist Justine Jenner in an ancient crypt, she finds what appears to be an ancient codex which, if real, could radically threaten the world’s great religions.

The Cairo Codex is a riveting novel of two women, two millennia apart, set in the exotic cultures of ancient and present-day Egypt. Dr. Justine Jenner has come to Cairo to forge her own path from the legacies of her parents, an Egyptian beauty and an American archaeologist. After an earthquake nearly buries her alive in an underground crypt, she discovers an ancient codex, written by a woman whose secrets threaten the foundations of both Christian and Muslim beliefs. As political instability rocks the region and the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to steal the Egyptian Revolution, Justine is thrust into a world where even those she trusts may betray her in order to control the codex’s revelations.

In The Cairo Codex, Linda Lambert, former state department envoy to Egypt and author of several books on leadership, plunges the reader into pre-revolutionary Egypt and allows us to witness a nation on the brink of a social uprising.  This is a subject Lambert knows well, and her expertise makes The Cairo Codex utterly gripping.  She could have easily set her tale in Iraq or Israel, but the effect would not be as great.  Writers are frequently told to write what they know best.  Lambert does just that, and it works beautifully.

Lambert combines history, mystery, and archaeology with romance, politics, and religion.  Almost a decade ago, novels like these were abundant.  Biblical thrillers were once all the rage most likely due to the success of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Within the past few years, however, they have largely disappeared from shelves.  Why, I have no clue.  Perhaps the public grew tired of them, and their popularity waned.  For me, at least, Lambert’s story was welcome.  I always enjoyed reading these historical mysteries.

It always helps to have a strong protagonist, especially if it’s an independent and clever woman.  Lambert’s main character, Justinelinda lambert Jenner, can be both tough and tender.  She has her flaws just like we all do, leading us to cheer her on her successes and lament her failures.

Lambert also introduces a minor character of great interest, Omar Mostafa, as Director of the Supreme Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities.  Mostafa will surely remind readers of Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The codex that Justine discovers could shake the foundations of all the world’s religions.  I know what you’re thinking–so many thrillers that have anything to do with Christianity make similar claims and fall short.  Not The Cairo Codex. Interesting and exciting, Lambert’s novel delivers.

The Cairo Codex is the first novel in The Justine Trilogy, and I eagerly await the sequel.  

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Book Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

perfume collectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (Harper; 464 pages; $24.99).

It was with quite a bit of reluctance that I picked up The Perfume Collector.  I read the description and sighed deeply.  Yet another dual narrative?

If it had been closer to Halloween, I would have dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, torch and all, shouting my own version of the Emma Lazarus poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your dull dual narrators yearning to break free…”

I wanted something different.  I wanted to read a story in which the narrator was the setting of the story.  I wanted a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist was unreliable.  I wanted suspense.  I wanted thrills and chills.  I wanted the first person plural.  I wanted flash fiction, meta fiction, flashback, flash forward.  Anything, anything other than a dual narrative.  It just seems as if we are inundated with those these days.

However, there was one aspect of The Perfume Collector that I found unable to resist: perfume.  Ever since I was quite young, I have collected perfume bottles and scents.  I will admit that it was the perfume aspect of the novel that persuaded me to read the book.   And when I did, the experience was so intoxicating and unforgettable.

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . .
An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .
And three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There’s only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d’Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d’Orsey’s story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women,The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope.

Tessaro, the author of Elegance, creates two strong yet very distinctive women who transported me to places I had never been, to an era in which I was not a part.    She has an innate ability to immerse her readers completely in the time period in which she writes. And aren’t those the best novels?

It wasn’t long before my heart skipped a beat and my senses heightened.  My whole body became alert.  Was the dual narrative what I needed?  Even when I had turned my back on this technique? 

I sped through the story, utterly riveted to Tessaro’s pages, heady with feeling, intoxicated by the author’s prose, setting, characterization, and plot.

The Perfume Collector restored my faith in the dual narrative, and I have the author to thank for that.  Kathleen-Tessaro-236x300

So I pose these questions to you:

Which technique and style do you prefer?

What do you think there is just too much of?

What would you like to see more of?

