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Q&A with Susan Rebecca White, Author of A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White (Touchstone; 336 pages; $25).

a place at the tableA rich, beautiful novel about three unlikely, complex characters who meet in a chic Manhattan café and realize they must sacrifice everything they ever knew or cared about to find authenticity, fulfillment, and love.

A Place at the Table tells the story of three richly nuanced characters whose paths converge in a chic Manhattan café: Bobby, a gay Southern boy who has been ostracized by his family; Amelia, a wealthy Connecticut woman whose life is upended when a family secret finally comes to light; and Alice, an African-American chef whose heritage is the basis of a famous cookbook but whose past is a mystery to those who know her.

As it sweeps from a freed-slave settlement in 1920s North Carolina to the Manhattan of the deadly AIDs epidemic of the 1980s to today’s wealthy suburbs, A Place at the Table celebrates the healing power of food and the magic of New York as three seekers come together in the understanding that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.


If you are a fan of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will absolutely devour Susan Rebecca White’s newest creation, A Place at the Table.  Thanks to the wonderful Alison Law, I was able to ask Susan three questions and here are her answers.

Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time? How do you know when you can run with an idea and

Photo Credit: Dorothy O'Connor

Photo Credit: Dorothy O’Connor

when you need to shelf it for later and when you should just discard it?

I work on several story lines at once. While writing A Place at the Table I would work on Bobby’s section for a little bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Amelia and work on her section for a bit; then hit a wall. Then I’d turn to Alice. That’s probably why I keep returning to the multiple narrator form. I can pick up a different piece of the storyline when I exhaust myself with another.

I am not entirely sure how it is that I ultimately decide which storylines stay in the final novel and which are jettisoned. I write a lot more than is ever actually published. I probably wrote 1000 pages of text when putting together A Place at the Table, but only 300 + made it to the final draft. I am a big believer in spilling material and then tidying it up during the editorial process. Often I think of writing as excavation. The story is in there, but I have to dig it out of me. And I dig it out by writing.

In your opinion what is good fiction?               

Good fiction disrupts the tidy narratives that we create about our lives and exposes something deeper, darker, and ultimately more authentic. Good fiction excavates if not The Truth then deeper truths about who we are. Ultimately good fiction connects us to each other. There’s an adage “the more specific, the more universal.” By paying exquisite attention to specific characters on the page, seeing who they really are beneath the well-rehearsed stories they tell of their lives, we begin to question our own tidy narratives, our own delusions. Good fiction makes you acutely aware of being alive when you are reading it, even though you are reading about someone else’s story. And in that regard good fiction does what we ask of religion: It takes us outside of ourselves. It helps us transcend our own limited perspectives. Good fiction also grabs us, makes us want to know what happens next, makes us want to turn the page.

How would you respond to those who claim women writers do not write “serious” fiction?

Hmm. Well, first I would want to give that person the middle finger, but being a nice southern woman I’d probably refrain. I guess I respond by giving a big eye roll, shaking my head at ignorance, rolling up my sleeves, and getting back to work.


Learn More about Susan:

susanrebeccawhiteauthorphotoBorn and raised in Atlanta, Susan Rebecca White earned a BA in English from Brown University, then moved to San Francisco, where she taught and waited tables for several years, before moving to Virginia to earn her MFA in creative writing from Hollins University. At Hollins, she was a teaching fellow and the recipient of the James Purdy prize for outstanding fiction.

Susan’s debut novel, Bound South, received wide critical acclaim and was shortlisted for theTownsend Prize. Bound South was followed by A Soft Place to Land, also critically acclaimed and a Target “Club Pick.” Susan’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is receiving early praise and is on the American Booksellers Association “Indie Next List” for June of 2013. The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) selected A Place at the Table as a 2013 Summer “Okra Pick.

Susan has been invited to festivals and book events around the country and has been a speaker at numerous academic and cultural institutions, including SCAD Atlanta, the Carter Center, the Margaret Mitchell house, and Birmingham’s Hoover library. Susan appeared in the February 2011 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, in a photograph and accompanying essay celebrating women authors living in Atlanta. During the summer of 2011, Susan lived in Manhattan to gain on-the-ground knowledge of the city and research in greater depth the history of Café Nicholson, the real-life restaurant that inspired Café Andres in A Place at the Table.

Susan currently lives in Atlanta, where she teaches creative writing at Emory University. During the winter of 2011 she was the writer-in-residence at SCAD Atlanta. She is married to Sam Redburn Reid, also an Atlanta native, meaning she and Sam both grew up eating Varsity hamburgers and riding the pink pig at the Rich’s downtown.

Did you know?

Susan and Lauren Myracle are sisters.  Myracle, a New York Times bestselling author, writes books for tweens and teens.

Susan Rebecca White’s Website


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Filed under author interviews, beach books, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading, women's fiction, women's lit

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

the-violet-hour.jpgKatherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.  What we assume will be a  fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage.  Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear.  It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.

Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father.  When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.

Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family.  Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home.  For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life.  Especially in late August of 2005.

Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole.  As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina.  It would be irresponsible otherwise.  Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities.  As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered.  Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.

Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle.  Abe had relished the time he spent on hillthe San Francisco Bay in his boat.  Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him.  Water nourishes us; we need it to survive.  The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city.  Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety.  As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats.  This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.

Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go.   Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present.  She knows how to keep readers turning pages.  I am particularly  pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book.  Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact


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Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, literary fiction, Summer Reading

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Summer Reading

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; 368 pages; $25.95).

other typist“They said the typewriter would unsex us,” Suzanne Rindell writes in her dark and arresting debut The Other Typist.  A typewriter “is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy,” completely masculine. Although there is nothing feminine about a typewriter, the device has typically been used by women.

The typist in danger of being unsexed is Rose Baker, Rindell’s main character who is accused of a crime she claims not to have committed and deemed mad.  Her narrative consists of a journal she is keeping for her doctor, slowly clueing us in on the reason for her institutionalization.

A typewriter excuses nothing.  With the “sheer violence of its iron arms,” it strikes “at the page with unforgiving force.”  Women tend to be more forgiving than men, but “forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty,” yet another example of its innate maleness.

In the 1920s, the setting for Rindell’s tale, women were not supposed to be violent criminals.  Men committed crimes; women, with their “delicate” sensibilities, cared for their husbands, bore and nurtured their children, and maintained the home.  But Rose is not the typical 1920s woman.

There is one crucial element about Rose that you need to know: she is an unreliable narrator.  Come on, no human can possibly type 300 words per minute.  You cannot trust anything she says, making her a thrilling and unforgettable character.  Rose, a consummate liar, will surely remind readers of Amy from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster bestseller Gone Girl.  Rindell’s narrator also shares many of the same qualities as Grace from Charlotte Rogan’s absorbing novel The Lifeboat.  Like Amy and Grace, Rose is an unknown, unknowable, and enigmatic character; you learn to expect the unexpected from her rather early on in Rindell’s novel.

The anticipation builds as Rose grows increasingly obsessed with Odalie, her fellow typist at a police precinct in New York City’s Lower East Side.  For Rose, Odalie is “sweet nectar” she cannot help but succumb to.  She is drawn to Odalie, like an “insect drawn to his peril.”  Rose’s fixation on Odalie reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s cunning novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

“A lying criminal always trips himself up (or herself, I suppose, rare though that alternate scenario may be) either giving too many details or else revealing the wrong ones,” Rindell writes.  In this way, the author slowly and shrewdly reveals the truth, and it is both surprising and extraordinary.

In Rindell’s expert hands, the budding science of criminology and history merge to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the period.

Suzanne Rindell

Suzanne Rindell

New York City in the 1920s comes to vivid life as Rindell recreates the jazz-age period of flappers and Prohibition and throws in decadent parties (think The Great Gatsby), moonshine, and speakeasies.  The experience is a grand and heady one that always keeps you engaged and guessing.

You are powerless to fight the pull of The Other Typist.  It is just impossible.  The Other Typist ensnared me from the first page and never let me take a breath until I closed the book.  Rindell may be a rookie, but she possesses an inherent knowledge of storytelling.  Easily my favorite mystery novel of the year, The Other Typist held me in its suspenseful grip, and I was content to abide in its clutches.  This novel is so shocking you’ll have to force yourself to close your mouth when you read the last page.

The Other Typist is a book and not a steak, but it’s juicy and appealing.  One taste and you are want more and more and more.  Rindell successfully creates two remarkable women who seize our attention, stun us, and make us fans for life.

Keira Knightley to star in and take a producer’s role on the jazz-age period piece, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

It is unknown which of the two main characters she will play.

Keira Knightley

Who do you see Knightley as: Rose or Odalie?  And why?


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading, thriller

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

Book Review: The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan (William Morrow; 432 pages; $25.99)

I still remember the sensation I felt when I read some of my favorite novels for the first time—Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  The sense that I was not reading just another ordinary book or just another mundane story overwhelmed me.  Instead, I was considering the writer’s very own soul.  Reading these narratives turned into a transcendent experience.  These emotions resurfaced as I read Stephen P. Kiernan’s dazzlingly provocative, compelling debut The Curiosity, and I welcomed them.  The Curiosity blends science fiction, fantasy, romance, and history, producing an intriguing and poignant tale guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on readers.

the curiosity   Kiernan’s first novel is adroitly plotted, skillfully paced, and interspersed with delicate foreshadowing.  Dr. Kate Philo, a scientist on an innovative mission led by Erastus Carthage, and her team look for small frozen life forms such as plankton and shrimp in the Arctic Ocean that they can “reanimate,” or bring back to life.  The experiments thus far have worked, but not on large beings and only for a very short time period.

Imagine their shock when they find a man frozen in the ice, a discovery that redefines both life and death.  On Carthage’s orders, the specimen is shipped back to his state-of-the-art research lab in Boston.  There, scientists reanimate the subject regardless of the implications, inciting media frenzy and leaving religious fundamentalists reeling. The “Lazarus Project” reignites the age-old debate between science and religion.

The Curiosity is told from varying, intricately-drawn viewpoints.  Kate, the sole female protagonist, energizes Kiernan’s narrative as she illustrates sympathy, empathy, and even love for the subject.  Kiernan contrasts Kate with Carthage, the vain and obsessive-compulsive antagonist, a character I loved to hate.  Curiously, Carthage’s account is told in the second person.  Kiernan’s use of “you” ensures no one will identify with this adversarial narrator, undoubtedly a deliberate and highly effective move.  Daniel Dixon, a reporter, functions as another of The Curiosity’s raconteurs as he stokes the media firestorm yet ultimately redeems himself.

The true star of Kiernan’s work, though, is the curiosity himself, the man raised from the dead: Jeremiah Rice.  As he slowly regains his memories, we learn that Jeremiah was a judge who fell overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.  Priceless are Kiernan’s passages in which Jeremiah tries to understand and navigate the twenty-first century.  Heartbreaking are the passages in which he discovers the fates of his loved ones.  As Jeremiah’s health falters, the story takes on an ominous dimension.  Reanimation of a human is just too new and mysterious a phenomenon.

Jeremiah’s future matters deeply to us.  To experience his death a second time would dishearten the reader, as Kiernan understands.

The author

The author

His and Kate’s fate are precarious but makes for captivating reading.  Whatever happens, I know you will root for Jeremiah just as I cheered him on.

Brilliant, imaginative, and thoroughly unconventional, The Curiosity is my new favorite novel.  As a reader and reviewer, I hold so many books in my hands.  But The Curiosity is a story that will be forever etched in my heart.    Kiernan binds you to his narrators in such a way that you will never forget them; his characters stay with you always. That is why I hereby declare the hand of Kiernan divine.  When you finish this tale, you are not the same person who started it.  And that’s a good thing.


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99).

greta wellsWho would we be if we had lived other lives?  Would we be ourselves or would we be altogether different people? Andrew Sean Greer forces us to ponder these existential matters in his third novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Lives, a deeply moving, atmospheric, and haunting tale.

“The impossible happens once to each of us,” Greer writes in his book’s first sentence.  Immediately, the reader knows this is a novel that will distinguish itself from others; Greer succeeds in producing a singular achievement that lingers in the imagination and in the heart.

In 1985, Greta Wells suffers.  Her brother, Felix, has died from AIDS, and her lover, Nathan, has left her:   “What is it, the missing of people?  It kills, and kills, and kills us.”  Depression plagues Greer’s main character but the possibility of a cure emerges in the form of electroconvulsive therapy.  Miserable and lonely, Greta decides she has nothing to lose.