To read more reviews of this book, connect with other readers,  enter giveaways, and participate in discussion–visit She Reads.

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A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Book Review: A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Alfred A. Knopf; 240 pages; $24.95).

marker.jpg  Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, ekes out the barest of existences on an island in the Aegean Sea in Alexander Maksik’s stunningly visceral second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift.  “Only go down the path.  Only find water.  Find food.  Find shelter,” Maksik writes.  These basic necessities occupy Jacqueline’s time and lead us to wonder why a young woman as cultured, gentle, and intelligent as Jacqueline (who was named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) ends up sleeping in a cave.

Maksik’s protagonist is a person who is completely stripped down.  She cares only about surviving her new environment, a place in which she knows not a soul.  Dependent upon the kindness of strangers and the voices of her parents, she lives day to day, sometimes even hour by hour.   “Forward,” her mother urges.  “Forward.”

Her father, a former finance minister for the Liberian government, admonishes his daughter to look at the facts: “You are alone.  You have the clothes you’re wearing.  You have the contents of your pack.  Including twenty euros.  It will soon be night.  It will soon be colder.  You are thirsty.  You will soon be hungry again.”

Once her belly is full, her thirst quenched, and temporary shelter has been found, Jacqueline has nothing but her memory, and that seems “like madness.”  For a while, “the act of eating displaced memory.  It was like a solid thing in a pool of water and the second you removed it, the water returned.”  Jacqueline comes to realize that “to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant,” even in such “precarious,” uncertain, and dangerous times as she faces.  Maksik breaks it down succinctly but eloquently: “We are our bodies, and we are memory.  That’s it.  That’s spirit.  That’s God.”

A Marker To Measure Drift unfolds in tantalizing parts, requiring patience from the reader.  Maksik offers up Jacqueline’s memories in tiny morsels, much the same way in which Jacqueline finds and consumes her food.  He employs this seemingly coy tactic because the whole horrible truth is too harsh to swallow in one gulp.

From Greece to Liberia, A Marker To Measure Drift follows an extraordinary young woman who has witnessed unspeakable atrocities.  At times, one cannot help but wonder if Jacqueline, “between madness and memory,” alone and bereft, has gone insane.  One thing is certain: Jacqueline struggles against erasure; through self-negation, she has erased herself from her violent past.  There comes a time when she can no longer expunge herself from her own history, when she must stop running from it.

Her father, ever pragmatic, scolds her, “You must always tell yourself the truth.” In the end, Jacqueline tells her new friend, Alexander Maksik by Beowulf SheehanKatarina, a waitress, the reason she fled her home country.  “Is telling” the truth “an act of violence, she wonders.  Will the truth “destroy the girl”?  In this instance, words are a balm for Jacqueline as she re-inserts herself into her own narrative.

In spare and lyrical prose, Maksik presents a tale as unrelenting as the sweltering sun on the hottest day of the year.  Jacqueline undergoes a sweeping physical and spiritual journey, one which leaves an indelible mark on her and on anyone who reads A Marker To Measure Drift.

Maksik draws effective parallels between the ruins of a Greek island destroyed by volcanic ash thousands of years ago and the country of Liberia, irrevocably changed by the torture and genocide that characterized the brutal dictatorship of President Charles Taylor (1997-2003). Fans of Chris Cleave’s 2009 stunner Little Bee will surely appreciate Maksik’s equally striking and impressive narrative.  When I finished A Marker To Measure Drift, I hurled the book across the room to get it as far from me as possible.  And then I wept.  I predict all who read this will have a similar reaction—such is the power of Maksik’s story.  

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The Best of August Reads

It’s the beginning of a new month, and that means Bookmagnet selects the best works of fiction for the month.  As far as the book world goes, it looks like August will be a wonderful month!