After her first session, though, Greta experiences a rather curious phenomenon.  In bed the night of her treatment, Greta wishes Felix had not died and that Nathan had never left.  She closes her eyes and sees “one bright blue star floating there in the darkness, pulsing with light.” She thinks, “any time but this one,as the light splits and then splits again, “the throbbing blue stars dividing until they formed a circular cluster of light, and there was a kind of thunder.”  Her last recollection is falling into the radiance.  Her doctor had warned that she might experience confusion, but Greta is ill-prepared for this.

Greer transports Greta into the past to 1941 and 1918, where she is herself yet not herself.  In these periods, Greta is sister, lover, wife, and even mother.  People around her are the same, but their circumstances are different, much to Greta’s surprise.  “A shift in weather, and we are a different person.  The split of an atom, and we change.”

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Greer effectively accomplishes a stunning feat in historical fiction by evoking qualities of not one but three past eras. From the beginnings of the battle on AIDS in 1985 to a nation on the brink of war in 1941 to a country recovering from the “war to end all wars” in 1918, Greer shows how Greta is powerless as the weight of the future bears heavily on her shoulders yet she cannot change anything.  She knows how World War II will take the lives of millions and change men’s and women’s roles forever.  Greta is all too aware of how soldiers returning from Europe have survived trenches and mustard gas only to be felled by the Spanish Flu.

Yet Greta can appreciate all the things that others take for granted.  She laments the beauties of the past eliminated in the name of progress.  Greta is “the only one who” knows “what would be lost.”

One constant remains: in each epoch, Greta is unhappy and pursues the same kind of electroconvulsive treatment she sought in 1985.  They will each keep switching lives as long as each Greta prefers a different present.  “If other worlds surround us, just a lightning bolt away, then what would stop us from slipping there?  If love has left us, well, then there is a world where it has not.  If death has come, then there is a world where it has been kept at bay.  Surely it exists, the place where all the wrongs are righted…”

Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer

In his newest novel, Greer concerns himself with righting imbalance; he wants to set things right in the world, and this motivation appears in his other works as well.  “A  mistake, made in another world.  And here: it could be righted,” he pens in his intriguing narrative.  The idea of romantic devotion is the focus of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and Greer’s use of time travel allows him to achieve equity where inequity once reigned.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is perfect for fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s  The Time Traveler’s Wife and the recent bestseller ( and one of my favorite novels) Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  As with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Greer makes the impossible possible, wonderful, and mesmerizing.  Upon closing the book, I was left with this question: “Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?”  Indeed, why?



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Summer Reading, supernatural

Fiery July Fiction

Based on all the great novels out in July, the month will be a sizzling one.  Usually, I try to limit my best-of-the-month picks to ten.  But this is no ordinary month.  I don’t know what it is about July 2013, but it is the month in which some outstanding works of fiction are to be released.  I’ve already read some of these and am excited to share my selections with you.

To Pick Up Now:

Available from Ecco

greta wells1985. After the death of her beloved twin brother, Felix, and the break up with her long-time lover, Nathan, Greta Wells embarks on a radical psychiatric treatment to alleviate her suffocating depression. But the treatment has unexpected effects, and Greta finds herself transported to the lives she might have had if she’d been born in a different era.  During the course of her treatment, Greta cycles between her own time and her alternate lives in 1918, as a bohemian adulteress, and 1941, as a devoted mother and wife. Separated by time and social mores, Greta’s three lives are achingly similar, fraught with familiar tensions and difficult choices. Each reality has its own losses, its own rewards, and each extracts a different price. And the modern Greta learns that her alternate selves are unpredictable, driven by their own desires and needs.  As her final treatment looms, questions arise. What will happen once each Greta learns how to stay in one of the other worlds? Who will choose to remain in which life?

Bookmagnet Says: I’m reading this one now.  As with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Andrew Sean Greer makes the impossible possible, wonderful, and mesmerizing.

July Releases

Coming July 1 from Pegasus Books

In silken prose and with subtle suspense, Nina Schuyler brings us a mesmerizing novel of language and translation, memory loss andtranslator heartbreak, and the search for answers in a foreign country.  When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, her injury is an unusual but real condition–the loss of her native language. She is left speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life. With her personal life at a crossroad, Hanne leaves for Japan. There, the Japanese novelist whose work she translated stunningly confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.  Reeling, Hanne struggles for meaning and seeks out the inspiration for the author’s novel–a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate and intriguing relationship, Hanne begins to understand the masks she has worn in her life, just as the actor dons the masks that have made him a legend of Noh. The demons from her past and present begin to unfold and Hanne sets out to make amends in this searing and engrossing novel.



Available July 2 from Washington Square Press

longings2.jpgBookmagnet Says: Compelling, atmospheric and smart, The Longings of Wayward Girls lures you in, beguiles, and even abducts you for a time.  You are in Brown’s dark domain where deep guilt, loss and impossible longing rule.  Little Sinners, and Other Stories as well as Pins and Needles made Brown the darling of critics, but I predict The Longings of Wayward Girls will speak to readers and critics alike.  Brown is a powerful force in fiction today, but her new novel makes her distinct voice even louder and more relevant.

Read my interview with Karen Brown here.

Set entirely in a small Connecticut town, The Longings of Wayward Girls is a book about how the past influences the decisions of a woman, Sadie, as she confronts pivotal life events: the birth of a stillborn daughter, and the anniversary of her mother’s death—the realization that she has now reached the age her mother hadn’t, that she is moving into “unknown territory.” Sadie must confront her memories of her childhood, and recognize that her perception was skewed by her own inability, as a thirteen-year old, to understand the events of that time.

Coming July 2 from Spiegel & Grau

In this stunning new novel, the award-winning Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for five starthemselves in sprawling Shanghai.  Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.  In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping this dazzling new city, and their effect on these individual lives.

Bookmagnet Says: With the success of recent novels such as How To Get Rich in Rising Asia and Crazy Rich AsiansFive Star Billionaire is sure to be a major bestseller and possibly one of the most talked-about tales of the year.


Releasing July 2 from Gallery Books

whistlingThe summer of 1963 begins like any other for nine-year-old Starla Claudelle. Born to teenage parents in Mississippi, Starla is being raised by a strict paternal grandmother, Mamie, whose worst fear is that Starla will turn out like her mother. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three, but is convinced that her mother will keep her promise to take Starla and her daddy to Nashville, where her mother hopes to become a famous singer—and that one day her family will be whole and perfect.  When Starla is grounded on the Fourth of July, she sneaks out to see the parade. After getting caught, Starla’s fear that Mamie will make good on her threats and send her to reform school cause her to panic and run away from home. Once out in the country, Starla is offered a ride by a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby. She happily accepts a ride, with the ultimate goal of reaching her mother in Nashville.  As the two unlikely companions make their long and sometimes dangerous journey, Starla’s eyes are opened to the harsh realities of 1963 southern segregation. Through talks with Eula, reconnecting with her parents, and encountering a series of surprising misadventures, Starla learns to let go of long-held dreams and realizes family is forged from those who will sacrifice all for you, no matter if bound by blood or by the heart.


Available July 8 from W.W. Norton & Company

A young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.  Nemo Johnston resurrectionistwas one of many Civil War–era “resurrectionists” responsible for procuring human corpses for doctors’ anatomy training. More than a century later, Dr. Jacob Thacker, a young medical resident on probation for Xanax abuse and assigned to work public relations for his medical school’s dean, finds himself facing a moral dilemma when a campus renovation unearths the bones of dissected African American slaves—a potential PR disaster for the school. Will Jacob, still a stranger to his own history, continue to be complicit in the dean’s cover-up or will he risk his entire career to force the school to face its dark past?  First-time novelist Matthew Guinn deftly weaves historical and fictional truth, salted with contemporary social satire, and traditional Southern Gothic into a tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge—and a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining moral parable of the South.



Coming July 9 from William Morrow Books

Dr. Kate Philo and her scientific exploration team make a breathtaking discovery in the Arctic: the body of a man buried deep in the curiositythe ice. As a scientist in a groundbreaking project run by the egocentric and paranoid Erastus Carthage, Kate has brought small creatures-plankton, krill, shrimp-“back to life.” Never have the team’s methods been attempted on a large life form.  Heedless of the consequences, Carthage orders that the frozen man be brought back to the lab in Boston, and reanimated. As the man begins to regain his memories, the team learns that he was-is-a judge, Jeremiah Rice, and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906. When news of the Lazarus Project and Jeremiah Rice breaks, it ignites a media firestorm and massive protests by religious fundamentalists.  Thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, Kate and Jeremiah grow closer. But the clock is ticking and Jeremiah’s new life is slipping away. With Carthage planning to exploit Jeremiah while he can, Kate must decide how far she is willing to go to protect the man she has come to love.  A gripping, poignant, and thoroughly original thriller, Stephen Kiernan’s provocative debut novel raises disturbing questions about the very nature of life and humanity-man as a scientific subject, as a tabloid plaything, as a living being: A curiosity.

Bookmagnet Says: The Curiosity is my new favorite novel.  As a reader and reviewer, I hold so many books in my hands.  But The Curiosity is a story that will be forever etched in my heart.  When you finish this tale, you are not the same person who started it.  And that’s a good thing.  Please note that this story also made my list of the Best Novels of 2013 (So Far).


Releasing July 9 from Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco

Combining the raw-edge realism of Richard Price with the imaginative flair of Jonathan Lethem, a riveting literary mystery in which visitation streetthe disappearance of a teenaged girl sends shock waves through her waterfront community.  
“Visitation Street is urban opera writ large. Gritty and magical, filled with mystery, poetry, and pain, Ivy Pochoda’s voice recalls Richard Price, Junot Diaz, and even Alice Sebold, yet it’s indelibly her own.”-Dennis Lehane 

Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a blue collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects, and the East River opens into the bay. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val are looking for some fun. Forget the boys, the bottles, the coded whistles. Val wants to do something wild and a little crazy: take a raft out onto the bay.  But out on the water, as the bright light of day gives way to darkness, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore semi-conscious in the weeds.  June’s shocking disappearance will reverberate in the lives of a diverse cast of Red Hook residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, trolls for information about the crime. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father’s murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect although an elusive guardian seems to have other plans for him. As Val emerges from the shadow of her missing friend, her teacher Jonathan, Julliard drop-out and barfly, will be forced to confront a past riddled with tragic sins of omission.  In Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda combines intensely vivid prose with breathtaking psychological insight to explore a cast of solitary souls, pulled by family, love, and betrayal, who yearn for a chance to escape, no matter the cost.

Available July 9 from Washington Square Press

forever interrupted“Have you ever heard of supernovas? They shine brighter than anything else in the sky and then fade out really quickly, a short burst of extraordinary energy. I like to think you and Ben were like that . . . in that short time, you had more passion than some people have in a lifetime.”

Elsie Porter is an average twentysomething and yet what happens to her is anything but ordinary. On a rainy New Year’s Day, she heads out to pick up a pizza for one. She isn’t expecting to see anyone else in the shop, much less the adorable and charming Ben Ross. Their chemistry is instant and electric. Ben cannot even wait twenty-four hours before asking to see her again. Within weeks, the two are head over heels in love. By May, they’ve eloped.  Only nine days later, Ben is out riding his bike when he is hit by a truck and killed on impact. Elsie hears the sirens outside her apartment, but by the time she gets downstairs, he has already been whisked off to the emergency room. At the hospital, she must face Susan, the mother-in-law she has never met—and who doesn’t even know Elsie exists.  Interweaving Elsie and Ben’s charmed romance with Elsie and Susan’s healing process, Forever, Interrupted will remind you that there’s more than one way to find a happy ending.

Releasing July 9 from William Morrow Paperbacks

From the New York Times bestselling author of Beach Colors, a stunning new novel of sun, sand, love, and family set against the stargazey pointbeautiful backdrop of the South Carolina coast.  Devastated by tragedy during her last project, documentarian Abbie Sinclair thinks she has nothing left to give by the time she arrives in Stargazey Point. Once a popular South Carolina family destination, the town’s beaches have eroded, local businesses are closing, and skyrocketing taxes are driving residents away. Stargazey Point, like Abbie, is fighting to survive.  But Abbie is drawn slowly into the lives of the people around her: the Crispin siblings, three octogenarians sharing a looming plantation house; Cab Reynolds, who left his work as an industrial architect to refurbish his uncle’s antique carousel, a childhood sanctuary; Ervina, an old Gullah wisewoman with the power to guide Abbie to a new life, if only she’d let her; and a motley crew of children whom Abbie can’t ignore.  Abbie came seeking a safe haven, but what she finds is so much more. For Stargazey Point is a magical place… a place for dreamers . . . a place that can lead you home.