To Pick Up Now

July 30 from Ballantine Books

night of the cometFrom the acclaimed author of Letter to My Daughter comes an engrossing coming-of-age tale that deftly conveys the hopes and heartaches of adolescence and the unfulfilled dreams that divide a family, played out against the backdrop of a small southern town in 1973.
For his fourteenth birthday, Alan Broussard, Jr., receives a telescope from his father, a science teacher at the local high school who’s eagerly awaiting what he promises will be the astronomical event of the century: the coming of Comet Kohoutek. For Alan Broussard, Sr.—frustrated in his job, remote from his family—the comet is a connection to his past and a bridge to his son, with whom he’s eager to share his love for the stars.
But the only heavenly body Junior has any interest in is his captivating new neighbor and classmate, Gabriella Martello, whose bedroom sits within eyeshot of his telescope’s lens. Meanwhile, his mother, Lydia, sees the comet—and her husband’s obsession with it—as one more thing that keeps her from the bigger, brighter life she once imagined for herself far from the swampy environs of Terrebonne, Louisiana. With Kohoutek drawing ever closer, the family begins to crumble under the weight of expectations, until a startling turn of events will leave both father and son much less certain about the laws that govern their universe.  Illuminating and unforgettable, The Night of the Comet is a novel about the perils of growing up, the longing for connection, and the idea that love and redemption can be found among the stars.

August 1 from Riverhead Books

Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been hailed not only as one of South America’s greatest literary stars, but also as one of the most the soundacclaimed writers of his generation. In this gorgeously wrought, award-winning novel, Vásquez confronts the history of his home country, Colombia. In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above. Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare. Vásquez is “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature,” according to Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, and The Sound of Things Falling is his most personal, most contemporary novel to date, a masterpiece that takes his writing—and will take his literary star—even higher.

Coming Soon

August 5 from W.W. Norton & Company

brewster

The year is 1968, a year after the summer of love and the peak of the Vietnam War. The world is changing, and sixteen-year-old Jon Mosher is determined to change with it. Racked by guilt over his older brother’s childhood death, Jon turns his rage into victories running track. When he meets Ray Cappicciano, a local legend in the making, a rebel as gifted with his fists as Jon is with his feet, he recognizes a friendship with the potential to save him. Realizing that Ray needs saving too, Jon sets off on the race of his life–a race to redeem his past and save them both. Reverberating with compassion, heartache, and grace, Brewster is sure to remind readers of Andre Dubus III and Richard Russo.

August 6 from Simon & Schuster

Sisters Natalie and Alice Kessler were close, until adolescence wrenched them apart. Natalie is headstrong, manipulative—and gravity of birdsbeautiful; Alice is a dreamer who loves books and birds. During their family’s summer holiday at the lake, Alice falls under the thrall of a struggling young painter, Thomas Bayber, in whom she finds a kindred spirit. Natalie, however, remains strangely unmoved, sitting for a family portrait with surprising indifference. But by the end of the summer, three lives are shattered.  Decades later, Bayber, now a reclusive, world-renowned artist, unveils a never-before-seen work, Kessler Sisters—a provocative painting depicting the young Thomas, Natalie, and Alice. Bayber asks Dennis Finch, an art history professor, and Stephen Jameson, an eccentric young art authenticator, to sell the painting for him. That task becomes more complicated when the artist requires that they first locate Natalie and Alice, who seem to have vanished. And Finch finds himself wondering why Thomas is suddenly so intent on resurrecting the past.  In The Gravity of Birds histories and memories refuse to stay buried; in the end only the excavation of the past will enable its survivors to love again.

August 6 from Bloomsbury USA

heliumOn November 1st 1984, a day after the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a nineteen-year-old student travels back from a class trip with his mentor and chemistry teacher, Professor Singh. As the group disembark at Delhi station a mob surrounds the professor, throws a tire over him, douses him in gasoline and sets him alight.


Years later the student, Raj, is compelled to find his professor’s widow, the beautiful Nelly. As the two walk through the misty mountains of Shimla, Nelly comes up against a nation in denial, Raj faces the truth about his father’s role in the Sikh massacre and they both find the path leads back to the train station. Jaspreet Singh crafts an affecting and important story of a largely untouched moment in Indian memory.