Bookmagnet Says: This sounds like the perfect beach read and one with substance and story.


Coming July 9 from Sarah Crichton Books

fin and ladyFrom the author of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, a wise, clever story of New York in the ’60s.  It’s 1964. Eleven-year-old Fin and his glamorous, worldly, older half sister, Lady, have just been orphaned, and Lady, whom Fin hasn’t seen in six years, is now his legal guardian and his only hope. That means Fin is uprooted from a small dairy farm in rural Connecticut to Greenwich Village, smack in the middle of the swinging ’60s. He soon learns that Lady—giddy, careless, urgent, and obsessed with being free—is as much his responsibility as he is hers.  So begins Fin & Lady, the lively, spirited new novel by Cathleen Schine, the author of the bestselling The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Fin and Lady lead their lives against the background of the ’60s, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War—Lady pursued by ardent, dogged suitors, Fin determined to protect his impulsive sister from them and from herself.  From a writer The New York Times has praised as “sparkling, crisp, clever, deft, hilarious, and deeply affecting,” Fin & Lady is a comic, romantic love story: the story of a brother and sister who must form their own unconventional family in increasingly unconventional times.

Bookmagnet Says: I love everything Cathleen Schine writes.

Releasing July 16 from Scribner

A pitch-perfect, emotionally riveting debut novel about the fracturing of a marriage and a family – from an award-winning youngthe violet hour writer with superb storytelling instincts.  Life hasn’t always been perfect for Abe and Cassandra Green, but an afternoon on the San Francisco Bay might be as good as it gets. Abe is a rheumatologist, piloting his coveted new boat. Cassandra is a sculptor, finally gaining modest attention for her art. Their beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, is heading to Harvard in the fall. Somehow, they’ve made things work. But then, out of nowhere, they plunge into a terrible fight. Cassandra has been unfaithful. In a fit of fury, Abe throws himself off the boat.  A love story that begins with the end of a marriage, The Violet Hourfollows a modern family through past and present, from the funeral home in the Washington suburbs where Cassandra and her siblings grow up to the San Francisco public health clinic where Abe and Cassandra first meet. As the Greens navigate the passage of time—the expectations of youth, the concessions of middle age, the headiness of desire, the bitterness of loss—they must come to terms with the fragility of their intimacy, the strange legacies they inherit from their parents, and the kind of people they want to be. Exquisitely written, The Violet Hour is the deeply moving story of a family suddenly ripped apart, but then just possibly reborn.

Bookmagnet Says: Told from multiple and very distinctive viewpoints, The Violet Hour knocked me over with its intimate portrayal of a family’s past and present.  Hill knows how to keep readers turning pages.  Utterly beguiling.

Coming July 23 from Random House

and sonsWho is A. N. Dyer? & Sons is a literary masterwork for readers of The Art of Fielding, The Emperor’s Children, andWonder Boys—the panoramic, deeply affecting story of an iconic novelist, two interconnected families, and the heartbreaking truths that fiction can hide.  


The funeral of Charles Henry Topping on Manhattan’s Upper East Side would have been a minor affair (his two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times notwithstanding) but for the presence of one particular mourner: the notoriously reclusive author A. N. Dyer, whose novelAmpersand stands as a classic of American teenage angst. But as Andrew Newbold Dyer delivers the eulogy for his oldest friend, he suffers a breakdown over the life he’s led and the people he’s hurt and the novel that will forever endure as his legacy. He must gather his three sons for the first time in many years—before it’s too late.  So begins a wild, transformative, heartbreaking week, as witnessed by Philip Topping, who, like his late father, finds himself caught up in the swirl of the Dyer family. First there’s son Richard, a struggling screenwriter and father, returning from self-imposed exile in California. In the middle lingers Jamie, settled in Brooklyn after his twenty-year mission of making documentaries about human suffering. And last is Andy, the half brother whose mysterious birth tore the Dyers apart seventeen years ago, now in New York on spring break, determined to lose his virginity before returning to the prestigious New England boarding school that inspired Ampersand. But only when the real purpose of this reunion comes to light do these sons realize just how much is at stake, not only for their father but for themselves and three generations of their family.  In this daring feat of fiction, David Gilbert establishes himself as one of our most original, entertaining, and insightful authors. & Sons is that rarest of treasures: a startlingly imaginative novel about families and how they define us, and the choices we make when faced with our own mortality.

Available July 30 from Harper

A mother must make the unthinkable choice between her husband and her son in this riveting domestic drama, the follow up to the sea creaturesauthor’s “exquisite debut” (Publishers Weekly), Stiltsville.  When Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.
When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.  But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.  Sea Creatures is a mesmerizing exploration of the high stakes of marriage and parenthood, the story of a woman coming into her own as a mother, forced to choose between her marriage, her child, and the possibility of new love.

Releasing July 30 from A.A. Knopf

markerHypnotic, spellbinding novel set in Greece and Africa, where a young Liberian woman reckons with a haunted past.  On a remote island in the Aegean, Jacqueline is living alone in a cave accessible only at low tide. With nothing to protect her from the elements, and with the fabric between herself and the world around her increasingly frayed, she is permeated by sensory experiences of remarkable intensity: the need for shade in the relentless heat of the sun-baked island; hunger and the occasional bliss of release from it; the exquisite pleasure of diving into the sea. The pressing physical realities of the moment provide a deeper relief: the euphoric obliteration of memory and, with it, the unspeakable violence she has seen and from which she has miraculously escaped.  Slowly, irrepressibly, images from a life before this violence begin to resurface: the view across lush gardens to a different sea; a gold Rolex glinting on her father’s wrist; a glass of gin in her mother’s best crystal; an adoring younger sister; a family, in the moment before their fortunes were irrevocably changed. Jacqueline must find the strength to contend with what she has survived or tip forward into full-blown madness.
Visceral and gripping, extraordinary in its depiction of physical and spiritual hungers, Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel about ruin and faith, barbarism and love, and the devastating memories that contain the power both to destroy us and to redeem us. 