August 6 from Simon & Schuster

The most authoritative account ever written of how an ordinary juvenile delinquent named Charles Manson became the notorious mansonmurderer whose crimes still shock and horrify us today.  More than forty years ago Charles Manson and his mostly female commune killed nine people, among them the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. It was the culmination of a criminal career that author Jeff Guinn traces back to Manson’s childhood. Guinn interviewed Manson’s sister and cousin, neither of whom had ever previously cooperated with an author. Childhood friends, cellmates, and even some members of the Manson Family have provided new information about Manson’s life. Guinn has made discoveries about the night of the Tate murders, answering unresolved questions, such as why one person on the property where the murders occurred was spared.  Manson puts the killer in the context of his times, the turbulent late sixties, an era of race riots and street protests when authority in all its forms was under siege. Guinn shows us how Manson created and refined his message to fit the times, persuading confused young women (and a few men) that he had the solutions to their problems. At the same time he used them to pursue his long-standing musical ambitions, relocating to Los Angeles in search of a recording contract. His frustrated ambitions, combined with his bizarre race-war obsession, would have lethal consequences as he convinced his followers to commit heinous murders on successive nights.  In addition to stunning revelations about Charles Manson, the book contains family photographs never before published.

August 6 from Bloomsbury USA

crooked maidVienna, 1948. The war is over, and as the initial phase of de-Nazification winds down, the citizens of Vienna struggle to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble.  Anna Beer returns to the city she fled nine years earlier after discovering her husband’s infidelity. She has come back to find him and, perhaps, to forgive him. Traveling on the same train from Switzerland is 18-year-old Robert Seidel, a schoolboy summoned home to his stepfather’s sickbed and the secrets of his family’s past.  As Anna and Robert navigate an unrecognizable city, they cross paths with a war-widowed American journalist, a hunchbacked young servant girl, and a former POW whose primary purpose is to survive by any means and to forget. Meanwhile, in the shells of burned-out houses and beneath the bombed-out ruins, a ghost of a man, his head wrapped in a red scarf, battles demons from his past and hides from a future deeply uncertain for all.  In The Crooked Maid, Dan Vyleta returns to the shadows of war-darkened Vienna, proving himself once again “a magical storyteller, master of the macabre.”

August 6 from William Morrow Books

“One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride…”

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of ghost brideMalacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.  Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.  After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy–including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets–and the truth about her own family–before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

August 6 from Doubleday

rathbonesA literary adventure set in New England, Janice Clark’s gothic debut chronicles one hundred years of a once prosperous seafaring dynasty.  Moses, the revered patriarch of the Rathbone family, possessed an otherworldly instinct for spotting the whale. But years of bad decisions by the heirs to his fortune have whittled his formerly robust family down to just one surviving member: a young girl, left to live in the broken-down ancestral mansion that at one time had glowed golden with the spoils of the hunt.  Mercy, fifteen years old, is the diminutive scion of the Rathbone clan. Her father, the last in the dynasty of New England whalers, has been lost at sea for seven years-ever since the last sperm whale was seen off the coast of Naiwayonk, Connecticut. Mercy’s memories of her father and of the time before he left grow dimmer each day, and she spends most of her time in the attic hideaway of her reclusive Uncle Mordecai, who teaches her the secrets of Greek history and navigation through his collection of moldering books. But when a strange, violent visitor turns up one night on the widow’s walk, Mercy and Mordecai are forced to flee the house and set sail on a journey that will bring them deep into the haunted history of the Rathbone family.  Inspired by The Odyssey and infused with beautifully detailed descriptions of the realities of coastal and ship life reminiscent of Moby Dick, Janice Clark’s magnificent debut is a spellbinding literary adventure.

August 6 from Simon & Schuster

“Behind every subtle gesture, this novel shimmers with a deep and complex history. Snow Hunters is a beautiful and moving meditation on a solitary life.”  –Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto

In this elegant, haunting, and highly anticipated debut novel from 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Paul Yoon, a snow huntersNorth Korean war refugee confronts the wreckage of his past. With spare, evocative prose, Snow Hunters traces the extraordinary journey of Yohan, who defects from his country at the end of the war, leaving his friends and family behind to seek a new life in a port town on the coast of Brazil.  Though he is a stranger in a strange land, throughout the years in this town, four people slip in and out of Yohan’s life: Kiyoshi, the Japanese tailor for whom he works, and who has his own secrets and a past he does not speak of; Peixe, the groundskeeper at the town church; and two vagrant children named Santi and Bia, a boy and a girl, who spend their days in the alleyways and the streets of the town. Yohan longs to connect with these people, but to do so he must sift through his traumatic past so he might let go and move on.  In Snow Hunters, Yoon proves that love can dissolve loneliness; that hope can wipe away despair; and that a man who has lost a country can find a new home. This is a heartrending story of second chances, told with unerring elegance and absolute tenderness.

August 13 from Doubleday

color masterThe bestselling author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake returns with a wondrous collection of dreamy, strange, and magical stories.  In this collection, Bender’s unique talents sparkle brilliantly in stories about people searching for connection through love, sex, and family—while navigating the often painful realities of their lives. A traumatic event unfolds when a girl with flowing hair of golden wheat appears in an apple orchard, where a group of people await her. A woman plays out a prostitution fantasy with her husband and finds she cannot go back to her old sex life. An ugly woman marries an ogre and struggles to decide if she should stay with him after he mistakenly eats their children. Two sisters travel deep into Malaysia, where one learns the art of mending tigers who have been ripped to shreds.  In these deeply resonant stories—evocative, funny, beautiful, and sad—we see ourselves reflected as if in a funhouse mirror. Aimee Bender has once again proven herself to be among the most imaginative, exciting, and intelligent writers of our time.

August 13 from Doubleday

Readers of exciting, challenging and visionary literary fiction-including admirers of Norman Rush’s Mating, Ann Patchett’s State people in the treesof Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord-will be drawn to this astonishingly gripping and accomplished first novel. A decade in the writing, this is an anthropological adventure story that combines the visceral allure of a thriller with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide. It is a book that instantly catapults Hanya Yanagihara into the company of young novelists who really, really matter.  In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub “The Dreamers,” who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

August 13 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

all the landA strange and powerful landscape summons strange and powerful happenings.  Rick Bass brings a lyrical lushness to the harsh backdrop of West Texas in his masterfully crafted fourth novel. All the Land to Hold Us is a sweeping tale of those who live on the desert’s edge, where riches—precious artifacts, oil, water, love—can all be found and lost again in an instant.  Roaming across the salt flats and skirting the salt lake, Richard, a geologist working for an oil company, hunts for fossils under the spell of Clarissa, the local beauty who plans to use her share of their plunder to get out of small, dusty Midland for good. A generation earlier, a Depression-era couple, Max and Marie Omo, numbly mines for salt along the banks of the briny lake until the emotional terrain of their marriage is suddenly and irrevocably altered. The strange, surreal arrival of a runaway circus elephant, careening across the sand, sets in motion Marie’s final break from Max and heralds the beginning of her second chance. Consequences reverberate through the years and the dunes when Marie becomes indelibly linked to Richard’s own second act.  With a cast of characters rounded out by a one-legged-treasure-hunter, a renegade teacher, and an unforgettable elephant trainer, All the Land to Hold Us is a vivid portrait of a fierce place and the inimitable characters that possess the capacity to adapt to and also despoil it. The novel boasts all the hallmarks of Bass’s most enduring work—human longing and greed, nature endangered, and the possibility for redemption are all writ large on his desert canvas.

August 20 from Atria Books

From the acclaimed author of Schindler’s List, the epic, unforgettable story of two sisters from Australia, both trained nurses, daughters of marswhose lives are transformed by the cataclysm of the first World War. In 1915, two spirited Australian sisters join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father’s farm and carrying a guilty secret with them. Used to tending the sick as they are, nothing could have prepared them for what they confront, first near Gallipoli, then on the Western Front.  Yet amid the carnage, Naomi and Sally Durance become the friends they never were at home and find themselves courageous in the face of extreme danger, as well as the hostility they encounter from some on their own side. There is great bravery, humor, and compassion, too, and the inspiring example of the remarkable women they serve alongside. In France, where Naomi nurses in a hospital set up by the eccentric Lady Tarlton while Sally works in a casualty clearing station, each meets an exceptional man: the kind of men for whom they might give up some of their precious independence—if only they all survive.  At once vast in scope and extraordinarily intimate, The Daughters of Mars brings World War I to vivid, concrete life from an unusual perspective. A searing and profoundly moving tale, it pays tribute to men and women of extraordinary moral resilience, even in the face of the incomprehensible horrors of modern war.