Bookmagnet Says: 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 visceral reaction.  There were parts in which I thought I might vomit.  For fans of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.  

A Marker To Measure Drift also made my list as one of the Best Novels of 2013 (So Far).


You’ve heard from me; now, I want to hear from you.  Which of these books will you read?  What novels are you excited about digging into for July? 


Filed under Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Spotlight Books, Summer Reading, women's lit

Spotlight on The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown

I just read a new novel from a favorite of mine–Karen Brown’s The Longings of Wayward Girls.  Last year, I reviewed Karen’s short story collection, Little Sinners, and Other Stories, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

Brown’s emotional stories cut to the quick.  They wound; they scar.  The stories in Little Sinners are intelligent, dark, deep, and murky, much like a woman’s soul.  Brown has a keen sense of what works.  At only 194 pages, Little Sinners is short, but its issues are weighty.  I dare you to read Little Sinners and come away empty.

Brown has done it again with The Longings of Wayward Girls; in fact, I think it’s even better than Little Sinners and that’s saying a lot.  Compelling, atmospheric and smart, The Longings of Wayward Girls lures you in, beguiles, and even abducts you for a time.  You are in Brown’s dark domain where deep guilt, loss and impossible longing rule.  Little Sinners, and Other Stories as well as Pins and Needles made Brown the darling of critics, but I predict The Longings of Wayward Girls will speak to readers and critics alike.  Brown is a powerful force in fiction today, but her new novel makes her distinct voice even louder and more relevant.



About the Book:

It’s an idyllic New England summer, and Sadie is a precocious only child on the edge of adolescence. It seems like July and August will pass lazily by, just as they have every year before. But one day, Sadie and her best friend play a seemingly harmless prank on a neighborhood girl. Soon after, that same little girl disappears from a backyard barbecue—and she is never seen again. Twenty years pass, and Sadie is still living in the same quiet suburb. She’s married to a good man, has two beautiful children, and seems to have put her past behind her. But when a boy from her old neighborhood returns to town, the nightmares of that summer will begin to resurface, and its unsolved mysteries will finally become clear.

About Karen Brown:

Karen Brown was born in Connecticut. Her first collection of short stories, PINS AND NEEDLES, received The Grace Paley Prize

Karen Brown

Karen Brown

for Short Fiction. LITTLE SINNERS AND OTHER STORIES won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Her stories have appeared in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories 2008, Good Housekeeping, and in many literary journals. She studied creative writing at Cornell University, and received her Ph.D. in Literature from the University of South Florida, in Tampa, where she currently teaches. Her debut novel THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS will be published by Atria/Simon and Schuster in July 2013.



Coming Soon:

An interview with the author.


Filed under Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, Debut Novels, fiction, literary fiction, mystery

Interview with Lisa Brackmann, Author of Hour of the Rat

Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann (Soho Crime; 371 pages; $25.95).

Ellie McEnroe returns in the sequel to the critically acclaimed New York Times and USA Today best-seller, ROCK PAPER TIGER.

Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang’s mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has her in the sights of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving. But things really get complicated when Ellie’s search for an Army buddy’s missing brother entangles her in a conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, an art-obsessed Chinese billionaire and lots of cats—a conspiracy that will take her on a wild chase through some of China’s most beautiful and most surreal places.

hour-of-the-rat.jpgJaime Boler: Thank you so much, Lisa, for letting me ask you these questions.  I’ve always been a huge fan of yours from your Rock Paper Tiger days and Hour of the Rat is a clever, taut sequel.   You have worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, as an issues researcher for a presidential campaign, and as a singer/songwriter/bassist in a rock band.  What made you want to write novels?

Lisa Brackmann: I really wanted to write fiction before I did any of those other things you mention above. I’ve told the story before, but I tried to write my first novel at the age of five. It was to be an epic adventure about cats who went camping. Unfortunately I did not know how to spell “tent.” This is a true story. I wrote fiction on and off when I was young, and none of it was very good, but I did have an idea how to construct a narrative, and writing was something that I was very passionate about.

I studied writing briefly in college – one of my professors was Lydia Davis, who just won the Man Booker Prize and who had a tremendous influence on me. She helped teach me how to see the world with greater precision. But I got to a point where writing felt like I was constantly living my life as source material rather than actually living it, so I took a break and got into music. Later, I worked in the film industry, and like just about everyone in Los Angeles, I wrote a couple screenplays and a bunch of teleplays. I really enjoyed those projects, but they aren’t finished until someone decides to produce them – and given the weirdness of what I tended to write, the odds of that happening weren’t great.

I decided to write a novel for fun while I came up with that high concept screenplay idea that was going to make me rich. I never did come up with the high concept screenplay, but I found that I really enjoyed writing novels. Even if I didn’t sell them, they were complete in themselves. I found that really satisfying.

JB: Your first novel, Rock Paper Tiger, was selected by Amazon as one of its Top 100 books of 2010 and a Top 10 pick in the

Rock Paper Tiger

Rock Paper Tiger

mystery/thriller category.  It was also nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel.  What was that experience like?

LB: I’m friends with a bunch of writers, and in one of the groups I’m in, we call it “The Emo-Coaster.” When you’re a working author, you have tremendous highs, and crashing lows, regardless of how hard you try to stay balanced. It’s just very weird to have something you worked so hard on, that is such a personal expression, out there in the world being judged. This is especially true for debuts, I think – it’s all a new experience.

I really didn’t expect much to happen with Rock Paper Tiger – I was happy to be published, but I knew something about the reality of the lifecycle of most books. So when the book ended up doing pretty well, I was surprised. I remember at one point, feeling this weird rushing sensation – like, whoa, this is actually kind of taking off. Maybe I have a career doing this after all. At the same time that it was unexpected, I also felt like I’d really found my tribe, for the first time – that being a writer, being around other writers and around people who really care about books – this was where I belonged.



JB: Getaway, your second novel, is a standalone book.  Was it good to get back to the characters and setting of your debut?

LB: I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel to Rock Paper Tiger, but realized that there were still more stories that I wanted to tell about Ellie McEnroe and about China. I never find writing novels to be easy, but writing Hour of the Rat was definitely less hard than others. A lot of the groundwork is already done; you know who these people are and what they tend to want. As for the setting, I’d felt that I’d barely scratched the surface of the richness and complexity that is today’s China. My formative experience in China was in 1979, and though I’d been back at least a half a dozen times before writing Rock Paper Tiger, I’d kept going back after, and felt that I could bring a little more depth and insight into a new book than I’d been able to bring to the first. So it was great to return to China and to Ellie. I really had a lot of fun with it.