August 20 from Riverhead Books

good lord birdFrom the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.  Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.  Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.  An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

August 20 from St. Martin’s Press

“Lookaway, Lookaway is a wild romp through the South, and therefore the history of our nation, written by an absolute ringmaster of fiction.” —Alice Sebold, New York Times bestselling author of The Lovely Bones

Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband Duke are exemplars of Charlotte, North Carolina’s high society, where old Southern moneylookaway—and older Southern secrets—meet the new wealth of bankers, boom-era speculators, and carpetbagging social climbers. Steely and implacable, Jerene presides over her family’s legacy of paintings at the Mint Museum; Duke, the one-time college golden boy and descendant of a Confederate general, whose promising political career was mysteriously short-circuited, has settled into a comfortable semi-senescence as a Civil War re-enactor.  Jerene’s brother Gaston is an infamously dissolute bestselling historical novelist who has never managed to begin his long-dreamed-of literary masterpiece, while their sister Dillard is a prisoner of unfortunate life decisions that have made her a near-recluse.  As the four Johnston children wander perpetually toward scandal and mishap. Annie, the smart but matrimonially reckless real estate maven; Bo, a minister at war with his congregation; Joshua, prone to a series of gay misadventures, and Jerilyn, damaged but dutiful to her expected role as debutante and eventual society bride. Jerene must prove tireless in preserving the family’s legacy, Duke’s fragile honor, and what’s left of the dwindling family fortune. She will stop at nothing to keep what she has—but is it too much to ask for one ounce of cooperation from her heedless family?  In Lookaway, Lookaway, Wilton Barnhardt has written a headlong, hilarious narrative of a family coming apart, a society changing beyond recognition, and an unforgettable woman striving to pull it all together.

August 27 from Alfred A. Knopf

claireFrom the best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying and The Dew Breaker:a stunning new work of fiction that brings us deep into the intertwined lives of a small seaside town where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing.  Claire Limyè Lanmè—Claire of the Sea Light—is an enchanting child born into love and tragedy in Ville Rose, Haiti. Claire’s mother died in childbirth, and on each of her birthdays Claire is taken by her father, Nozias, to visit her mother’s grave. Nozias wonders if he should give away his young daughter to a local shopkeeper, who lost a child of her own, so that Claire can have a better life.  But on the night of Claire’s seventh birthday, when at last he makes the wrenching decision to do so, she disappears. As Nozias and others look for her, painful secrets, haunting memories, and startling truths are unearthed among the community of men and women whose individual stories connect to Claire, to her parents, and to the town itself. Told with piercing lyricism and the economy of a fable, Claire of the Sea Light is a tightly woven, breathtaking tapestry that explores what it means to be a parent, child, neighbor, lover, and friend, while revealing the mysterious bonds we share with the natural world and with one another. Embracing the magic and heartbreak of ordinary life, it is Edwidge Danticat’s most spellbinding, astonishing book yet.

August 27 from Ballantine Books

A brilliant and moving coming-of-age story in the tradition ofWonder by R. J. Palacio and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the ostrichNight-Time by Mark Haddon—this debut novel is written with tremendous humor and charm.  This is Alex’s story. But he doesn’t know exactly what it’s about yet, so you probably shouldn’t either.  Instead, here are some things that it’s sort of about (but not really):  It’s sort of (but not really) about brain surgery.  It’s sort of (but not really) about a hamster named Jaws 2 (after the original Jaws (who died), not the movie Jaws 2).  It’s sort of (but actually quite a lot) about Alex’s parents.  It’s sort of (but not really) about feeling ostrichized (which is a better word for excluded (because ostriches can’t fly so they often feel left out)).  It’s sort of (but not really (but actually, the more you think about it, kind of a lot)) about empathy (which is like sympathy only better), and also love and trust and fate and time and quantum mechanics and friendship and exams and growing up.  And it’s also sort of about courage. Because sometimes it actually takes quite a lot of it to bury your head in the sand.

Well, you’ve read my picks for August books to watch.  I want to hear from you.  What are you hoping to read in August?  Which novels are you excited about reading?

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