JB: What attracts you to writing existential thrillers?

LB: I like to think of myself as a realist. I’m very interested in big issues, but the reality is, unlike superhero or James Bond movies, the ability of one person to have a significant impact on global conspiracies, you know, the typical stuff of thrillers, is pretty limited. For most people, if you care about things, you have to learn how to deal with a world that doesn’t really care about you. You’re up against institutions and individuals that are extremely powerful, and all the weapons, both real and metaphoric, are on their side. Realistically, you don’t get to defeat those villains. Mostly, you just have to try and do your best and figure out how you’re going to live with that reality.

I’m interested in “ordinary” people as opposed to superheroes, who not only have to survive whatever perils they’ve been placed in, but who are trying to figure out how to live in the world.

JB: How would you describe Hour of the Rat?

LB: A romp through environmental apocalypse in China with accidental Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe.

JB: What provided the inspiration for Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe, the lead character in both Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat?  Is she based on anyone in real life?

LB: The years before I started writing Rock Paper Tiger, I’d been following the news about the Iraq War and the War on Terror pretty closely. I was fascinated by figures like Jessica Lynch, who’d joined the National Guard to get some extra money–there were no jobs at Wal-Mart, and she wanted to go to school and study to be a teacher—and then when she was captured by Iraqi forces, she became a symbol of the war in a way that she never wanted to be. On the flipside, you had Lynndie England, brought up in a trailer park in Appalachia in an abusive family and who was implicated in the torture at Abu Ghraib–one of the few individuals actually prosecuted for this, along with other low-level soldiers – none of the architects of the abuses were ever punished.

I wanted to deal with the Iraq War and the War on Terror in [Rock Paper Tiger], so I came up with the character of Ellie McEnroe, an accidental war vet who’d joined the National Guard to get health insurance and maybe some money for college, and ended up in a situation way above her pay grade. Unlike say, a Lynndie England, Ellie has a strong sense of right and wrong and also, of guilt.

I just sort of imagined her background and her experiences, and channeled who she would be, if that makes any sense.

ratJB: Ellie or “Yili” was born in the Year of the Rat.  According to a website that explains the Chinese zodiac, “The Rat is quick-witted. Most rats get more accomplished in 24 hours than the rest of us do in as many days. They are confident and usually have good instincts. Stubborn as they are, they prefer to live by their own rules rather than those of others.”  Is this why you chose that sign for Ellie?  And why you chose Hour of the Rat as your title? 

LB: I think, actually, that I chose her sign sort of backwards – I needed her to be a certain age in Rock Paper Tiger, and the birth-date I picked for her landed her in the year of the Rat. I thought that the Rat sounded like a good sign for Ellie – stubborn and quick-witted and living by her own rules – though she must have some other influences that undermine that whole “good instincts” part, because even when she knows that it’s a bad idea to do something, she tends to go ahead and do it anyway!

Since Rock Paper Tiger came out in the Year of the Tiger – which, by the way, was totally unplanned, it just happened that way – I thought maybe carrying over the Chinese astrology theme for the title would be cool. As Ellie explains in the book, Chinese astrology, like Western astrology, has rising signs, based on the time of day you’re born. Each “Hour” is actually two, and the Hour of the Rat is between 11 PM and 1 AM. I was actually born in the Hour of the Rat, and I don’t know, I just liked the way it sounded and the images that it conjured up.

JB: How different were earlier versions of Hour of the Rat compared to the final copy?

LB: Not very. One of my beta readers made a very smart observation about how a plot reveal I’d initially done early on sort of undermined the tension, so I moved that around. My amazing editor at Soho, Juliet Grames, suggested the addition of a prologue, to put people back into Ellie’s world, and had some notes about strengthening certain emotional arcs and story points. Overall, though, I was really lucky with this book – it basically came out in the first draft pretty much the way that it went to print. Would that they were all so easy!

JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story?  If so, who?

LB: I like them all, of course, but I will admit to a particular fondness for Kang Li, the macho guy with a soft spot for cats.

JB: You traveled to China shortly after the Cultural Revolution.  How did that visit affect you and also your writing?

The author in China.

The author in China.

LB: It completely changed the course of my life. I was twenty years old, and China at that time had been very closed off to the West and to Western cultural influences. When I showed up it was like being from the Starship Enterprise, and I’d beamed down to this strange planet. Americans, especially young Americans, were objects of intense curiosity and speculation—most of the Chinese we encountered hadn’t met many, or any Americans, so we took on this weird symbolic role, too. At the same time, there really weren’t any American pop culture influences in China at that time, other than bootlegged tapes of The Sound Of Music and TV broadcasts of a short-lived TV series starring Patrick Duffy called The Man From Atlantis (which was filmed in my hometown of San Diego, making it even weirder to see in Beijing, China!). American pop culture is so globally pervasive that being someplace where it was absent was oddly liberating.

I was in China for six months but the whole thing was so intense that it felt like Experience Concentrate.

It took me years to put it all in context and to really fully integrate the experience. I don’t think I really did until I started studying Mandarin years later and began to travel back to China.

In terms of the writing, if you compared examples of my prose before and after China, I don’t think you’d recognize them as being by the same person.


JB: World-wide environmental and political issues are of significant importance to you.  How easy or how difficult is it to

Lisa Brackmann

Lisa Brackmann

incorporate the things that matter to you into your fiction?

LB: I always say that my stories are about character meets setting meets something that I’m passionate about – the kind of issues you mention above help provide the passion. The main thing I have to work on is incorporating those kinds of topics into the story in an organic way. I want to avoid info dumps and a lot of didactic speechifying. I’m writing suspense novels, not academic non-fiction or political polemics.

JB: What is different this time around compared to when you were writing Rock Paper Tiger?

LB: Pretty different on a lot of levels. When I wrote Rock Paper Tiger, I didn’t have an agent. I hadn’t sold a book. There were no particular expectations on me other than the ones I put on myself. Hour of the Rat is my third published novel, and there’s a whole process that goes along with that. I can’t say that I’m exactly used to it, but I’m somewhat familiar with it at least.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Hour of the Rat?

LB: Probably that I had to take certain aspects of Rock Paper Tiger that I had intended to be a little metaphoric – the open-endedness of the parts of the story to me was an expression of what the book was about. But in a sequel, you don’t have the same leeway to leave that many areas mysterious. I had to make decisions about how to ground these things in reality.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing the novel?

LB: Mostly that I could write a book on a schedule and with a deadline, and that as long as I planned my time wisely, I could do that.

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for Lisa Brackmann?

LB: I get up and do my email and reading. I edit any work I did the night before. When I’m on a roll or have a lot to do, I have a writing session after that. Then late afternoon, I go out and get some exercise – either I go to the gym, or I take a long walk to do errands. I think it’s super-important for writers not to neglect their bodies, which is easy to do when your job is so much in your head and there’s so much sitting involved! My latest favorite form of exercise is old-school weight training—dead-lifts and bench presses and the like. I’m loving it.


I usually read novels or books for research and/or watch some TV in the early evening. I save the tough creative work for late night. I’ve always been a night owl, and I got into the habit of writing late at night when I had a full-time day job. I just sort of trained myself into it: “Now is the time to be creative and work.” For whatever reason it’s when my focus is best and when I am most able to problem-solve. Maybe for me it’s easier to be creative when everyone around me is asleep.


Mixed in with all this is socializing with friends and family, which is another thing that I think is really essential. Most writers are introverts, and for a lot of us, at times we think of other people as intrusions and interruptions. While it’s true that we need to be able to shut the door and work, I think for me, it’s important to not isolate. Besides, people and their conflicts are at the center of what we write. If we just stay in our rooms all day and don’t talk to anyone, what are we going to write about?


Of course, then, I have to make sure that I’m not socializing as a form of procrastination, which has been known to happen. 


Also, cats. Generally there are cats involved. I’m sitting next to one as I type this.


JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

LB: I’m mostly going to focus on California this time out, so I’m doing events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Orange County. I’ll also be at Bouchercon in Albany, NY, in September and am hoping to do a few gigs in New York City around that.

4BestLisa_BrackmannJB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Hour of the Rat?

LB: I hope they get a little sense of what China is like, and maybe take away that the tough things we need to face in many cases are global in scale. What happens in China affects us in the US, and vice-versa. And that maybe there are certain aspects of our global economy that are pretty [screwed] up, that don’t benefit most people and that don’t benefit the planet.

Also, I hope that it’s a book people can escape into for a few hours, go somewhere different, and at the end that they enjoyed the ride.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?  I certainly look forward to the return of Lao Zhang.

LB: I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively called Dragon Day. The end of Hour of the Rat actually is setting up for a sequel – there are some plot threads running through the first two books that I feel I need to draw to a conclusion. So, yes, you will see Lao Zhang! I’m also working on a sequel to my second book, Getaway. It’s very different from that book, with a more satiric edge, but it also deals with issues that I’m very interested in exploring: the prison system in the US, particularly private prisons, and the relationship between that and the War on Drugs. Also, I’m having a lot of fun with the main character, Michelle, who I’m just going to say is not the woman she was at the beginning of Getaway, and the villain of the piece, who gets so much joy out of screwing with peoples’ lives—a man who truly loves his work.

JB: Thanks, Lisa, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

LB: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure!


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Filed under Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading, thriller

Book Review: In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho; 320 pages; $25.95).

in the houseReading Matt Bell’s first novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, I often looked up from the book and blinked furiously in confusion.  I expected to see a house with myriad rooms, a strange sky above me, a lake in the distance, and a wooded green.  Instead, my own familiar environs surrounded me.   That is just how powerful the setting is in Bell’s dreamlike, fabled, and beautiful debut.  The story of a marriage and its collapse become much more as Bell infuses myth, allegory, and symbolism into his story, transforming the work into something else entirely.

A couple marries and, longing to get away from the rest of the world, moves to a bizarre land.  The husband builds them a house, which the wife improves upon not by her hands but with her voice.  If the husband starts building a room, for example, the wife can simply sing the rest of the space into being.  For a time, despite the presence of a bear, a presence that looms over the entire novel, they are harmonious.  Yet, their family is incomplete.

He longs for a child; she tries to give him one, but fulfilling that longing is not easy as her every pregnancy fails.  The wife senses that she and her husband are slowly drifting further and further away from one another.  Determined to save her marriage, the wife sings a son into existence.  When the husband discovers the horrible truth of the child’s origins, he goes in search of his wife and their “foundling.”

As the husband walks through the house his wife built, now abandoned by them, Bell shows us the remnants of a failed marriage.  “And in this room,” Bell writes, “The sound of my wife’s knuckle first sliding beneath the beaten silver of that ring, a sound never before heard, or else forgotten amidst all the other business of our wedding day.”  Behind each door the husband opens is a different and striking scene.  Each room holds a memory, a recollection the husband has long forgotten, but which the wife tucks away.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods may seem otherworldly, but the story is actually very familiar and recognizable.  “As her side of our bedchamber grew some few inches, I did what little I could to right our arrangement, tugged hard at the blankets that barely covered the widened bed—until once again all things were distributed evenly, even as they were somehow also further apart.”

The debut is a simple story of love, marriage, parenthood, and aging amplified by mystery, lore, and imagery.  A fabulous and fantastical journey into the heart of a husband and wife and into the unknown, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is by turns dark, mysterious, and foreboding.  Bell imbues such imagination and brilliance into this tale.  Bell provides a real insight into ourselves, and therein lies the real beauty of the story.

As the years pass and the couple gets older, the wife can no longer remember her husband or the foundling.  Sadly, she cannot even remember the songs she once sang.  Most arresting to me was the squid the husband turned into as he swam into the depths of the murky lake, his aches and pains and age dissolving away.  Muted passages like these spoke volumes to me and lend the narrative richness and power.

Reminiscent of the work of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has already

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

garnered attention from the Indie Next list, choosing it as one of its selections for July.  Bell’s lyrical language, his crystal clarity, and his sharp and colorful setting explain what all the fuss is about and herald the arrival of a major new literary talent.

When you open In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, you leave your world behind and enter a shadowy and forbidding landscape.  And you will be so glad you did.



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, literary fiction, Mythic novels, Summer Reading